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Entertainment Weekly

Movies

Why Set It Off is an era-defining film that shouldn't be remade

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This era of constant remakes is starting to give fans nostalgia fatigue. The constant remakes over originals show a lack of creativity from the Hollywood machine and a demonstrated resistance to move on from what’s familiar — because of the loss of nostalgia-fueled money. But one thing we don’t talk about as much is how certain films are lightning in a bottle — that there are random, perfect events that came together to bring a film into existence.

One such film is Set It Off, a heist film that follows four tight-knit friends who decide to start robbing banks after experiencing a series of economic setbacks. The film is reportedly up for a remake that would be produced by and potentially star the indomitable Issa Rae. While I wish to celebrate black creatives, attempting to recreate a seamless film like Set It Off appears like an exercise in futility and a set-up for potential failure.

And here’s why:

Casting and Cast Chemistry

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There’s no way a movie like Set It Off works without a certain caliber of actors coming together to make it believable. Screenwriter Takashi Bufford originally wrote the film with Jada Pinkett-Smith (who plays Stony) and Queen Latifah (who plays Cleo) in mind. And as fate would have it, the two were already good friends (and have been so for over thirty years now) who met at a Baltimore club as teenagers. The addition of the venerable Vivica A. Fox (who plays Frankie) and newcomer Kimberly Elise (who plays T.T.) turn this into a flawless cast. Who could have pulled off a character like Stony but Pinkett-Smith, who’s familiar with playing the everygirl? Both Pinkett-Smith and Stony are the girl-next-the-door. The girl you kick it with. What of Cleo? Who else could have portrayed her but rapper-turned-actress Latifah, who sells us on a character who is both perfectly tragic, heroic, and defiant? As Frankie, Fox, both scrappy and smart in this role, brings her own spirit of defiance, letting us know what she deserves and how she’s gonna get it. And as T.T., Elise’s portrayal of the timidly doe-eyed, yet cut-throat mother is irreplaceable. 

Further proof of Pinkett-Smith’s and Latifah’s perfect chemistry can be seen in Girls Trip, which came out nearly 20 years later and even included a nod to their Set It Off characters in the scene where the four friends (which also include Regina Hall and Tiffany Haddish) put on wigs and duck into a club.

The chemistry that the Set It Off stars produced — where I could believe their self-sacrificing comradeship and sisterhood — is not easily replicated.

Historical Context

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Set It Off is a perfect time capsule. It’s a film about the ’90s that takes place in the ’90s. No rose-colored glasses are walking you through what is but a memory of the decade. Director F. Gary Gray, an Los Angeles denizen, places you within it and forces you to engage with its trappings. Set in Los Angeles during the mid-1990s, the film was released four years after the Rodney King trial and the uprising that followed, and just two years after then-president Bill Clinton signed the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act into law, which accelerated mass incarceration and further built on the already racist legacy of Reagan’s “War on Drugs” that decimated black communities in this country. Set It Off doesn’t latch onto this context in a way that is gimmicky the way a movie made later about the same era might. It uses this context to elevate itself from a normal heist film to one that could realistically occur if a black woman was pushed to the brink in a country that wants to punitively grind her into the dust.

The Black, Female Working Class

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The film goes out of its way to address the plight of specifically poor black women. While terms like “Working Class” and “Blue Collar” are often reserved for a specific type of American — usually white, usually male — Set It Off extends these to black women and seeks to capture their experiences in an incredibly empathetic way. At the time, Set It Off was compared to Waiting To Exhale, because, uh, there are four black women in each of them, so they must be the same, right? This is an erroneous assumption. Waiting to Exhale focuses more on middle-to-upper class black women whose pursuit of love and success is complicated by the expectations of black womanhood. In contrast, Set It Off encapsulates a different element when it comes to black womanhood: survival.

Set It Off explores what it’s like as a black woman trying to make an honest living and presents multiple systematic obstacles that make that nearly impossible. Stony, who is raising her brother by herself, successfully manages to get him into college only to see him die in a disgusting display of police brutality. T.T. is a dedicated mom who wants to take care of her kid, but when he gets hurt on the job with her because she couldn’t afford childcare, he is taken away by the state. Frankie attempts to adhere to the bootstrapper blueprint by landing a decent banking job, only for the opportunity to be taken away from her because she happens to live in the same projects as a man who robs her bank. Cleo has already been pushed to the edge of society as a butch black lesbian, but seeing her subject to a combination of racism, misogyny, and homophobia as a service worker (by her black boss) is a hard pill to swallow.

 

The film also seamlessly puts this experience in conversation with the various black men in their lives. Set It Off does not focus on these men, of course, but it creates an interesting dichotomy of poor black men as both accomplice and antagonist to poor black women. It does this in a way that is very specific to the black female working class, as central figures in their communities, and in a way that I don’t think has been as successfully replicated since.

Is it arrogant to presume that any regular film is impossible to remake? Maybe. Is it ignorant to declare that it is too sacred to remake? Perhaps. But Set It Off clearly isn’t just a regular film. And it shouldn’t be treated like one.

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