‘Set It Off’ and the Black feminist lessons it still holds for us
Fuck this system that makes us hate ourselves and tie our worth to our productivity.
This essay contains spoilers for Set It Off, and discusses sexual exploitation and state violence
“Women respond to racism. My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also.”
—Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger”
A Black man recently, and without provocation, tried to explain to me that one of my favorite films, F. Gary Gray’s 1996 classic Set It Off—written by Takashi Bufford and Kate Lanier—is a “bad movie.” It did not go the way he thought it would. Not long after that, I read that Issa Rae (Insecure) is producing and plans to star in a remake of the film for New Line Cinema, with Syreeta Singleton (Black Monday) and Nina Gloster (Star) co-writing the script. I am not happy about it.
Set It Off follows four Black women in L.A., struggling to find a way to live freely under the boot of capitalism. Stony (Jada Pinkett-Smith), Frankie (Vivica A. Fox), Cleo (Queen Latifah), and T.T. (Kimberly Elise) are close friends who have lived in the same hood their entire lives, and in addition to their economic woes, we also witness them come up against anti-Blackness, misogynoir, state violence, sexual exploitation, and queer antagonism.
For me, this is a seminal story which played a significant role in my understanding of Black feminist and anti-capitalist thought, theory, and praxis. I won’t have it smeared in my presence, nor will I celebrate its bastardization by the endlessly derivative, gatekeeping Hollywood machine lazily seeking to capitalize on our nostalgia.
This film has been teaching me lessons since before I had the language to articulate them—since before I even knew I needed them. I revisit it consistently, each time taking away something new and necessary. Each time, I come away with tears, and anger, and hope. I feel more radical and anarchist, more deeply rooted in my Black feminism, more ready to fuck up every system that keeps women like Stony, Frankie, Cleo, and T.T. disenfranchised, downtrodden, and desperate.
It all begins with a robbery at the bank where Frankie works, pulled off by three men from the neighborhood. Shortly after being yelled at by the white investigating officer for not being able to follow the security procedure while a gun was pointed at her, she is promptly terminated by her white employer and is even accused of collusion. She gets angry and, of course, he tells her to “calm down,” because anger is never seen as a rational or valid response from Black women when we’ve been done wrong. Frankie soon reluctantly joins her friends Stony, Cleo, and T.T. at Luther’s Janitorial Services where the women do custodial work in affluent spaces and dream of a better life.
Stony soon finds herself being extorted for sex by Nate, a middle-aged business man from the neighborhood, when she turns to him for financial help to pay her younger brother’s college tuition. Because men like Nate never do anything for women like Stony without expecting something in return, and women like Stony are taught from birth that they ought to be willing to sacrifice their peace, their sanity, their safety, and their bodies to support the Black men in their lives and help them move up in the world. Only hours after presenting her brother with a tuition check and learning that he lied about being accepted to college—a moment that always makes my stomach sink—he is murdered by police after being falsely identified as one of the bank robbers.
Frankie, Cleo, and T.T. are there to comfort Stony, and they hold her up even as they battle their own demons. Cleo, a butch queer woman, regularly experiences queerphobia and challenges to her womanhood. She lives in a garage and steals cars to help make ends meet. T.T. is a single mother who has her young son taken away by Child Protective Services and must prove to the courts that she has enough money to take care of her son.
Fed up with their lives of poverty and loss, the four women ultimately turn to bank robbery, with Frankie and Cleo being the most enthusiastic. When Stony and T.T. have reservations, Frankie says to them, “Look, we just taking away from a system that’s fucking us all anyway.” And goddamn if that ain’t the truth. Fuck this system that makes us hate ourselves and tie our worth to our productivity. This system that beats us down and then robs us of our time, our energy, our bodies, our health, our creativity, even our lives.
While casing one of the banks, Stony meets Keith, a middle-class, Harvard graduate and Bank Manager who is disconnected from the reality of poor, working-class Black people. When he asks Stony where she sees herself in five years, she doesn’t know. This frustrates him, and he laments, “This is what I’m talking about… We don’t plan for the future as a people.” He’s completely oblivious to the fact that people like Stony don’t get to plan the way he does, because he doesn’t feel the boot of capitalism and disenfranchisement on his neck the way she does. Later, Stony echoes Keith’s question to Cleo and her response is a summation of the feelings of countless Black folks in the belly of white America. “I don’t know. And I don’t care. Man, I ain’t thinking about five years from now. I’m just trynna get through the day.”
Even so, Keith introduces Stony to things she’s never known and takes her to places she’s never been. With him, she finds space to be able to embrace her sexual expression and autonomy in earnest after the sexual violation and exploitation she experiences with Nate. This is a message that so many of us need, for the most unfortunate reasons. Black women need to know that this is possible for us.
However, unlike most narratives, Set It Off does not focus on this romantic and sexual relationship as Stony’s source of happiness or fulfillment. It instead stays true to its core characters and allows her to place deserved value on her relationships with Black women. Stony chooses her friends, and then she chooses herself.
The film fully recognizes and acknowledges how the bond of a deep friendship with other Black women can be necessary and life-affirming. To have fellowship and camaraderie with women you would not just kill for, but die for. Our protagonists leave no question that they are in this shit together, and these four friends would each rather die than return to that world of compounded oppression—racism, sexism, misogyny, classism—or abandon each other to it. This story’s indisputable valuing of platonic relationships and intimacies will forever be a gift and an indispensable philosophy in my life.
“We will be ourselves and free, or die in the attempt. Harriet Tubman was not our great-grandmother for nothing.”
—Alice Walker, “You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down”
Set It Off has so many still-relevant lessons, and it has been teaching them for more than twenty years. In it, I find lessons about Black womanhood and its relationship to capitalism, anger, sex, relationships, and friendships with other Black women, and I see a cathartic display of bucking up against expectations of each one of these. This story will forever remain close to my Black feminist heart.
Even when Black men try to convince me that it isn’t any good—perhaps because it never centers them and, in fact, demonstrates how Black men can create as many barriers in our lives as white people do—and even when Hollywood players insist on remaking or rebooting it because they no longer see its ability to stand on its own. It doesn’t deserve to be blanketly called a “bad movie” by people it was never truly meant for, and it doesn’t deserve to get chewed up by the opportunistic Hollywood nostalgia machine, and that is a hill I am willing to die on. I hope you will revisit Set It Off and contemplate its lessons.