The Cost of Consumption

Lift opens like a rowdy action movie.

A handheld camera follows a small group of thieves as they run through an upscale department store, the focus chaotic. Within seconds, the heist falls apart: 5-0 is on the scene, and everyone runs every which-way, fleeing to the dark streets as fast as possible. Cut to daylight -- the camera moves in, from the Boston skyline to neighborhoods, where people live, headed to work, wheeling their kids in strollers, hanging on street corners. On the ground, real life is complicated and crowded, full of unmet needs and frustrations.

These clashing introductory scenes establish the two worlds inhabited by Niecy (Kerry Washington). In one, she works a legit job at that upscale department store, Kennedy's, designing floor and window displays; in the other, she's a thief. But she's not like those guys in Lift's first scene. She doesn't break into stores at night. She does her stealing in broad daylight. Niecy's a shoplifter, a booster. And she knows her shit, from Marc Jacobs and Versace to David Yurman and Christina Perrin. She knows what's in and what's not, what's going to be hot each season.

Niecy's gig at Kennedy's is a good way to keep track of trends and surveillance systems, as well as a way to keep her illicit activities in check, as it gives her a schedule and a certain perspective. When she does lift, Niecy is filling orders for clients, taking just enough and just the items she knows will sell to her friends, family and women who frequent a particular beauty salon.

She doesn't take chances, but she thrills to the risk: Scenes where Niecy steals -- by cutting tags or paying with false credit cards -- are shot in slow motion and blasted through with edge-blurring light, and images appear under waltzes or classical music.

In one instance, as she sets up the perfect distraction -- she drops a security tag in a white shopper's purse and the unknowing decoy is stopped on the sidewalk outside -- Niecy floats on by, her girdle barely bulging with stolen designer scarves, her own heart-pounding pleasure emphasized by a local kid's beating on his plastic-pail drums.

It's easy to see how this thrill might become addictive. Even more alarming is the way this thrill is so easy to come by. Niecy's fellow thief, Christian (Todd Williams), the one who organized the group robbery at the beginning of the film, is philosophical about it, noting that the retail industry expects -- and the security industry depends on -- some loss, planning that 10 percent of department store merchandise will be stolen each year. He flashes his platinum jewelry, pressing Niecy to come work for his expanding operation, whose numbers include the extra-smooth and easily violent Quik (Sticky Fingaz).

Niecy, however, wants to work on her own, in large part because she understands her self-image and individuality in relation to the work she puts in. She's afraid to accept help, and more afraid to stop working.

Premiering June 26 on Showtime, Lift, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at New York's 2001 Urban World Film Festival, examines our consumer culture in a way that is less venal and less macho than the usual heist movie. Yet its insights into that culture are keen. The film takes as its ground a complex of entangled and codependent industries, from fashion to garment to advertising, from magazines to runways to department store exhibits, that encourage endless and endlessly changing desires, unfulfillable by definition.

Not unlike drug addiction (which is, as William Burroughs observed, the perfect consumer product, as the user, once hooked, never needs convincing again), the fashion industry manufactures need in order to convince consumers to feel it, pay for it, and then seek it out all over again, year in and year out.

Niecy is aware of this, at some level, but has her own need: to please her distant mother, legal secretary Elaine (Lonette McKee). Very particular about what she wants and when she wants it -- the DKNY jacket, not the coat that Niecy has been able to steal -- she makes clear that she disdains Niecy's efforts to make her happy, no matter how gorgeous the necklace or expensive the blouse. The film goes to some lengths to outline Niecy's dysfunctional family, as she's feeling torn between Elaine, whom she desperately wants to please, and Elaine's own wise and generous mother, France (Barbara Montgomery). Where France supports and encourages Niecy, Elaine repeatedly makes her feel inadequate.

As if these emotional imbroglios aren't enough to make her head spin, Niecy is also struggling to make sense of her inconsistent relationship with Angelo (Eugene Byrd), father of the child she's just discovered she's carrying (and is unsure she wants to keep, given her fear that she's also destined to be a bad mother). A former thief himself, Lo is elated to learn he's a father to be, and instantly promises to get straight (in this case, that means he'll stop smoking weed) and go back to school. He also starts making what she sees as demands, namely, that she stop stealing, as it's too dangerous "for the baby."

Lo goes on to suggest -- again -- that she break free of her mother's demands, which Niecy rejects absolutely: "I'm the only one who can make her happy," she cries. Lo is dumbfounded: "So that means it's your job to do that?" Unfortunately, Niecy does think it's her job, and she takes it very seriously. While she's a great talent when it comes to stealing, she's completely unable to see past her own fears and self-doubts when it comes to Elaine. Boosting and family infighting are inextricably connected for Niecy, related means to a sense of identity and agency.

Certainly, these are familiar ideas: You're defined by where you come from as much as by what you do, and both involve lifetimes of work, whether you're living up to expectations or resisting them. And the film is weighed down by its use of pregnancy as a plot device (Niecy must come to terms with her bad choices), not to mention its moralistic and too-neat finale (which comes too quickly and too predictably).

More importantly, Lift approaches commercial culture not by the usual route of disrespecting its consumers, but by examining what's at stake in consuming for those who haven't had access to it all their lives. The film's take on these complicated processes is part poetic and part cumbersome, but buoyed throughout by the grace of the performers, particularly Washington.

Whether Niecy is standing off against Christian or stumbling over her own words when trying to convince her mother not to abandon her yet again, Washington makes this girl's troubles at once nuanced, complex and sympathetic. "I can talk it and I can walk with it," she tells Christian, underscoring the film's interest in performance as work, the ways that consumption is a function of appearance, the effort to look a part. Consuming is performing and vice versa. You only need to take a step back to see how the system works.

Cynthia Fuchs, an associate professor of English, African American studies, and film & media studies at George Mason University, is the film/TV editor for PopMatters and film reviewer for Philadelphia Citypaper.

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