Set it Off
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Starring: Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett, Vivica A. Fox, Kimberly Elise
Nearly every Hood Film genre entry focuses on male protagonists navigating both a personal and societal hell, trying to better themselves. Female roles were often (not you, Keisha!) relegated to love interests or sex objects. Not so with this movie. Set It Off explored this genre from an all-female perspective, crafting four distinct main characters plus a few supporting roles. It then gives those characters meaty arcs and nuanced moments of which most actors only dream. It also attempts (in a now dated manner) to realistically portray out, black women in a public relationship. Most movies today either ignore these issues or weakly flail at giving them token recognition. Set It Off tackles everything PLUS has bank robberies and high-speed chases.
…is this month’s theme, and, as explained last week, centers, with some exceptions, on “Hood Films,” the merging of Blaxploitation and Gangster films by Hollywood’s first class of Black auteurs (as opposed to pioneers). I’d initially planned to have this film be the month’s closer, so that it’d flow nicely into Women’s History Month, but my other picks for this month lie scattered across scattered across streaming services. Therefore, I wanted to get the most out of my HBO Max subscription before I flipped services.
In Los Angeles, then the bank-robbing capital of the country, Frankie is working a solid day job at a bank when a man she’s seen from the neighborhood points a gun at her, robbing her branch. Instead of offering her trauma counseling or leave, her boss fires her because he assumes the two are in cahoots (after all, he stereotypes, Black people all know each other, right?).
She’s not the only one in her friend group being treated unfairly. T.T can’t afford a babysitter for her kid yet can’t work a job because she can’t leave her child alone. Stony, meanwhile, can’t get enough money to help her brother pay for college, so she has to sleep with a skeevy shop owner to get the funds she needs. Finally, Cleo is earning money by boosting cars and janitor work, but gets called a man, derided constantly for being a lesbian.
The four are at their wits’ end, so, with Frankie’s insider knowledge, they decide to start robbing banks just to get what they need. The phrase “more money equals more problems” takes on a new meaning here, however, as the cop that watched Frankie get fired notices a connection…
Much of this movie has aged incredibly well, and many outside the Black community, including me, are finally giving Set It Off the attention it deserves. I think that’s because issues like police brutality, poverty traps, and illegally obtained firearms have come to the forefront of mainstream American culture in recent years. Were they ALWAYS important? Of course, but much of this country, sadly, hadn’t noticed or had willfully turned away. In a better world, Set It Off would be laughably irrelevant.
As it stands, though, the film remains chillingly prescient. As someone STILL paying off college loans, I feel Stony’s frustration at her brother’s blasé attitude towards a scholarship. I’ve also been paid too little for a job and have had to get creative with my budget to make ends meet. I couldn’t imagine a child on top of that. Reading past user and critic reviews, I got a good laugh out of how dismissive they were of the scenario. Comments like “she could’ve just complained to the police officer’s superior,” or “such a run of back luck is unrealistic,” were made with hubris during much better economic times.
One complaint I CAN get behind, however, is the director’s tilt towards melodrama. This movie pulled few punches, often showing the reality many face as they try to escape poverty. When the director’s choice leans towards heightened reality or emotion, however, set it off falters. In one tragic scene, a character gets out of a car and gunned down by police. We get treated, then, to slow motion gunshots and a Platoon-style fall. Having seen harrowing, real-life footage showing police injustice, I can tell you that it’s not glorious. Such a distraction in tone–one example of many–undercuts the film’s power.
The editing could have also been tightened. Yes, this is a complaint I often make, but numerous scenes feel dragged out for no reason, specifically conversations between characters as well as action plot points. Were this problem addressed, Set It Off would’ve hit much harder and made off with much more of my praise.
Only if you know what you’re getting into. Set it Off is an almost Shakespearean tragedy about four friends who rob banks to make money. The advertising at the time of the movie’s release, though, focused on the film’s action scenes. While there is action occasionally, if you go in expecting it to be Die Hard, you’ll be underwhelmed.
Beyond that, this movie has an important, but dated, performance from Queen Latifah as Cleo, an out lesbian. The movie treats Cleo with respect in that regard, and it accurately shows ways that homosexuals were demeaned during that time. Cleo’s personality, though, is butch, manly, and sometimes oafish. It was archetypal then and reductive now, but I was far happier to see significant representation in a 28-year-old movie, so this aspect was far from a dealbreaker for me. Your mileage may vary.