Set It Off: making you care and breaking your heart
I don’t know how many times I watched Set It Off as a kid. Certainly more than I can count. There’s a real joy to going back to a movie you’ve loved, having regained unawareness of how it ends. That was the case when I sat down one afternoon recently as rain crashed outside and started the movie back up.
There are plenty of stories of how studio interference has ruined movies, with directors of more or less enjoyably middling films like Event Horizon, Fantastic Four, and Justice League claiming that their movie would have been a Magnificent Ambersons, Blade Runner or Brazil were it not for some meddling executives. (Science fiction titles, which rely heavily on world-building, seem especially prone to this kind of dispute). Set It Off is a movie that ended up being as good as it is in large part due to New Line Cinema repeatedly putting its finger in the pie.
Having seen Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise, producer Helena Echegoyan pitched Takashi Bufford, screenwriter of House Party 3, on the premise, which he developed into a full story. According to Bufford, Friday director F. Gary Gray was brought in for budgetary reasons. Both Bufford and Gray were operating at the very edge of their capacity and turned in some of the best work of their careers in this 1996 release. It’s fun watching artists who do not yet know what they’re capable of going all out.
The studio didn’t leave them alone. It looked for changes to the script, notably adding in backstory for the four main characters. The only trace of the crack addiction the original script gave to one character that remained in the shooting script was her name: Stoney. Some critics saw all the quiet, individualized character development as creating a certain unevenness in the movie’s first half-hour, but it does a great job of making you care about these people. The most important character of the movie’s second half is not the first one to show up on screen, and is no more beloved by the camera than her co-stars. As a result, when characters start to fall into jeopardy later on, the movie hasn’t telegraphed who will survive, making each round of danger that much more meaningful.
What early critics saw as unevenness, then, was something like what Scott had done twenty years before in Alien, giving viewers no warning as to whom they should care more for. Characters are sufficiently rounded that the movie has time to look at those of their flaws which do not prove to be plot-motivating. Cleo is a spendthrift who mixes a short temper with a fondness for gunplay; the former isn’t her undoing, and the latter ends up underscoring her heroism. Frankie often believes herself to be above her circumstances, but she’s not the character that walks off the job. Stoney might risk being an uncentered assemblage of tropes (the harridan mother figure with the martyr complex, the cynic, Cinderella, and so on), though Jada Pinkett, who plays the role, gives such a bravura performance that not only does this not happen, but also, rather than feeling like it’s being spoonfed a growth narrative, the audience feels that it’s seeing new sides of Stoney at precisely the moment that she’s discovering them herself. Queen Latifah, playing Cleo in her first leading role in a movie, nearly steals every scene she’s in (it’s clear why Pinkett wanted that role for herself). It’s a sign of how much good acting is going around when Vivica Fox playing a character who takes no shit from anybody slowly ends up becoming the least interesting of the four leads. When they are all in the frame together (as they often are) it is very hard to decide who to watch.
As with the characters, so with the plot. The movie suggests Stoney will have a pat reason to start robbing banks (her kid brother needs tuition money!) and then yanks that out from under the audience in a heartrending sequence. It suggests that the final score will be motivated mainly by a desire to get Ti Sean enough money to pull her baby out of foster care, and then takes another left turn. While the plot beats are quite formulaic, the turns the story takes to get to them deepens our view of the characters’ world while undermining any expectations we might have about who will do what and why.
Set It Off does a great job of portraying systemic racism and injustice without needing to personify it. When Frankie is unjustly fired in a police station after having been robbed at gunpoint on the job, she snaps at one person: the black detective who didn’t offer her water during her questioning. In some ways, the scene is the movie in a nutshell: a racist and heartless system grinds down one of the main characters, and she reacts in a believable way that nonetheless doesn’t offer the fairytale catharsis of watching her stick it to the source of oppression.
Not everything works well. There’s a soft-focus sex scene that is very, umm, of its time. Even that is folded into a love story that is as much about class, money, power, and danger as it is about romance, ensuring we don’t stray too far. A white police detective, played by John C. McGinley, would not be written the same today, but overall, there’s a real pleasure in the movie’s non-misplaced faith that audiences will get who the real villain is without ever turning its gaze for long from the four black women at the center of the story. (A good marker of where the movie invested its time: by the time the final credits rolled, I’d forgotten the name of McGinley’s character).
Set It Off is a heist film, after all, and money and power are big. A meta-story about the movie illustrates how these forces come together in unexpected ways. More than half of the budget went to secure rights to the theme music to The Godfather which plays over a scene of the four main characters goofing off. (It was another scene that divided critics, with reaction differing based on whether you see it as an ill-placed homage or satire by the filmmakers, or a window into four friends enjoying one another’s company and not caring what others might think). The soundtrack to Set It Off became a bestseller in 1996, but it was this old song that cost more than all these fine actors put together.
Watching Set It Off in 2021 was difficult. The opening scene gets gory almost without warning, and the realist tone of the whole movie telegraphs that the four friends are not headed for a storybook ending. Roger Ebert rightly compared it favorably to 1995’s Waiting to Exhale, but, especially in the current environment, the awareness that you’re going to be denied a happily ever after is often hard to take. I had to pause the show twice to go for a walk before coming back to it. Neither time was it because of violence (American cinema does inure audiences to that — there’s a waterboarding scene in a comic book movie!). Both times, it was because the characters were in a moment of unleavened joy that it was clear would not last. (You could call this the don’t-break-my-heart-with-Blair-Underwood objection). In all seriousness, one of the intriguing things about romantic subplots in sad stories is that you never know when or how they will end. Certainly with Set It Off, happiness is where the movie’s heartbreak starts. You know why Stoney doesn’t give into the excitement of it all.
Not every character meets a terrible end. And the one that walks away doesn’t have her specialness in the moment telegraphed too heavily: the movie doesn’t need to give her a smiling baby or a smooch from a boyfriend in the final frame in order to signify her success.
I guess I don’t know what to do. Do I watch this movie every year from now on, reveling in its performances, direction, and writing? Or do I go another decade or more without seeing it again, in hopes that I may one more time have the heartrending thrill of watching it without knowing what will happen?Issa Rae is supposedly developing a “re-imagining,” of Set It Off, so when I see it again may not be entirely up to me.