Had I watched Set It Off back in the day, I think I would have long appreciated Ms. Pinkett, Ms. Latifah, Ms. Elise and Ms. Fox more. I do now. These talented women were forerunners in 90’s Hollywood, and although I had an idea, I didn’t know the extent to which they were those pioneers. I feel a bit ashamed for not having inherently known that, because that essentially means that my 90’s rite of passage was incomplete. It was incomplete without Set It Off.
Four women decide to rob banks, ultimately to get out poverty. That is the main plot starring Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett, Kimberly Elise and Vivica Fox. The movie is well cast and the story is responsibly told. Released in November 1996, the movie is 19 years old this month and is still a relevant piece of commentary for our time.
A film’s feminist angle is not only about casting women, but also amongst other things, about the granular conversation between the starring women. If two women in a scene engage without talking about a man, or men, in any way, then that scene is feminist rooted. That seems simplistic but for me, that’s a good place to start, that two or more women are engaging on their own terms, discussing their own concerns. Set It Off is truly feminist in that nature. There is no boy-drama that gathers these women together on a sleep over while they paint their nails and drink pink drinks. Not that there is anything wrong with that. It’s only that Hollywood has abused that singular narrative to portray women. It is that the movie presents a tableau of complex characters that sit outside of the stereotypes we have presented with. That is genius!
Even the ‘love plot’ does not take over, like it normally does in Hollywood – case in point, Pocahontas. Blair Underwood who plays the character Keith whose love interest is Stoney is part of the backdrop. Stoney remains Stoney when with him. She remains smart, passionate and strong willed. One scene that sticks out is when she refuses to get picked up by him whenever they have a date. She holds her own and asserts her independence. The class issues between Keith and her are delicately treated, a dash of the ideal while being believable.
Real discussions on some of the nuances of the black and black woman’s experience in a post-civil rights America are a key part of the story and the way it’s told. The projects, unemployment, class relations, the relationship between black people and the police in America, and consequently, the relationship between black women and the police in America. All these are responsibly engaged and delicately treated enough to establish empathy, not pity.
Where the black community in the US has always been portrayed as conservative when it comes to sexuality, the film took a different turn. Cleo, Queen Latifah’s character is a boisterous lesbian who’s hell bent on taking care of her girlfriend. The community in which she lives seems to live, and let live. In one scene, the police pick her up on the street when she is on her way home from doing groceries with her girlfriend. The two are walking home, supplies in hand, as ‘normal’ as possible, with no cat calling or harassment on the streets. Here, the movie struck a good balance between reflecting the status quo, while also projecting an ideal we are striving for. That’s normally tough to handle, because most of the time films either do too much in reflecting the status quo so much that there is little hope for better, or become too idealistic that they are so far from reality they are literally sharing a fictitious world.
The most genius execution in the movie is that the different stories behind each of the characters are presented succinctly. As the plot progresses, you understand each of the characters, and how they ended up where they were. Stoney’s desperation to make enough money to send her brother to university, and her brother being killed by cops in a case of racist mistaken identity; T.T’s desperation to getting back her kid who’s been taken from her by social services after an accident at work; Frankie’s anger at being fired for knowing a bank robber who robbed the bank at which she worked; Cleo for wanting a better life for her and her girlfriend – you empathise with them, and that connection is not lost throughout the film. The story line and the execution give you context – something Hollywood has failed to do consistently with black stories. Writer Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah said on why she writes long form on black artists, “because black lives deserve context”. In an industry where stories on black people are not often given enough attention beyond the surface so much that you end up with just the Shmurda dance, drug dealer Jay-Z or arrogant Kanye – Set It Off thoroughly achieves.
These four stalwarts of America’s Hollywood, through Set It Off, beautifully execute a tone of storytelling that responsibly carries a multitude of nuances of the black experience. It was and still is an excellent movie. Perhaps now my 90’s right of passage is complete, or at least closer to completion.
Set It Off images sourced from: Screenshot from the film, blackfilm.com, rogerebert.com & wikipedia.org