Set it Off (1996)

Set it Off is available to rent or buy

Set It Off sits within the 90s high-octane, action-packed thriller genre, immersing its audience in the immediate action of a bank heist and its tense outcomes. But while the plot may sound familiar, Set It Off transcends and rewrites the classic heist movie through an all-female, all-black group of friends and their love for one another and their families. Announcing the big screen arrival of Kimberley Elise and Dr Dre, the film is a compelling, action-packed tale with a lot of heart.

F. Gary Gray’s film is an endearing story of female solidarity, similar to Thelma and Louise and a critique of endemic prejudice. From the outset, Set It Off explores the notion of being guilty by association simply due to your neighbourhood and colour. When Vivica A Fox’s Frankie, a stellar employee, witnesses a robbery at the bank where she works, she is unfairly dismissed due to recognising the perpetrator from her neighbourhood. Frankie needs to maintain an income and goes to work at Luther’s Janitorial Services with her three best friends, Stony (Jada Pinkett), Cleo (Queen Latifah), and T.T. (Kimberley Elise). However, once again, Frankie and her friends find themselves poorly treated and disrespected at every turn until Cleo suggests that they should rob a bank. The narrative may initially be perceived as a simple case of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” but the heartfelt dynamic at the core of Set it Off provides an altogether richer emotional experience.

Despite the high-octane action sequences, Set It Off allows the audience to infiltrate the dynamics of the quartet. Here each woman embraces a different type of persona, as oft-seen in girl groups such as the Spice Girls and TV series like Widows, Girlfriends and Sex and the City. One could, in fact, argue that Set it Off provided us with a modern take on Lynda La Plante’s Widows long before Steve McQueen’s 2018 movie and, in part, inspired McQueen’s vision. Within Set It Off, the women are fiercely independent as carers, single mothers and fighters. However, the women’s interpretations of the action needed to bring justice and equality following Frankie’s dismissal are evident from the outset.

For Stony, Jada Pinkett, the stakes are high as she strives to provide an alternative life for her brother outside of poverty; her love permeating her hard veneer. This sense of love underpins Set It Off, as it portrays Stony as an unofficial leader who is fearless, strong, and unafraid to fight for love and those she loves. For Stoney, each action has a purpose as she takes on the role of the moral compass – her warmth, love and intuition the foundation stone of the group. As such, empathy is levelled towards her plight, and the camera is unafraid to remain with Stony during emotionally wrought scenes. Therefore, the film’s few light-hearted moments are appreciated to serve as that balance. In such moments, the women’s unadulterated love for each other shines through, unfettered by the bleak reality of their surroundings. Here the smiles and glances within their circle are usually the preserve of romantic movies as love, togetherness and care radiate between friends who would die for one another.

The fact that there is a touching scene of the women on a rooftop, with an impressively heartfelt soundtrack, as the centre point of the film only emphasises the core themes of love, solidarity and compassion. These are friends who visit neighbourhood barbecues together and provide unwavering comfort to each other when encountering trauma. Despite being a juxtaposition, the rooftop scene illustrates a moment to pause, reflect and embrace love before life’s burdens take control. The camaraderie and joy in that simple moment are uplifting as F. Gary Gray’s vision focuses on the women through streams of light that accentuate themes of hope and escape, despite the events surrounding them.

Indeed, Stony may be the only character permitted a modicum of positivity as she finds a genuine and healthy love interest. However, within the context of the era in which Set It Off was filmed, it was rare to see such positive images of black love. Equally, it was rare to find a lesbian character at the heart of the narrative. Here Queen Latifa’s Cleo is groundbreaking, and despite the actor’s initial concerns about the role, the result was a landmark in black lesbian representation onscreen.

While Set It Off may focus on the classic heist, it is ultimately a tale of sacrifice, love and belonging. It forces us to reflect on the lengths we would be willing to go for our friends and asks whether we would risk our lives for a belief in justice. Set It Off may be high-octane, but it is ultimately a heartfelt ode to female friendships and love.


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