"They Rejected It 3 Times": The Making of 'Set It Off'
By Stereo Williams
Set It Off is a movie that made an immediate impact on its audience. Granted, the bank heist action/thriller from F. Gary Gray polarized critics when it initially hit theaters in 1996, but for young Black moviegoers, this story about four badass Black women fighting through personal hardship and plotting robberies was the best kind of adrenaline-fueled escapism. Bank heist movies weren't new territory (Michael Mann's Heat hit theaters just a prior to Set It Off), but to see Black women in such a film was an unexpected breath of fresh air. And those four leads (Jada Pinkett, Vivica Fox, Kimberly Elise and Queen Latifah) became etched in Black popular culture.
But it wasn't a given that this movie would even get made. F. Gary Gray had just directed one of the sleeper hits of 1995, the stoner comedy Friday. That movie had been Gray's first foray into feature films after a noteworthy career directing music videos like Ice Cube's "It Was A Good Day" and "Waterfalls" for TLC. For his next film, Gray would read a script that blew him away. A pulse-pounding crime movie with Black women at the center, this was a major risk, high reward situation.
"I actually wrote it for Jada and Queen Latifah," he said. "I didn’t know them but they had the look and the vibe that I was looking for. When you are doing a Black film, [there] are only a handful of stars that are bankable to get a Black film done and they were the two stars at the time. When the script went out to them, it was an immediately 'yes' on their part and we were able to move forward. I didn’t know Kimberly (Elise) and I met Vivica (A. Fox) on set. It was a movie that had to succeed on the chemistry between the four characters; so you needed four actors that could deliver on that. That’s what we went for."
Latifah had been known as a Hip-Hop star for years, having scored hits like "Ladies First," "Come Into My House," "Just Another Day" and "U.N.I.T.Y." She'd made the leap to acting with small roles in movies like Jungle Fever, Juice, and House Party 2 before she landed a starring role on the hit FOX sitcom "Living Single." Pinkett had become a household name via a starring turn on NBC's "A Different World" and early movie roles in films like Menace II Society and Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight. The movie's primary cast was rounded out with Fox, whose star was on the rise following a turn as Will Smith's girlfriend in action/sci-fi megahit Independence Day. Newcomer Kimberly Elise was making her feature film debut.
Latifah was taking the role of Cleo; a gun-toting, openly-gay, thrill junkie. The part was one of the movie's most noteworthy and it represented a huge opportunity for Latifah to show that she was a serious actress. But there was a problem: another of the movie's stars wanted the role of Cleo.
"Jada wanted to play Queen Latifah's character," Gray shared years later. "That was the best part in her mind. That was the juicy character. I convinced her that she had to be the center of reason." Cleo is an inarguable scene-stealer through the movie; making deals and shouting orders as the group's de facto leader and sparkplug. But Jada's character, the pragmatic Lida "Stony" Newsome, is the heart and soul of the movie. She's also a welcome counter to Cleo's explosive recklessness. The full cast includes Charles Robinson, Dr. Dre, W.C., John McGinley, Thomas Jefferson Bird and Blair Underwood. But the four women carry the story.
"When we took Set It Off to New Line Cinema, they rejected it three times," Bufford said in 2011. "And the reason they rejected it is that they thought Black males would not support a film with gunslinging Black females. That obviously proved not to be true."
There were other casting choices that wound up changing. The character of "Frankie" was expected to go to Rosie Perez, one of the more popular Latina actresses of the 1990s. Perez had starred in Do The Right Thing, White Men Can't Jump, Untamed Heart and had received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the 1993 drama Fearless. Perez ultimately turned down the role, and Fox won an audition. She immediately landed some encouragement from her Independence Day co-star, Will Smith.
“Will coached me for Set It Off in my trailer,” Fox said in an interview with Vulture. “He was dating Jada at the time. Guess he was trying to score some points and it worked, Will!”
Fiery Cleo and levelheaded Stony may be the two anchors, but Vivica Fox's Francesca "Frankie" Sutton is the movie's emotional pulse. Its Frankie's firing from her bank job—after being erroneously implicated in a robbery—that galvanizes the women to take desperate measures to resolve their respective situations. Frankie takes a job with Luther's Janitorial Services, working alongside her three best friends, which includes the mousy and reserved T.T. Williams (Elise). It's only after T.T. loses her son to Protective Services and Stony's little brother has been murdered by the police that they agree to join Cleo and Frankie's plan to rob banks. The women's circumstances make them somewhat sympathetic protagonists, even as they don wigs and guns to embark on their doomed scheme.
“Before Set It Off, I was the hot chick," Fox told Vulture in 2020. "I was [NBC sitcom] Out All Night. I’d modeled before, and I think people saw me a little bit bougie; like, the uppity pretty girl. Not knowing that I grew up two streets from the projects and I was, especially back then, as ghetto as the game. So I got my street cred.”
And Latifah's performance as Cleo was especially praised. The rapper/actress acknowledged that taking on the role was challenging for her. 30 years later, the Cleo character is seen as a groundbreaking moment for LGBTQ Black characters onscreen and a landmark performance in Latifah's movie career.
“When I got the role of amateur bank robber Cleo Sims in Set It Off, I sat down with my younger siblings and told them, ‘Listen, I’m playing a gay character. Your classmates might tease you or say negative things about it,’ ”Latifah recalled in 2017. “But I’m doing it because I believe I can bring positive attention to the gay African-American community, and I believe that I can do a great job as an actor.’ They understood, and when those things inevitably happened in school, they were OK with it.”
Made with a budget of $9 million, Set It Off was released on November 6, 1996, and the movie would go on to gross $41 million at the box office, a major success for a movie with modest expectations, and became New Line Cinema's biggest hit of 1996. The film had a major impact on the careers of its four leads: Elise became an in-demand character actress in Hollywood; earning major roles in Beloved, John Q and the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate. Latifah's turn as Cleo gave her major pull as a serious actress, taking her career to new heights, including an Oscar-nominated turn in Chicago, as well as appearances in a wide spectrum of films, from Stranger Than Fiction to The Last Holiday, all en route to becoming a Hollywood A-lister.
Fox followed Set It Off with major films like Soul Food, Two Can Play That Game and Kill Bill. She's amassed a lengthy career in film and television in the 25 years since she played Frankie; also appearing on hit shows like "Empire." And Jada Pinkett, (now Jada Pinkett-Smith), has not only starred in major blockbusters like Collateral, The Matrix: Revolutions, and Girl's Trip; she's created one of the internet's most popular talk series with her "Red Table Talk" show, alongside her daughter, Willow Smith, and her mother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris.
These women are clearly not defined by Set It Off, but the movie is undeniably impactful on both their careers and on the cinematic landscape of the past two decades. In the 25 years since the release of Set It Off, there has still been a dearth of action movies with Black female leads, but it's hard to not see the influence of F. Gary Gray's film on contemporary hits like Will Packer's Takers and the current Netflix western The Harder They Fall. Set It Off was released the same year of hits like Waiting To Exhale, movies that highlighted Black female experience and perspective. This was part of a wave, but still managed to stand on its own.
As such, fans don't want to see anyone touch the legacy of the classic.
Rumors swirled in 2020 that Issa Rae was planning a reimagining of Set It Off. The idea was slammed by fans (and original star Fox) before Rae made it clear that she had no intention of revisiting the beloved 90s film.
"Oh, I would never remake a classic," Rae told ET's Nischelle Turner in 2020. "I don't know where that came from."
25 years later, and in the midst of an ongoing national conversation surrounding police, crime and racism, a film like Set It Off serves as an example of Black storytelling that recognizes the role racism, sexism and systemic oppression play in so much American experience. It's informed by those themes, but not stifled by them in the tale it's spinning. T.T., Frankie, Cleo and Stony are all of us and that's what gives the story so much power. More than just a story of women who rob banks, it's a look at how sisterhood can fuel ambition, and how much the human spirit will endure before it says enough is enough.