In many ways, Set It Off is one of the most underappreciated and underrated hood films of the mid-90s. Sure, when it dropped in ’96 it was hailed as one of the most gangsta flicks of all-time, but as the years passed, it feels as if it’s just gotten lost in the shuffle. Bunched in with all the other “inner-city films” of that era like Boyz N The Hood, New Jack City, Menace II Society, Juice, and King of New York.
In this case, I’d have to say that Set It Off was the Labcabincalifornia of its era. It was original, creative, had great production value, and was a good representation of its environment in that particular period of time.
A film about four young women ( Jada Pinkett-Smith before Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica Fox, and Kimberly Elise) turned bank robbers, Set It Off was, in essence, Boyz N The Hood, Thelma & Louise, and Waiting To Exhale all balled into one cinematic experience. A film that reminded the masses that women can be every bit as cold, bold and ready-to-be-paroled as men when they’re pushed to the brink. All the while, the characters demonstrated that the bond between sisters can be every bit as tight as those of brothers.
Not to mention, this film helped with the continuance of the female empowerment movement in hip-hop during an era that saw the meteoric rise of “gangsta b*tches” such as Lady of Rage, Lil’ Kim, Da Brat, Foxy Brown, and Lauryn Hill (who wasn’t a “gangsta b*tch,” but whose gangsta on the mic was way more respected than the self-prescribed thuggery of the aforementioned ladies).
This scene (and entire movie in general) not only epitomizes the “one for all, all for one” methodology that we grew up abiding by on the block, but it also helped take Queen Latifah’s acting career to the next level.
With the chips down, coke flat and the smell of bacon closing in on them, Cleo (Latifah) knew that she could either ride and die with her sisters-at-arms by her side or distract the police long enough to allow her partners-in-crime to dip with the cash. Knowing that her friends had more to live for than she did, she kicked them out of the car and ran interference long enough for her friends to make a run for it, and she did it well. Police converged on her six-fo’ until they had her completely surrounded.
After looking around and assessing the situation, Cleo lights a cigarette, takes a pull, sheds a tear that probably tattooed itself on her face, and straight rides to the end. This was her Thelma & Louise moment, but she didn’t need anyone to hold her hand through it. She knew she would rather die than go on an iron vacation, so she took her fate into her own hands and rode it out. She was as thorough as early Ronda Rousey in an octagon and twice as fearless.
Even after her car got Swiss-cheesed, Cleo didn’t stand down and concluded her life with one final move ripped from Scarface’s handbook. With a Two-Toned 9mm Uzi in one hand and her balls in the other, Cleo got out of her car and tried to take as many people with her as possible, but her final stand ended with her getting riddled with more bullets than a Jamaican’s résumé (word to In Living Color).
Though it isn’t as critically acclaimed as a Menace II Society or regarded as “culturally significant” as a Boyz N The Hood, Set It Off is a movie whose value can’t be defined by the amount of money it made, number of critics it impressed or even how popular it was at the time.
In Septemebr of 2019, Variety reported that “Insecure” star and co-creator Issa Rae was in early development on a re-imagining of New Line’s crime thriller “Set It Off”—the original starred Jada Pinkett-Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica Fox, and Kimberly Elise.
The only way to really have an idea of the significance of this movie is to have been there when it dropped, and that’s impossible to do. The same way I’ll never understand why rich socialites from the ’60s held Breakfast At Tiffany’s in such high regard, they’ll probably never comprehend why this movie is treasured by not only me, but countless others who were around for the era when music and film were our ghetto CNN.