Frankie Sutton (Vivica A. Fox) had a job as a bank teller before the unthinkable happened and one day she recognised someone from her neighbourhood in the queue. Alas, he was a bad sort and when he reached her post he pulled a gun on her and demanded cash, no matter that she was trying to talk him out of it when his two cohorts started yelling at everyone to get down. To make matters worse, he grabbed a woman from the line and ordered Frankie to hand over the bills, and when she was frozen with fear, he put a bullet in the hostage's head. A melee erupted that saw one of the robbers get away and the other two dead - and Frankie lost her job. Now she's desperate...
And so are three of her friends who we are supposed to believe are driven by this poverty into a life of crime, despite evidence that not every woman who is struggling to make ends meet takes up bank robbery. But then, Set It Off was a fantasy of empowerment in a dubious setting, telling us that if the men could feel ten feet tall by pulling off a heist, so could the women, even though there was much here that spoke to playing movie star rather than appealing to the real-life problems many endure that the characters were supposed to be representing. It was a film that flopped in its day, but found an audience on home video, to the extent that it received a belated director's cut.
You would be hard pressed to find the original, snappier version that was released in cinemas now, which is a pity when that two-hour incarnation is a bit of a slog that wallows in its heroines' issues then only intermittently springs to life when director F. Gary Gray had an action sequence to deliver. Though he had emerged as a music video director, he had a bona fide hit in Friday, the comedy with Ice Cube which was curious as one of the criminals here, played by Queen Latifah, was essentially an impression of him, should he have been a butch lesbian, making one wonder whether that was Latifah's choice as some tribute or other, or whether Gray suggested she portray her that way.
Whichever, at least she provided grit and her tough girl act was something different for the heist genre, as one had to admit, was all the soap opera melodrama the quartet had to wade through until they could let their hair down in the more kinetic scenes. There was only so much self-pity you could take before you twigged Set It Off was intended to make the audience cry, not something inspired by all those heist efforts peopled by men. But this was the nineties, and African-American movies were emerging from the New Black Cinema from a social conscience to a more crowd-pleasing format across the board, effectively landing those subsequent issue movies in a ghetto they would only occasionally pop up from, such as Oscar-winner Moonlight.
In this fashion, Set It Off certainly levelled the playing field where black performers would not simply appeal to their own specific race when they were in movies, and proved that there was a valid, wider interest in such actors that previously would not have even crossed the minds of the movers and shakers, aside from megastars of the Sidney Poitier or Eddie Murphy variety. That was encouraging, but it remained a hoary old tale of poor souls swamped by their circumstances otherwise, not too different from social pictures of the past sixty years, only this had black celebrities like Jada Pinkett Smith in the lead, being romanced by oblivious banker Blair Underwood doing his best Billy Dee Williams impersonation. Otherwise, it felt uncomfortably manipulative, not only of the viewer but the four females it followed, building them up in successes then punishing them severely when those successes were illegal. It is a cult movie, and it does satisfy some, but for what it represented you may wish it was better.