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 in the late ‘90s probably describing it as “Waiting to Exhale, but with guns” and laughing at their own joke as they typed 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 to hear those words 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 woman, 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 all 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 her dark living 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 — “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 a 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 so well 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 is 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 the sisterhood. It’s their laughter. The way they are always just within arms 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. First. Always.
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.