In “Lost Movie Reviews From the Autostraddle Archives” we revisit past lesbian, bisexual, and queer classics that we hadn’t reviewed before, but you shouldn’t miss.
Set It Off cannot be divorced from its context. In 1996, F. Gary Gray’s Black film classic — part heist thriller, part iconic loving tribute to Black women’s friendship — stood on the immediate shoulders of other defining movies of the decade. Depending on the circles you traveled, it was known as the “Black” version of Ridley Scott’s 1991 Thelma & Louise or the “women” version of the Hughes Brothers’ 1995 Dead Presidents. I can even imagine some slick film critic probably describing it as “Waiting to Exhale, but with guns” and laughing at their own joke as they click-clacked away on their Windows 95.
But it was never any of those things, not in its totality. Because it was always ours. I don’t know that F. Gary Gray knew that in casting Queen Latifah as a breathtaking, once-in-lifetime Black butch action hero, he was changing the face of … well, everything. That in this film’s creation would become a Black lesbian icon burrowed right into the core of our canon.
I do know that Queen Latifah had some doubts before taking on the role of Cleo, the cornrowed, baggy jeans, bare faced, California cool, handsome goddess and powerful muscle of her four person bank robbing crew.
In 2017, reflecting back on the role, Latifah reminisced with Tracee Ellis Ross that the choice to embody Cleo was difficult. She sat down with her younger siblings in the mid ‘90s and told them, “Listen, I’m playing a gay character. Your classmates might tease you or say negative things about it. But I’m doing it because I believe I can bring positive attention to the gay African-American community, and I believe that I can do a great job as an actor.”
It is chilling in retrospect, because my God — as Cleo, Latifah has never been better. Young, mighty, unadulterated, sweet to her friends, sexy in the way that only studs can be — an energy that radiates beneath the pores and melanin; the quiet, intoxicating confidence that comes from truly owning your shit. It’s almost too perfect that they cast the Queen, because she truly sees Cleo’s royalty.
I could spend this entire article writing a love letter to Queen Latifah’s performance, I’m clearly already at a head start. But rewatching Set it Off this summer — and yes, I mean this summer in particular — is unexpectedly (or perhaps alternatively, far too expectedly) heart-wrenching.
For all the times that we, as Black people, as queer women, we as me specifically (I’ve written about Set It Off in short form twice before on this site) have talked about the adrenaline-pumping tear jerker — we don’t talk enough about the fact the catalyst for the central action happens when the police kill a young Black man. Stony’s (Jada Pinkett, before the Smith) younger brother Stevie is murdered while laying face down in the parking lot of an apartment building in his own neighborhood.
Stevie, tall and broad shouldered with an easy smile and twinkling eyes, is about the same age as Mike Brown when Darren Wilson of the Ferguson PD took his adolescent life. Though the fictional Stevie is murdered nearly 20 years earlier, it’s hard to watch it now and not imagine that the officer would refer to the charming Stevie as monster-like, as a “demon” who made him fear for his life, in an effort to cover his tracks. Even though the fictional murder takes place three years before a mistaken wallet would cost Amadou Diallo his life at the hands of NYPD, it is a mistaken champagne bottle that costs Stevie his. As Stevie lays face down on the ground, of no threat, and bullets riddle through his back — no matter how fast I can squeeze my eyes shut, it’s too late, I already see Jacob Blake’s white shirt in Kenosha.
There’s so much about these Black lives lost, the imprints left on our spirit. So much I’ll never know what to say — how to explain. I’m a writer, I’m supposed to know how to put pain into words. I’ve stayed up, night-after-night, all summer, just like the long hot summers before, looking for even the beginning of how to grasp it. What can I possibly contribute? When Jada Pinkett, covered in her brother’s blood, wails over his body “What have you done?” I have to wonder, as my stomach lurches into my throat, why I would have picked this, of all summers, to revisit this infamous Black story again.
There’s a deleted scene that’s been recently restored to the film. It’s about the things we don’t talk about it. It’s about what happens next — the two days that Stony won’t leave the house. Her three best friends sitting in her dark living room with her as she vomits. Vivica A. Fox’s Frankie has her hair wrapped up, Kimberly Elise’s T.T. is sitting on her knees on the floor. Stony buries her face into Cleo’s sweatshirt. There’s a mourning that this country keeps forcing Black women to live through. I almost said “right now” — but what Set It Off is trying so desperately to tell us is that there’s no “right now.” Not at all. Now is 25 years ago. It’s 50 years before that. And one hundred before still. When no one else is looking, when the cameras and Twitter feeds move on — when we still can’t get up from the couch except to cry and shit — Black women still only have each other.
So when Frankie comes up with her big idea to rob banks — “We’ll just take away from a system that’s fucking us all anyway” — the only thing left to feel is catharsis.
The central conceit of Set It Off is lifted directly from the playbooks of 1970s blaxploitation films, even if it arrives to us 20 years later. The question of what would happen if — just for once — Black people took back what’s been stolen from us? If we took back our lives, our divinity, our dignity. What sets Set It Off apart is that when they finally take back what’s been stolen, they take it back from capitalism itself. It presents a macro understanding of the intertwined systematic nature of police violence, capitalism, and racism that’s hard to pull off on screen.
F. Gary Gray does so nearly flawlessly because he understands that first and foremost the story belongs to the Black women upon whose shoulders this entangled mess has always fallen onto in the first place. He lets their story, four working-class Black women who work as an overnight cleaning crew and dream of one day making $15 an hour (a dream we still haven’t accomplished yet, by the way), be the first and only one that matters.
More than anything though, when it all comes down to it, it’s still their sisterhood. It’s their laughter. The way they are always always just within arm’s length of each other. It’s that when Stony gets high she thinks that Cleo looks like Sugar Bear. It’s that they’ve been best friends since first grade. The way they know each other’s vulnerabilities and what they can joke about or when to hold back. These are four women who they love each other with everything they have.
That’s what makes it impossible not to love them in return.
You can rent Set It Off for $2.99. It is also free on Netflix for the month of September.
Want more movies? Check out Autostraddle’s 200 Best Lesbian Movies of All Time.
My god, Carmen, this is a stunning, heart-wrenching, glorious piece of writing. I know it cost you so much to give this much. Thank you. I love you.
I watched this last night, thanks to your short-form reviews. Loved it. Thank you so much.
My local library recently got a copy that I checked out. I’d never seen it before, and I was surprised by how well it holds up 25 years later because sadly all the issues it brings up are still around.
Also, Queen Latifa. Stud is right.
This is GORGEOUSLY written! Set It Off is such an incredible film.
This makes me want to both rush out and watch Set It Off right now and also scrub the pain of having seen it before from my memory (like I want to forget the screams of Philando Castile’s girlfriend)…which, I think, is the best thing I can say about the balance that this review achieves.
Great work, Carmen. Truly.
The two paragraphs about Queen Latifah’s choice to act in Set it Off and about her performance itself, gave me chills. Partially because she’s uuuuhhhh . . . wow. But also because you show your experience of her performance. It reminds me of times when watching something shifted my whole brain to somewhere new. It made me think “What if I had seen that movie in 1996? How might my brain have changed? Who might I be?”
I can’t watch most movies thanks to PTSD, so being able to read about your experience of this movie is cathartic. I really just wish this article was longer! I’ll go read your other pieces on it, but, I mean, I’d also read a book about this movie if you wrote it.
Set It Off will always be my favorite movie. It fills me joy with whenever I watch it but there’s always that lingering sadness that embodies the film and stays with you long after you watch it. We all have the same reaction when we hear Up Against The Wind. Tears. Just straight up ugly tears.
Watching Stony wail over over Stevie is forever chilling to watch. Jada did that. Her pain was our pain. It gave their motives clout and honestly, I don’t blame them.
And Cleo… My gawd, Queen went all out for that role. I’m a huge fan of her career and just like Bessie, she always fully commits when she’s playing queer characters. I love Cleo so much. The strength and warmth she possesses are things I’m still aspiring to.
I hope they never remake this. Seit It Off had a perfect cast with a perfect director. Don’t need to fix what ain’t broke.
Love this movie, love the soundtrack. Thanks for reminding us about this one.