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Black Stories Film Series #13:
“Set It Off” (1996) begins with one woman being fired from her bank teller position after she is robbed at gunpoint because she was suspected for being an accomplice… she lives in the same projects as the suspects. Another debases herself in an attempt to secure funds for her brothers college tuition. One more loses custody of her kid when she is forced to take him to work with her and an accident transpires. All facing the injustice of a society that has been set up for them to fail and restricted their resources, this group of young women have had enough. They are ready to set it off.
“Set It Off” (1996) is the female led hood movie that we needed, following the popularity that came from “Boyz N The Hood” (1991), “Juice” (1992), “Menace II Society” (1993), and “Friday” (1995). Directed by F. Gray Gary (who brought “Friday” and the TLC music video “Waterfalls” the previous year), this film brings together a stacked cast. Following her emergence on the scene in “Menace,” Jada Pinkett Smith plays Stony, a big sister trying to provide for her brother after the passing of their parents. Queen Latifah plays Cleo. Latifah was, at this point, known for her rap music career, after having just released the Grammy winning, popular album “Black Reign” in 1993, which spawned the hit “U.N.I.T.Y.” The script refreshingly diverts from the stereotypical trope of highlighting the LGTBQ characters sexuality as a major plot line in the film, and allows Cleo to just exist as a queer woman. Those two are also accompanied by Frankie (Vivica A. Fox) and Tisean (Kimberly Elise), who both launched steady acting careers after this film, including roles in “Manchurian Candidate,” “John Q,” and “The Great Debaters” for Elise and “Independence Day,” the “Kill Bill” series, and “Empire” for Fox.
The foursome has a natural chemistry as a set of friends who have been a team since childhood, and there is a 90’s nostalgia that ebbs and flows through the film in the style, the music and the slang. Each woman brings a varietal to the mix – Elise is the earnest, soft-spoken mother, Pinkett Smith is ambitious, Fox is savvy and quick, and Latifah is the wild and reckless staple of every group. Two decades later, we got the modernized and more light-hearted reunion of Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith in “Girls Trip” (2017), where they even get another opportunity to don wigs to sneak into a club.
“Set It Off” reflects a specific time in society – Los Angeles in the nineties following the Rodney King riots, where gun violence and police brutality reached a cultural peak and angered citizens were uprising everywhere. President Bill Clinton signed the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act into law two years prior, which resulted in even more oppressive policing and a burst of mass incarceration. This was built of former president Ronald Reagan’s “War On Drugs” which is still heavily criticized for it’s decimation of black communities across America and is highlighted in the 2020 documentary “13th” which exposes the realities of disproportionate black enslavement in America through prison labor that is still exploiting communities today. This film was timely, but refuses to use the convoluted media craze as a ticket-to-ride to tell this story, and settles into a deeper, more reflective piece about what young Black women might do when they have exhausted all of their scarce resources.
There are so many egregious assumptions made about people of color throughout this film which speaks to the underbelly of systemic or institutional racism more than more action-heavy or gang-heavy films might. As films continued to depict the oppressive circumstances given to Black communities in America, there are a few moments that stand out against the trajectory of these issues which we can now see today. The villainous cop exhibits remorse when he realizes the clean hands of a police victim, and there is mention of a newspaper article that reads “innocent student killed by cops” – an admission that would only happen when they know that accountability will not.
“Set It Off” is a tale of what happens to four young women when doing the right thing feels like a trap, when making an honest living reaps no rewards. The film also understands how often de-escalation training is ignored by the cops, and even our lead detective (John C. McGinley) exhibits frustration at the gratuitous gun violence that proceeds each event. F. Gary Gray brings another meaningful story that takes the lid off of the projects and looks at the people inside them – full of life, purpose, futures and humor, and deserving of more.