Bet You Didn’t Know: Secrets Behind the Making of “Set It Off”

July 2, 2012  |  
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In 1995, we had Waiting to Exhale but in 1996, we had Set It Off. While we’ll always appreciate both films for their contribution to black cinema, Set It Off provided a gritty, realistic portrayal of the desperate measures black women have to resort to make ends meet. It wasn’t just a bank robbery film, it was a film about the way that black women are often disenfranchised in America. Though the budget was only $9 million, the film went on to gross over $40 million at the box office and became a cult classic in the black community. Check out the some of the little known facts behind the film. It’s time to get educated.

Turns out you can go from waitress to actress

Even though she’d made a couple of television appearances, including one on “In the House” alongside LL Cool J, Set It Off was Kimberly Elise’s first feature film. She was “discovered” by producer Dale Pollock when she was waitressing her way through college. She went on to play “Tisean” aka “TT”in the film.

Well, that’s…interesting

Sometimes casting directors can be a bit disillusioned. The role of “Frankie,” which eventually went to Vivica Fox, was supposed to be played by Rosie Perez. Huh? Maybe Vivica played the role so well that I can’t picture Rosie in it, but that could have been a really poor casting choice. Who knows. Either way the role went to the right person.

A little help from her friends

In a recent interview, Vivica Fox revealed that they wanted her for the role of “TT.” But Will Smith, who had just worked with her on Independence Day, was certain that she should play the role of “Frankie” and he helped prep her before the audition. She auditioned for both roles, but brought something extra when it came to Frankie.

“You could at least offer me something to drink, sista.”

Remember the scene where Vivica is being fired from her job as a teller at the bank because she knew the robber? The cop keeps asking her “What’s the procedure…” There was a black woman in the room and Vivica decided to ad-lib. She told the woman, “You could at least offer me something to drink, sista.” She fought with the director to keep it in the film, explaining that the fact that she was scolded and lost her job after witnessing a murder was a lack of compassion from all of them, but especially from the black woman.

Who is Stoney?

Several members of the cast and director, F. Gary Gray have said that the script, originally written by Takashi Bufford and Kate Lanier, went through significant rewrites and edits. One of the bigger changes came to Jada Pinkett Smith’s character, Stoney. Originally, she was supposed to be a krackhead. (Yikes!) Thankfully, the cast and crew decided it would be better if all of the women  were placed in desperate circumstances to eventually make them resort to robbing banks. Maybe all the rewrites led to a bit of inconsistency in the script because Stoney, who at one point says she’s never been to New York, later says that she’s from the Bronx. Whoops!

Queen Latifah takes a huge risk

When Set It Off came out Queen Latifah was in a very good place career wise. She had managed to successfully transition from rapper to actor in Living Single and was taking on the role of a lesbian as Cleo. Even today, the black community can be a little hostile to the LGBTQ community, so in the ’90s it was even worse. Even though, Queen La knew she might make some people a bit uncomfortable she decided if she wanted to prove herself as a legit actress, it was one she needed to take.

You can watch what Queen La had to say about her decision to take the role in her own words, in this interview with talk show host Rolonda Watts. (Remember her?) Queen’s part starts at the 2:19 mark.
     

Considering the fact that critics and fans alike often praise her performance, it was definitely a good decision. 

Was F. Gary Gray too young for this?

Even though Gray had already proven he could be successful with his surprise blockbuster, Friday, the critics thought his immaturity showed in Set It Off. Though USA Today’s Susan Wloszczyna said the film was “more fun to watch than it has any right to be”she still slammed it, calling the movie, “overlong, overdone and over-wrought.” Another critic,  Kenneth Turan, of the Los Angeles Times, said the film was “characterized by the youthful director tendency to be overambitious.” But our buddy Roger Ebert had a more positive view of the film. Though he acknowledged that there were flaws in the picture, he said that Set It Off both “surprised and moved him.”

Fourth Time’s a charm

New Line Cinema had major reservations about the movie. They rejected it three times before agreeing to fund it. One of the film’s co-screenwriters, Takashi Bufford, said in an interview that New Line didn’t believe black men would support a movie with four gun toting women. Wrong!

Nope, no sequel

There was supposed to be one though. In that same interview, Bufford also said that the studios were uncharacteristically excited about the sequel. Budgets had been cleared and everything…but Jada said she wasn’t down and the idea stopped right there. While we’d love to see a sequel, I’m not exactly sure how that would happen considering three of the four characters die at the end of the flick. Vivica Fox jokingly said that Jada could bring them all back with a ouija board. Looks like we’ll have to keep reliving the glory days of the original.

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