I feel like movies in the 90s didn’t make as much of a spectacle of being diverse. In today’s movie-going world, it’s a huge problem. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the 90s (and before) weren’t a magical time, and the problems we have society existed then, too, and were far, far worse (even “liberal” presidents enacting Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or contributing to our overcrowded prison system), but it seems like audiences of the time didn’t have to beg and plead with studios and filmmakers to make movies that weren’t all white.
If a movie like Set it Off came out today, it’d be huge news. But back then, it was just another crime movie. Four black women (one of whom is a lesbian) rob banks as a means of empowerment. I mean, maybe Jerry Falwell shit a chicken at the time of its release, but other than that it got generally positive reviews from critics and made a damn healthy return at the box office. There’s not even a “controversy” sub-section on the movie’s Wikipedia page!
The film is directed by F. Gary Gray, who’s made a lot of very good movies (Friday being my personal favorite of his), but Set it Off is sort of like his forgotten gem, just waiting to be rediscovered by audiences. It’s really quite good in a way his films have never been before or since. Thematically and tonally, it’s all over the place, but it’s never a mess; the conflicting themes between hardened, realistic drama and with a fantasy of robbing banks to stick it to the man really works. It creates something of a modern fairytale that, of course, ends in tragedy. Because with these kinds of movies, it’s always important that a lesson be learned, and that lesson is usually, “Crime doesn’t pay.”
Set if Off is a classic tale of desperation: Four women, all best friends, are in dire times and their country is systematically and purposefully failing them.
Frankie (Vivica A. Fox) is a teller at a bank that gets robbed and a woman winds up dead, shot right in front of her. She knew the robber from way back when they were kids. She has no connection to the man or the robbery, but the bank sees a tenuous connection and fires her while she still has the dead woman’s blood on her face.
Stoney (Jada Pinkett-Smith) has to sleep with a vile man for money to help pay for her brother’s education, a young man with a promising future who, in a case of mistaken identity, is shot and killed by the LAPD.
Cleo (Queen Latifah) has been working the same janitorial job for years, with no hope of ever escaping. She’s caught in a classic loop of not having the time or money to ever do anything better and is trapped in a perpetual cycle of poverty.
T.T. (Kimberly Elise), who works with Cleo, can’t afford daycare and takes her kid to work with her one day. The kid wanders off, drinks some cleaning agents and nearly dies. Child Services finds that T.T. is negligent and takes her son away from her.
These four women, no with nothing to lose, decide to go through on Cleo’s plan to rob banks for money, to help get T.T.’s child back. And, for a while there, everything seems to work out… until it doesn’t.
My favorite thing about Set if Off is that it takes great care with all of its characters. There’s a subplot involving Stoney and an ambitious young banker and this is one of those plot points I usually roll my eyes at—interrupting the main story and all its intense, action glory for a cheesy little romance. But it wasn’t like that here. It was an opportunity to really explore classism in a unique way.
John C. McGinley as Detective Strode, the cop on their trail, is another element that could have easily dragged the story down if it hadn’t been handled. If he’d been a villain, it would have taken the whole movie and turned it into a cartoon, with the Righteous Bank Robbers VS the Evil Cop. Strode is a sympathetic character. He’s responsible for the death of Stoney’s brother and clearly doesn’t forgive himself for what happened. But, he has a job to do, and he has to put his personal feelings on the backburner—until there comes a pivotal moment where he has to decide to act or to let it go, and what actually ends up happening is deeply rooted in the character. It’s an incredible moment in the film.
Everyone in Set if Off is struggling with something, whether it’s their own personal demons or their lot in life that fate handed them.
Set if Off, if made today, would play up the meta angle too much. The scene where the bank robbing friends sit around a table and pretend to be mafia bosses, as the music from The Godfather plays, is such a good, fun scene. It’s a self-aware crime movie that cares about its characters, but is a classic tragedy in watching them succumb to their own choices.