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Set It Off

by Elisabeth Friedman, Western Michigan University (November 1997)

Four friends plot a robbery for Robin-hood reasons. A sports utility vehicle drives through one side of a bank and out the other, splintering plate glass as it goes. A poor, beautiful girl is swept off her feet by a handsome, wealthy man. A fleet of police cars and helicopters chase a fleeing suspect's car through downtown L.A., finally cornering it in a hail of bullets. An unsympathetic cop learns a lesson.

This may sound like a recipe for a Hollywood hit, but F. Gary Gray's largely passed-over Set It Off slipped quietly from the screen into the Blockbuster "New Releases" section. And in this reviewer's opinion, undeservedly. Despite all its seemingly cliched plot twists, this movie is an original: it puts African American women squarely front and center. In doing so, it neither has them waiting to exhale nor cooking soul food, but bringing to life tragic heroines of all-too-real modern times. And they get to drive stolen cars and shoot submachine guns too.

It's not that this story isn't told pretty much according to formula. The motivation for the characters is clearly laid out, acted upon, and earns the expected results. But in setting the stage for the four friendsFrankie (Vivica A. Fox), Cleo (Queen Latifah), Stoney (Jada Pinkett), and T-T (Kimberly Elise)to form a bank-robbing gang, Gray draws from inner city, black, female experience. When Frankie justifies their turn to crime by declaring "We just takin' away from the systemthat's fucking us all anyway" the viewer knows what is going down. In previous scenes, black and white bosses alike have used sexism, racism, and homophobia to cheat the four out of jobs and money. The police have descended on their neighborhood in SWAT teams and shot their innocent family members; stern child protection workers have taken their kids away from them because they can't afford childcare.

Driven to extremes, the friends remain amateur thieves at best, and greed soon rends solidarity. But friendship proves the lasting bond. Although they have different ideas what their money should be spent oncars and women, an escape hatch, making the same life a little more bearablethese women are there for each other until the bitter end. Even the white cop who obsessively tracks them down seems to finally get, in the midst of the mayhem, what the friends are up against.

Of course, a romantic subplot is used to move the story along; it sticks out as the least believable element of a fairly realistic situation. Stoney takes up with a bank manageran African-American Harvard Business School grad, no lesswho only wants to make her dinner and make love to her. Don't get me wrongit's a nice fantasy, but clearly is just that.

The film Set It Off could be considered a black Thelma and Louise (with a twist on the no-way-out ending), or a female Boyz N The Hood. Except that in focusing on elements of African American women's experience, it reveals a less-explored set of issues which are finally making it onto the big screen. So why haven't you heard of it? Good question.

The official studio website for this film has expired.

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