Set It Off is a 1996 film that tells the story of four Black women in Los Angeles who decide to get even with a world that seems intent on trying to keep them down. Friends since childhood who have grown up together in a housing project, the women experience a series of setbacks as they try to improve the living situations of themselves and their loved ones. Desperate and with little left to lose they decide to start robbing banks with hopes that the money will enable them to escape. But while each heist offers a bigger payday they also bring more problems and complications.
I love movies in general but my favorites are usually psychological thrillers and action films with spies, heists, or anything where people are strategizing. As a woman, I like movies with strong female leads and a plus if there’s some male eye candy. Thus Set It Off is one of my favorite movies of all time. I’m a huge movie fan and have seen a lot of films but this and “Silence of the Lambs” have consistently been and will likely remain at the top of my list.
Now from the jump, I’m going to admit that my favorite character in Set It Off was Francesa “Frankie” Sutton (Vivica Fox). Don’t get me wrong all of the leads showed up and showed out. Stony Newsome (Jada Pinkett) is the star and I dug her because she got to be with my Blair “Mmm Mmm Good” Underwood in his prime. But I also felt compassion for her because her life was filled with tragic losses. Cleo (Queen Latifah) was the trigger happy nutcase that these kinds of movies seem to require. And Tisean (Kimberly Elise) was there.
Imagine growing up in a rough neighborhood plagued by violence and doing what’s necessary to stay on the right track. You find a decent job and work hard to prove yourself to be both dependable and diligent about your responsibilities. Only to have circumstances beyond your control upend all of the efforts you’ve put into building your reputation. That’s the situation that Frankie finds herself in after staring down the barrel of a gun, watching someone get shot, and having their blood splatter all over her. In mere moments she loses the path and possibilities she likely envisioned using to attain a better life.
Unable to use references from the previous job she has difficulties finding a new one and has few alternative options. Needing to earn a living, she goes to work with her friends at Luther’s Janitorial, a commercial cleaning business, whose owner is in dire need of a human resources department and some management training. Unprofessional does not begin to describe Luther and how he speaks to his employees. And what’s sad is that either having grown used to it or knowing they have few other choices the women joke about or brush off his comments. He’s one of the two and a half bums in Set It Off.
The half a bum in Set It Off would be Stony’s younger brother, Stevie, who she has been raising on her own since their parents died in a car accident. It’s unclear what her life was like before her parents died but she is struggling and sacrificing to take care of her brother. She invests her hopes and dreams in her brother. And her and their circle of friends are proud that he has not only graduated from high school but will be attending UCLA. But surprise, he won’t be going to college because as he tells Stony he didn’t receive the scholarship needed to cover his tuition.
Nate, the other full bum in Set It Off, is an older relatively financially successful used car salesman. (Not stereotyping, but if I was, that should tell you everything you need to know right there.) He makes old man noises when he sits down and has an ugly comforter set which matches his soul. (I’m realizing that I hold grudges about particular characters because I still roll my eyes whenever I see this actor in other roles.) Stony, who should probably win a family award for being the most committed sister ever, takes it upon herself to do whatever is necessary to get her brother the money he needs. Had it been me, old boy Stevie would have gotten a pat on the shoulder and a, “I’m sure you’ll figure something out.” Instead, she sacrifices her body and her self-esteem for her brother’s future.
To be fair, Stevie did not know and might not have agreed with the lengths to which Stony goes to get him the money he said he needed for college. But, the fact remains that he lies about not even getting into school or wanting to attend college. Some of this is feeling he’s grown and wanting to do his own thing but the way he went about it was incredibly immature. I completely felt Stony yelling at him and giving him the angry pinky. This is an extreme and dysfunctional example but it points to the reality that quite often, women are expected or put pressure on themselves to sacrifice their needs and set aside their ambitions to care for loved ones and/or support their significant others.
Cleo at first glance appears one dimensional but has some hidden depth. She is broke, lives in a garage, owns a raggedy car, has a record for having stolen cars, and has a seemingly mute girlfriend who likes fancy underwear. She doesn’t see a life for herself or aspire to more than being in the hood as she feels she doesn’t belong anywhere else. It doesn’t seem like she has any great love for the hood itself. But rather that she can’t see or imagine being anywhere else or where she’ll be in five years. And she doesn’t care because she’s struggling just trying to survive the here and now.
Tisean is having a hard time paying for childcare and loses custody due to suspected neglect when her son is injured in an accident at her job. She’s just as sympathetic as the other characters but I just didn’t like the way she came across. I think TeeTee was supposed to be a bit naive compared to the other women but at times her mannerisms and way of speaking bordered on being childish. The character TeeTee is harmless and inoffensive and I’ve also seen Elise in other things and know she can act. I still can’t put my finger on if its the character or the acting that I found off-putting. I understand why TeeTee was there as she had some fairly important moments but she was my least favorite character.
One of the themes throughout Set It Off is the many ways in which these Black women are victimized not just based on their race but also on their gender and socioeconomic standing. They work and aspire to more than the lives they currently have with some hoping to get out of the neighborhood. But intersectional racism locks them into low paying jobs and exploitation by the men around them.
There’s a classic scene where the foursome is sitting out on the roof of one of their homes smoking weed and chatting. Cleo touches on the reality that a building across the way once housed a business that provided well-paying jobs. The women reminisce and imagine how much better their lives could be earning a higher hourly rate. Their desires are quite simple but with no clear path or opportunities, they seem impossibly out of reach.
I believe that most people are decent and a lot of criminal activities are a byproduct of poverty and/or people feeling hopeless rather than a desire to do wrong. The ladies are a representation of some of the people in the neighborhood. They are going through hard times as good-paying jobs are hard to come by. With limited means for earning a decent living and multiple setbacks, people lose hope in following the rules to achieve progress, and in desperation, some turn to criminal activities.
I’m not rich but they’re a special kind of broke because $12,000 is not enough money for me to risk my life and prison time. But then everybody is hustling everybody because when the story of their first robbery is reported on the news they mention that $90,000 was taken. The discrepancy leads the women to believe that the bank has pulled off a robbery of its own: an insurance scam.
Keith (Blair Underwood) is beautiful and serves as welcome eye candy but Set It Off isn’t really about him. Stony and Keith don’t seem to have anything in common but I think they help each other get out of their comfort zones. His home with the brass bed in the corner like what Gina got her head stuck in and all the decor were probably the baller crib in the 1990s.
In a movie about a criminal enterprise, there’s always that one person involved who is out of control and throwing rocks at the pen. Cleo is that person as she’s a terrible criminal. She is like a female O-Dog except she has a girlfriend. Going on a spending spree on car upgrades and lingerie for your girlfriend is the problem with stealing or being involved with criminal activities. You can’t spend stolen money as though you won the lottery or got a bonus from work. It’s highly questionable when a forever broke person suddenly starts spending like they’re rich. There’s also her foolishness of throwing CDs out of the vehicles she steals for the robberies. Is she unaware of fingerprint analysis? And I will admit that on a whole their disguises were terrible.
I like that there are these little comedic interludes that help to break up the heist aspect of the film. For example, TeeTee laying on the floor pretending to be a regular bank customer but doing way too much with her dramatic crying. The godfather scene is a creative take on a necessary conversation that the women need to have to move forward.
When the ladies pull off their second robbery, they getaway with enough money for everyone to get a $75k share. This should be enough startup cash for them to get out of the neighborhood and make changes in their lives. They hide the money at a job site with plans to retrieve it and skip town in three days. What could go wrong right? This is a movie so we all know things can’t go exactly according to plan with the ladies’ idea to ride off into the sunset.
Riding high from her payday allows Stony and her girls to finally envision a future that looks bright. There’s a brief break for romantic shenanigans as we see Stony go from a loud and colorful Madame Butterfly kimono looking outfit to a sleek black dress and fancy hairdo. The transformation is courtesy of the beautiful on the outside and even more on the inside Keith who takes her out in a limo for a wonderful evening despite some of their time being spent at a work event. I remember watching Set It Off when I was younger and for a moment, Keith helped Stony edge out Frankie as my favorite, and Jada Pinkett was my hero. Listen, I love good food and like men that like good food too so Keith and his international cooking? Loved it.
It’s like Cinderella where Stony has this life-changing day with her homegirls and an unforgettable night with Keith. But after leaving Prince Charming in the morning, she learns that this vision of a new life she thought she’d be living has fallen apart. And her shot at a new future is slipping away.
That DAMN Luther. From early in the movie Luther and his bad attitude were a problem. Now with his new janky perm and the ladies’ hard-earned stolen money, he’s a problem to the tenth power. And problems seem to beget problems. The group is already on the police’s radar for the bank robberies though they don’t know it as yet. And their confrontation with Luther just brings more unwanted attention.
They’re in an even worse situation than before they started the bank robberies. And they now feel like they don’t have a choice but to pull off one more heist because they have to get out of town. Isn’t that the way it always happens? Criminals get away with their first crime and they tempt fate by trying it again. And that overconfidence leads to taking a chance on that last big score that becomes their downfall.
Stony is shaken from everything that has already taken place and doesn’t feel comfortable robbing another bank. But peer pressure is a mother and she doesn’t want to bail on her friends. And this is why crime doesn’t pay unless you’re rich enough to begin with to get away with it. Or you’re part of an organization that’s big enough where society will fall apart if it fails. But that’s a conversation for another day.
My heart broke for Keith, watching him sit in a meeting about bank robberies and come to the realization that Stony is one of the robbers on the surveillance video. I’m pretty sure that Cleo’s girlfriend does not say a single word in the entire film. I mean not so much as an article, consonant, or vowel. Which is kind of funny because of Frankie’s comments on it. As the film reaches its climax, we see her worried and crying watching the news and somewhere across town Keith is also curled up worried and watching the news.
Everything that could go wrong with the robbery does and sweet simple TeeTee is the first to die and the friends are forced to leave her body behind in the abandoned getaway vehicle. And arguably one of the best police chases in movie history begins. Sure, there are the crashes and near misses but I can think of few other such chases that pack such an emotional punch.
Cleo sacrifices herself and continues the car chase before engaging in one of the most emotionally tumultuous shootouts ever. I have watched Set It Off many times and somehow I’m sitting in my house and my allergies just start acting up when she lights up her cigarette and that sad song starts playing. Next thing I know my throat feels dry and scratchy and there is this liquid welling up in my eyes. All these years later, I’ve cheered on Queen Latifah’s career but I can’t think of another role that has allowed her talent to shine to this degree or with such range.
Each death is more traumatic than the last and Frankie’s reflected the arc of what we see of her life. I know Stony is supposed to be the star character but my favorite is and will always be Frankie whose life was completely blown up because of other people’s actions. She followed the rules and got a good job in hopes of lifting herself out of the neighborhood. Only to lose her job and have her life blown apart because someone who happened to be from her neighborhood did a bad thing.
It’s ironic that while being fired she talks about being committed to her job and provides having counted out $250,000 by hand as one of the examples. And the women later talk about the difficulty of the four of them counting a similar amount by hand after one of their heists. Frankie has the opportunity to shoot the cop who previously callously interrogated her. But revenge isn’t what she wants. It’s freedom. And she’s gunned down making one last attempt at freedom. R.I.P. to Francesa Sutton, the mastermind who came up with all the strategies. Cleo was cool too and TeeTee was alright I guess.
There’s a ray of hope in Stony getting away but she has all of this money and only memories of her friends. She also loses the one guy who is always thinking of how to make her happy and gives rather than taking from her. I think the film’s creators knew they had to give the audience some kind of a win. Can you imagine if she had died as well?
If you haven’t guessed it as yet, I think Set It Off is a great movie. It’s not your typical heist film as there’s comedy, romance, drama, and action. Some aspects of the storyline are a bit wonky but nothing majorly unbelievable. It’s part of the classic 90s Black film canon but still holds up 20 plus years later. I love movies and hope to one day have a great theater room with large movie posters from my favorite films. Without a doubt, Set It Off will have a place on my wall. If you’re into action films but somehow managed to have never seen it before I recommend checking it out. Or if you’ve seen it before do what I do: watch it again and hope for a different ending.
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