Set it Off (1996)

This tale of bankrobbing ladies from the LA projects starts out with a robbery with one of the leads on the other side of the counter. Vivica A. Fox’s Frankie is a bank teller panicked out of following procedure and tries to talk down the gunman from her neighborhood. The robbery turns into a bloodbath. In the ensuing investigation John C. McGinley’s Detective Strode (a jerk, as he oft plays), inadvertently sets Frankie and her pals on the path to larceny themselves. His suspicion pushes Frankie’s employers into firing her for losing her cool during the robbery ostensibly, but really for the crime from coming from the same neighborhood (and *cough* sharing another similarity) with the robber.

Because see the thing is, Frankie is friends with Stoney (dangerous sprite mode Jada Pinkett), Cleo (badass mode Queen Latifah) and TT (a because someone had to be the “nice one” Kimberly Elise). The four of them already have the strikes of being lower income, black and female against them. When more tragic events occur in their lives in a hastily scripted manner, naturally it’s time to get to what we all came to this movie for and have them rob some goddamn banks, and boy howdy do they.

The camaraderie between the four actresses flows beautifully, and the scenes where they’re just goofing off together are just the best. I would have watched such an extended cut of the four of them at the shooting range (run by a sly Dr. Dre). While two-gun marksman Cleo is pretty boss, whatever Vivica A. Fox was doing with her facial expression there was bloody brilliant.

The first bank that TT and Stoney case, Blair Underwood smolders his way over to Stoney while she’s casing a bank, and asks her out. This is presumably to keep anyone watching from being nervous that maybe all of these women (not just the fantastically unapologetically queer Cleo) don’t enjoy the company of men (nudge nudge). He also serves the purpose of being someone who actually treats Stoney like she’s a worthwhile interesting person, and to be part of an extremely 90s sex scene with candlelight, R&B and lots of massages that I’m sure were quite awkward to film. Off topic, but my heart also leapt at the 90sness of the idea of having to find a CD to play in the car and if none appeared to be worthy of this car journey, to be handed a cassette!

The bad: is it underwritten? Heavens yes. Seemingly the research consisted of learning three tricks about bank robbery procedure and watching a couple of FBI movies. There are more than a few Lifetime-style plot turns and real questionable character choices made in aid of plot.

But to be overly concerned about that is to miss the forest for the trees. Which is (1) This is a movie with four black female leads with distinct personalities from each other responding to societal adversity in a way that neither limits their responses to the nurturing feminine variety, nor ignores the fact that they are women and that impacts their experience of the world and (2) they totally rob banks, look like bosses doing it and make it seem like they’re having a ball. The occasional wrong note doesn’t take away from the parts of this movie that flirt into art: a switching on of car hydraulics that says everything about what’s going to happen, Stoney’s flip answer to a banker about her profession, the palpable glee the four of them feel at finally getting ahead.

As a connoisseur of bank robbery movies, I’d put this in the canon.

This movie was shown at Metrograph as part of its Queer Nineties retrospective. It appears to be available on Youtube and is also available on Netflix DVD. Lady Picture Show recommends viewing with wine alongside your own genius secret plan for bank robbery (you know you have one).