Set it Off is a classic: one of the greatest girl-power/female-solidarity flicks around and a true trend-starter from 1996.
Directed by F. Gary Gray and written by Takashi Bufford, the film features Queen Latifah (in a breakout role as a car-jacking lesbian), Jada Pinkett Smith, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise as four women ready to claim their own piece of the proverbial pie, by any means necessary.
The film centers on the lives of four L.A. friends facing the difficulties of being poor, black and female, and eventually fighting against the system that oppresses them. While this plot may not exactly sound new, the film handles its subject matter with grace, humor and a massive dose of action that builds until the heart-pounding, climactic finale.
As the story opens, each of the women has a reason to be unhappy with her life. Stony (Pinkett Smith) has been sleeping with a man in exchange for money to help send her brother to college. Frankie (Fox) has just gotten fired from her position at a bank after the traumatic experience of being robbed and subsequently blamed for the crime. T.T. (Elise) is barely making ends meet for herself and her young son, and Cleo (Latifah) is broke and miserable.
All four women are working dead-end jobs for a janitorial company and looking for a way out. When Stony’s brother is killed by police gunfire, the women decide to take matters into their own hands and rob a bank, thinking it will lead to money, power and respect.
The bonds between the four women are palpable. The film wisely establishes their friendship with several scenes of the women enjoying their time together (including a hilarious Godfather send-up), both before and after they embark on their new life of crime.
This is a movie about friendship and solidarity — and sticking it to the man, so to speak — and it’s a pleasure to watch these four ladies take their revenge on a society that cares little for their plight.
Queen Latifah’s Cleo is a fantastic, complicated character — a positive lesbian representation that bucks stereotypes. She is accepted by her straight friends, who treat her as just one of the girls, teasing her about her girlfriend, her car, etc. She is loud, stands up for herself, gets what she wants out of life, and, unlike many lesbians in movies, she conveys her butch identity with the appropriate swagger. She also happens to be in a happy, committed relationship, one that gets a decent amount of screen time.
Though it isn’t central to the plot, the relationship between Cleo and her girlfriend, Ursula, is highly visible, and it does account for half of the romantic encounters in the film. Cleo and Ursula share domestic duties and display affection openly, even making out in front of everyone else unabashedly. The Cleo-Ursula pairing is dealt with in a refreshingly open and substantial way, particularly for a film that is more than a decade old.
In the requisite heterosexual relationship, Stony meets the perfect man in Keith (Blair Underwood), a rich, educated, sensitive guy who listens to her. This puts her in a moral quagmire when the friends decide to rob the bank he works for. The romance feels a bit stagey; Keith really seems a bit too good to be true. But he does provide a nice counterbalance to the other male characters, who are stereotypical and misogynistic.