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'Set It Off' Holds Up Well

Esther Iverem
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 06, 1996

Just in time, now that all the election doublespeak is over, F. Gary Gray's new film, "Set It Off," hits hard at a central theme in American life today: scoring big money by means respectable or not. "Set It Off" could also serve as a bellwether for race relations in this country. To the extent that Americans of all tribes understand the rage of its four women whirling through young adulthood in south-central Los Angeles, we might all be saved.

In two hours, and with a big assist from gripping performances by Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett and Vivica A. Fox, Gray turns upside down popular, racist images of lazy black "welfare queens." He shows, instead, four women more representative of not only poor blacks but poor Americans in general. They work nights for a janitorial service. They earn so little that they have no hope of escaping the claws of a crime-ridden environment and a lack of education.

So they decide to rob banks.

Maybe there will be other movies about crazed postal workers, graduate students or professionals mangled in the white-collar maw who decide to take up the gun. But this is a story of women -- literally cleaning the dirt of corporate America for a living -- who redefine what is legitimate. They decide to break the rules when they realize the game is set up for them to lose.

Frankie, the character played by Fox, turns criminal after being fired from a bank for knowing one of the young men who robbed her branch. They grew up in the same housing project. Her suit splattered with the blood of someone killed during the holdup, she pleads, "I can't help who I know!" This emotionally charged opening sequence of the robbery and her firing has to rank alongside scenes in "Norma Rae," "Matewan" and "Silkwood" as one of the best about the American workplace.

When the foursome, wearing wigs and sunglasses, begin robbing banks, the urban drama turns into an action flick. This story line may divide audiences the way "Thelma & Louise" did in 1991. The divisions may be along racial, gender or class lines. Law-and-order types and those who have been victims of a crime may be turned off. But the scenes work, just as surely as those from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." We root for the four women as underdogs and models of the 1990s antihero. Tisean, played by Kimberly Elise, for example, needs money to retrieve her son from the clutches of a social services agency. He was taken from her after she couldn't afford a babysitter and took him to her job, where he was injured.

"Set It Off" grants bank robbers more than cinema chic. It bestows them moral authority.

Most of this legitimacy is created through performances by the actresses. Pinkett, as she has in the past, plays the tough pretty girl. But here she is more than a girlfriend. She is beginning to lose that sleepy-eyed look of a young seductress. Like her character, Stony, she is beginning to open her eyes.

Queen Latifah steals the show, investing a lot of fire, spit and vinegar into the character of Cleo. By taking the role of a lesbian, Latifah thumbs her nose at those who have labeled her and other female rappers as gay. In perhaps stereotypical fashion, Cleo acts as the tough of the group. She mows down her foes, handling a Beretta submachine gun with one hand. She gives the movie its hip-hop flavor, articulating, with every scowl, crooked smile or expression of dead-serious intent, the attitudes of twentysomethings who have hit society's wall.

Latifah's performance goes a long way toward giving the film its power. Gray could have done more with the office work scenes, which are rendered sterile in comparison with the nasty work cleaning crews often do. The actresses work hard to give spark to some of the predictable scenes and dialogue in the screenplay by Kate Lanier and Takashi Bufford. Their fine work eclipses the fact that the film gives us very little information about most of them. Latifah's past, for example, is almost a complete mystery. But we accept her swagger and anger because something shown this convincingly must be real.

Set It Off is rated R.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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