I am on a mission here. I make no bones about it; I’m on a mission to persuade every genteel, white moviegoer like me—the kind who eschews violent or even just action films, whose idea of movie-generated fear is River Wild—I’m telling you to go out and rent Set It Off. Chances are you didn’t see it when it came around, dismissing it as an inane, violent gangsta flick having nothing to say about life and the human condition. I’ve got news for you: Set it Off is much more than a shoot-‘em-up: it’s an engrossing, moving tragedy about the lives of young black urban women. It was on television last weekend, and got me worked up all over again.
In a role that should’ve earned her an Oscar, an endearingly young Queen Latifah plays Cleo, a butch lesbian who lives in a garage with her blond bombshell girlfriend. Jada Pinkett Smith is Stony, whose whole life is her beloved brother; Frankie, played by Vivica Fox, is a bank teller working her way, or so she thinks, up the corporate ladder; and Kimberly Elise is Ti-ti, a single mother in danger of losing her son to social services. Having grown up together, the four of them are intimate in the way of friends with a shared history. For a dollop of romance, Blair Underwood, as a hotshot banker, pursues Stony. That’s about as much of the story I’m going to reveal—but it’s certainly not all I have to say on the subject.
Set It Off came out a few years before Jesse Jackson began rattling sabers about Hollywood’s treatment of African-Americans, before Halle Berry won the Academy Award for Monsters Ball (the first since Mammy in Gone With the Wind), and before Denzel Washington got it for Training Day—both in 2001. I don’t know if Jackson had Set It Off in mind, but I did, even before his short-lived anti-Academy campaign. I would have missed it myself if not for my sister, whose friends are almost all African-American; she rented it when I was visiting, ostensibly to get me “pumped up” before we went out on the town. In fact, when it was over I was a puddle of exhausted weeping–apparently she’d forgotten the movie’s ultimate effect.
I came home from that visit and told every one of my friends to rent Set It Off. They all doubted me, but I was insistent. They thanked me later, and we still talk about the outrage of Set It Off having never gotten the accolades or the awards it deserves.
At that time, film was about as segregated as the neighborhoods in most American cities (this may have changed somewhat). Another movie neglected around the same time by the (white) moviegoing public was The Five Heartbeats —which is even crazier, considering it’s a rock ‘n’ roll movie. I went to see it three times in three different theaters, and on each occasion I was in the minority as a white person; the first time I saw it, in a predominantly Asian neighborhood, I was the only non-black person in the theater. What is wrong with white people?!?
Here’s what a reviewer on IMDB says of Set It Off:
This movie gives us a graphic insight into the possibility of what people might do under certain circumstances…Their participation in criminal activity is a crying-out against the evils of their society … we find ourselves rooting for them – even hoping that they get away with it. Each character reveals a problematic area in our working society: unfair employment and termination practices, inadequate childcare options, hindrances and distractions of the ghetto and other social plights and dilemmas…
(please see this movie…)
I love that little “please see this movie” at the end. That’s probably the way a lot of people feel about Set It Off, and it’s exactly what I’m telling everyone, albeit less politely:
SEE THIS FLICK NOW!