In 1996 we were given Black sexuality, smoke sessions, and womanism after Audre Lorde’s own heart. Set It Off came two years after the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act which resulted in the mass incarceration of Black people across America. While much of the focus centered around the stories of Black men in the hood during that time, Set it Off gave Black women a chance to tell their stories. In this film, directed by F. Gary Gray, we are exposed to the victimization of Black women by a biased and dismissive system.
Queen Latifah (“Cleo”) served us strong Black queerness and how she could be just as fly as her Los Angeles male counterparts. Jada Pinkett Smith (“Stony”) gave us a first-hand look into the harmful implications of classism and the lack of value placed on Black girls from the hood. When Kimberly Elise (“T.T.”) loses custody of her son because she lacked proper childcare, we saw a mother doing her absolute best with what she had. And we watched her face punishment for not having enough.
We rooted for those women because we saw just as much justification and hopelessness in their situation and actions as they did. Their attitudes and bodies are not used as props or for cheap laughs. They are not a spectacle. Although a film about bank robbers, it was hard to see the women as classic criminals. They were survivors, everyday people pushed to their limit, who were initially trying to stay on the straight and narrow.
Set It Off, goes off on traditional Black female stereotypes. It’s one of the few films that feel authentic in the portrayal of Black women from their speech and struggle, to their joy. An all-Black female smoke cipher on film is not common and I can barely count one hand how many times I’ve seen that in cinema. Set It Off challenges typical portrayals of Black women like the “Jezebel,” the angry Black woman, and gold diggers.
When Stony is placed in the presence of Keith Weston’s, (played by Blair Underwood) beautiful home and adoration, she neglects giving him a real chance to be her knight in shining armor. She destroys the gold digger trope through her nonchalance and the dedication she holds to herself and her girls. Even when Stony could have escaped the hood through a man, she pursued her own bag, at all costs.
Set It Off gave a new face to the American underdog. The gag is, Black women are the real “Invisible Man” Ralph Ellison speaks of. And as we rally for Black men and boys death after death, they tend to take to precedent and the spotlight in the movement because it is Black women who fight so hard. It’s so easy to forget Black Lives Matter was founded by queer Black women. We train ourselves to believe that the terrors of being Black in America are reserved for Black men. However, invisibility comes at a strong price when we as a community don’t #SayHerName. Set It Off puts Black women and their pain at the forefront and not in The Color Purple or Diary of a Mad Black Woman way. We enter a universe where Black women are completely ignored, overlooked and used by our country, left to fend for themselves and then taken to task when they forge untraditional paths for themselves. As these women work as janitors in affluent spaces they literally see the disparity in wealth they lay at the lower end of. In this realization, they are also teased with the “American dream.”
Not only did this film set the stage for Black women but it doubled it. When we watch Vivica A. Fox (“Frankie”), T.T. and Cleo murdered by officers near the climatic end, our minds can’t help but focus on other Black mothers and queer individuals who’ve been slain by law enforcement. We’re reminded of Black women like Stony, who survive after enduring so much. She put so much work into her college-bound brother only to have his life stolen by police encounter. In Stony, we are shown the Black mothers, sisters, and wives who are left behind.
But my favorite part of the film is the end when Stony in a very classic anti-hero way, flees to Mexico successfully and makes one last call to the Keith to say goodbye. In that moment, gender roles are challenged. In the film, it’s typically the sweet naive girlfriend at the other end of the line at home, unaware of her man’s dangerous and criminal life that pushed them apart. Stony even does the big chop, cutting off all her hair, which for Black women symbolizes many things from new beginnings, rebirth and freedom.
In Set It Off, the women make a lot of promises to themselves and each other but under a system that dismisses them, we witness many of them break. We watch the happiness they built wilt to a reality they felt only crime could save them from; a reality many Black women can relate to, and so we rooted for them. 23 years later we still do.