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Making 'Set It Off'

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”Four beautiful black women toting Uzis, and they’re mad!” growls director F. Gary Gray in a mocking, Ripley’s Believe It or Not baritone. ”I can hear it on MovieFone now.”

Set It Off does happen to tell the story of four women — played by Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett (The Nutty Professor), Vivica Fox, and newcomer Kimberly Elise — and they are beautiful, not to mention armed and prone to robbing banks when they get annoyed. But what started out five years ago as an exploitation film about women robbing a bank has become — thanks to a white female rewriter, two white male producers, one black male director, and the four black women who make up its cast — a hybrid: One minute the women are bonding; the next, they’re involved in car chases that would make Bruce Willis proud.

It has also become something significant for Hollywood. As the only movie about black women since last winter’s box office success, Waiting to Exhale, Set It Off, which opened on 1,000 screens, represents a test case the industry will be watching closely. If the film fails, Exhale may be written off as a one-shot phenomenon. But if it succeeds, Set It Off could cement the importance of the black female moviegoing audience as a commercial force.

That wasn’t even a possibility in 1991, when House Party 3‘s Takashi Bufford wrote a girlz-‘n’-the-hood take on four women who turn to bank robbery out of financial desperation. Producer Dale Pollack (Mrs. Winterbourne) started shopping it around in 1992 on the assumption, he says, ”that if a 46-year-old white guy from Cleveland, Ohio, could relate, anybody could.” Instead, ”everyone passed. I went to every major black producer. We met with virtually every director. They felt that the film was a contradiction in terms — it wouldn’t get the male audience because it was about women, and it wouldn’t get the female audience because it was an action picture.”

New Line had said no five times when director F. Gary Gray, in the wake of New Line’s 1995 dopehead comedy hit Friday, expressed interest. ”I thought the concept of four women robbing a bank was great,” says Gray. ”But I wanted to contemporize the idea.” Eager to keep the 26-year-old Gray happy, the studio commissioned Kate Lanier (What’s Love Got to Do With It) to rewrite what the filmmakers say was a clichéd script about ”four bad bitches,” and to show that women with a proclivity for sociopathic activities could be sympathetic. Lanier added motivations for the characters to turn outlaw — e.g., one woman’s murdered crack-addict older brother became her murdered, college-bound younger brother — and beefed up the action. When Pinkett read the new script, she agreed to sign on — but instead of the even-tempered Stony, she wanted to play Cleo, the tequila-guzzling lesbian. ”I thought it would be hilarious to have this little short girl play this macho lesbian,” she says. Gray disagreed: ”The thought made me laugh. She said, ‘What about casting opposite?’ and I was like, ‘Not that opposite.”’

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