[ALERT: This article contains TONS of spoilers for the movie Set it Off. You have officially been warned!]
“What are you looking at? I’m a bitch with a gun!” – Cleo
Whew! I just finished re-watching Set it Off for the umpteenth time and I am now wiping away tears as the end credits go up just like I did the first time. That Brandy, Tamia, Gladys and Chaka Khan “Missing You” cue gets me every time. I decided to return to the film for two reasons:
- Set it Off director F. Gary Gray is returning to the big screen this year with the release of Straight Outta Compton, the highly anticipated N.W.A. bio-pic (which increased anticipation with the drop of one of the best trailers I’ve seen in a LONG time). So, I thought this would be a good time to revisit what I believe is one of his classic works.
- On May 16th, HBO will be releasing Bessie, a biopic of the late great blues singer Bessie Smith who will be played by Queen Latifah. If the trailer and sneak peek character spots are anything to go by, this looks like it will be one of the most layered and powerful roles Queen Latifah has ever portrayed and so I thought this would be a good time to revisit one of the most classic characters she has ever brought to the big screen: Cleopatra Simms aka Cleo.
I’ll just lay my cards on the table from the jump: Set it Off is one of my favorite films of all time. I have a mental middle finger permanently saved for all the critics who gave it a 63% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a fist ready to rise in the air with a strong head nod to all the audience members who gave it a 90% approval rating.
Set it Off is a 1996 film that puts a twist on the classic heist film. Written by Takashi Bufford and Kate Lanier, it follows four friends: Stony (Jada Pinkett – not yet Smith), Cleo (Queen Latifah), Frankie (Vivica A. Fox) and Tisean aka T.T. (Kimberly Elise) who all grew up in the same projects and are dealing with economic realities that place real and tangible limitations on their abilities to dream, live and move. The stakes for each of them rise as various circumstances disrupt even their tenuous strategies of survival and they begin to think outside of the system that has led to their suffering. Their plan B? They start robbing banks.
I remember excitedly talking with my best friend about which characters we were most like. Neither of us had seen the movie (we were in middle school and were not allowed), but we used the trailers and the sneak peeks embedded in the music videos from songs on the soundtrack as reference points revelling in all the options of Black femininity that we had at our disposal. I remember years later finally being able to watch Set it Off as a teenager when it played one afternoon on television. I bawled my eyes out and was unable to recover for the rest of the day as I replayed the tragic final moments over and over in my mind. I finally watched the uncensored version when I bought the DVD as an adult and I remember feeling as though it was the first time I had ever seen the film. I was so INVOLVED in all of it. My heart was pounding in the car chase scenes in a way that it had never pounded in a car chase scene before. I felt like I was in that car with them and immediately started tripping as I realized how the limitations in the ways that I get to see myself on screen have affected my ability to connect to scenes in movies. Set it Off was the first (and perhaps only) film I had/have ever seen with a car chase scene featuring only Black women as the protagonists and I have never felt the same way about any car chase scene since.
Historically I connected the most with Stony but in the past few years each time I rewatch the film my attention has been captured almost entirely by the hilarious, passionate and fiercely loyal character of Cleo (rumour has it that Jada originally wanted to play Cleo because she saw her role as the juiciest). Now if you recall, at this time Queen Latifah was still mostly known through her rap music career where she rocked majestic turbans/crowns/headwraps and oozed Black pride. Her acting star was also beginning to rise through small guest roles in films such as Juice and House Party 2 as well as television shows such as Fresh Prince. Most significantly, in 1993 she became the lead in the hugely popular sitcom Living Single playing the level-headed editor and publisher Khadijah James (remember that Thursday night line-up in the 90’s on Fox? Martin, Living Single and New York Undercover were on back-to-back-to-back)
When Queen Latifah appeared for her first scene as Cleo in Set it Off though, there was no sign of the Afrocentric regalia she adorned in her rap career or the casual professionalism of her small-screen character. In fact, Cleo came out looking like the missing member of Bone Thugs N’ Harmony with a blow-dried afro, dark shades and a blunt. Cleo from the start carved her own distinct path in the film, constructing through her humour, anger, fierce loyalty and deep emotion a compelling and moving portrayal of a woman living by a ride-or-die philosophy.
Each of the primary characters in Set it Off are clearly painted with a specific background that contextualizes their decision to participate in armed robbery. In the short film Setting it Straight: The Making of Set it Off, Kate Lanier, the co-writer of the screenplay states that they had to write in a motivation for robbery that is not necessary for men in a typical bank heist film in order to make this storyline credible and real. In an interview conducted 15 years after the release of the film, Takashi Bufford reveals that this was a priority set by the studio and one that he felt was overdone and “resulted in a couple of themes being in the movie that I felt were superfluous.” For better or for worse these story lines set a structural pattern for the film and the way that the audience is moved to engage, invest and mourn with and for each character. Frankie is unfairly fired from her job as a bank teller and her lack of opportunity combined with (legitimate) bitterness for the way she is treated and desire to reclaim a pride that was shattered creates the necessary ingredients leading to her decision. Tisean’s financial woes working for Luther’s janitorial services are deepened in relation to her friends who work at the same place because she is a mother who has to pay for childcare. When Children’s Protective Services take her son away she is forced to find a way to prove that she is fit to take care of him and this assessment includes having the financial capacity to pay for childcare. Stony’s story is the central heartbeat of the film as we see her work without limit to not only provide for her younger brother but also to pay for his schooling so that she can get him out of the hood. His brutal wrongful murder by the police is the trigger that shifts her from easily dismissing the idea of robbing banks to throwing in her lot in with the group. The writers are calculated and deliberate in creating the necessary stakes to rationalize each woman’s distinct reasons for making their decision – except in the case of Cleo.
Relative to the other characters, Cleo’s back-story is not rooted in a particular trigger that forces her to consider what would previously have been easily dismissed. This absence of a trigger makes her the character that we are left to assume is automatically the most attuned to the idea because it already fits into her journey. Cleo is the one who initially suggests a bank heist, she is the one who is the most consistently excited about it and at the gun range she is the most at ease. Indeed when the police begin their investigation into the bank robberies, she is the easiest suspect in the crew to consider because of her already existing record in car theft. Cleo is working in the same dead-end janitorial service as the others, subject to the same verbal abuse of their supervisor Luther and dreams on the rooftop of a decent wage with her friends. But unlike Stony who (at least initially) wants that money for her brother and then later to get out of the hood or Tisean who wants that money to regain custody and take care of her son, Cleo’s desire for the dollar is less focused and more hazy than the others. She wants to get out of the hood with the crew, she wants a different life but is not sure of where she will go or what this different life will consist of. The only thing that is clear is her desire for respect and the goods that will help her gain it. A scene at a parking lot shows Cleo embarrassed when a dude from the hood (a small cameo played by the director F. Gary Gray) pulls up in his Cadillac laughing at her old ride (that she has apparently been fixing since the 7th grade). As a result it is no surprise that when they score their first hit, Cleo immediately celebrates by leaving the job where she is treated with no respect, souping up her ride and buying her girlfriend Ursula sexy lingerie. Cleo’s escape is living the Hip Hop version of the American dream.
With her cornrows, baggy pants, fresh white tees, love of Cadillacs and hydraulics, history of car theft and ease with guns Cleo’s masculinity is rooted in a very West Coast Hip Hop thug life (as defined and documented in 90’s rap music). As a stud/AG/butch queer woman, Cleo’s sexuality is cemented in the film as she is paired with Ursula, a beautiful femme woman who showers her with attention. Their relationship (the only depiction of a serious committed and long-term relationship in the film) is not a debate or a site of controversy and it is in that space of normalcy that it is the most transformative and powerful. It was the first queer relationship between Black women that I had ever seen on screen and it is unfortunate that one of the individuals in the relationship was literally silent the entire time. Ursula only has eyes and words for Cleo and pointedly dismisses or ignores her friends who attempt at various times to greet her and start conversation but promptly give side-eye’s when the invitation is not reciprocated. This clear separation may be indicative of the fact that this film makes the relationships between the friends primary and as such Ursula (and Keith in the case of Stony) both take a back-seat to the homegirls (Ursula still should have had some lines especially since Keith in contrast was the man who “has an answer for everything”) As the “speaker” in the relationship, Cleo makes the decisions and seemingly also takes on the role of the provider; another clue for her desire to have loot. Her decision to make lingerie one of the first things that she purchases with her newly acquired money (and for which she is thanked with a sexy lapdance on top of her car while she drinks a 40 and smokes a spliff – a scene clearly inspired by a number of 90’s rap videos) is indicative of the type of role she wants to take up.
As the resident West Coast Hip Hop thug of the film, Cleo is given no trigger for her decision because it is determined that no trigger is necessary. In films that feature men and particularly Black men who are classified as thugs, there often is deemed no need for a contextualizing trigger to understand their descent into criminality because it is apparently expected or normal. Although Cleo is a woman, her closeness to masculinity and to a very particular Hip Hop masculinity apparently means that no specific reason is necessary. This absence is one that I mourn in the film because I feel like Cleo deserved more, she deserved a back-story and she deserved context. The writers Takashi Bufford and Kate Lanier choose instead to portray Cleo as the one who without any prodding romanticizes and is excited by the prospect of crime and needs zero convincing to join the heist. Indeed, she is the one that first suggests it. As I think of this I recall Ava Duvernay’s statement at the recent 2015 Black Girls Rock awards:
“When a Black woman makes a film it’s not an interpretation of Black womanhood it is a reflection!”- Ava Duvernay
Who would Cleo have been if she had been written by a Black woman and directed by a Black woman? Would I be left with the same questions, the same feeling of absence? Perhaps due to studio priorities it would have been the same. But I wonder….
The contrast painted between Stony and Cleo emerges poignantly and somewhat heartbreakingly in a key scene where they have a heart to heart conversation while taking a break at work following a severe fight. The moment illustrates the distinctions in their dreaming:
“Stony, you can go to suburbia and start a new life. But we ain’t nothin’ but hood rats. Now I can live with that. You can’t. The hood is where I belong. I mean what am I gonna do in Hollywood or One Thousand Oaks or some shit?” – Cleo
Despite her inability to dream with Stony, which ultimately may be the reason the film concludes the way that it does, Cleo does know how to ride with and for her. Refreshingly this is a film that focuses on friendship between women. Although all of the core characters illustrate various ways that they are there for each other, Cleo is consistently the most immediately ready to ride and is always ready to play the role of the defender of the crew. Right after Stevie’s murder, Cleo viciously stares down the detective who attempts to approach Stony. She similarly is the first to rise up in outrage and defense when Child Protection Services arrives at the hospital to take Tisean’s son. She also pointedly refuses to pimp out Frankie to Black Sam (Dr. Dre) in order to get guns when he expresses interest clearly drawing the line for what she will and will not do/accept (a small but key moment that in some ways distinguishes her masculinity from that of the West Coast Hip Hop thug masculinity defined by 90’s rap music). When the second robbery is almost botched after their getaway car is blocked, Cleo is the one who thinks fast and crashes through the bank with a newly acquired ride. It’s not part of the plan, the getaway is not smooth at all, and they are screaming throughout the entire escape but it is Cleo who is literally ready to ride through walls and malls to get her homegirls out.
Cleo also plays the role of the one to call people out and force them to make the difficult decision. When Tisean is about to break down at the hospital she grabs her, stares in her eyes and states unequivocally: “Fuck this shit. You know what you got to do.” In one of the last scenes as Stony tries to dissuade the crew from targeting Downton Federal Bank following her romantic date with her Prince Charming Keith Weston (played by the always smooth – almost too smooth – Blair Underwood), Cleo immediately calls her out: “What the fuck is that? What you gon’ play us? For that buppy in the bank?”
Can we also take a moment to just big up her screwface? From defiantly starting down police detectives to Children Protection Services, several scenes are dedicated to amazing close-ups on Queen Latifah’s intense and furious stare. When called to participate in a line-up for Luther’s murder, Cleo focuses her glare through the glass, intimidating fiercely with zero chill (check this article’s feature image for evidence). In Setting it Straight, they remind us of the context of Set it Off which came out a few years after the Rodney King Riots when tensions between Black communities and the LAPD were at an all time high. Much of the rage and distrust that was felt by an entire generation is captured in Cleo’s gaze during those moments. She’s not lying when she tells the crew later:
“Them motherfuckers were all over me. But I represented.” – Cleo
Cleo’s boldness to stare not only at the white female witness but also the white male detective and his Black female partner, to look back at those who hold her freedom in their grasp, is reminiscent of the oppositional gaze bell hooks once wrote of:
“All attempts to repress our/black people’s right to gaze had produced in us an overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious desire, an oppositional gaze.” – bell hooks
Cleo’s final act of loyalty to the crew and what cements her as one of the most classic ride-or-die characters of all time arrives in one of the heartbreaking final scenes. Stuck in a tunnel with helicopters waiting on either side she convinces Stony and Frankie to get out of the car and run with the money telling them she’ll catch up with them later. There is a heavy pause as what she is saying sinks in. They don’t bother to work out a meeting point, because they already know there won’t be one; Cleo is not suggesting a plan to reunite but rather is offering her homegirls an opportunity to escape. Her self-sacrifice makes sense in the limited context we are given for her character. Returning to that key moment when she and Stony squash their beef at work and Stony attempts to talk to her about her goals and future Cleo in very few lines lets us know – there isn’t much out there available for her to dream on. The film exemplifies the ways that the system, the world creates limited space for young working class Black women. However this becomes even more extreme when this Black woman is not only queer and has a gender presentation that is not only masculine but is specifically rooted in the masculinity of that West Coast Hip Hop young Black male.
Cleo’s final ride is in some ways a desperate push for survival, she still looks around frantically trying to find a way out amidst the cop cars and hovering helicopters. But when she realizes there is none, she holds back the sob, lights up a cigarette and makes the final decision to ride out, taking the final stand for the respect she is owed with guns blazing. Her brutal death hit me differently this time around as I took in the way the bullets rang out long after her gun was gone from her hand and the literal “threat” of her was eviscerated. Still the police continued shooting. The price she paid for her oppositional gaze.
Although I feel her character could have benefited from more context and more background and I know that Queen Latifah would have shone if given the chance to immerse in more layers, Cleo is undoubtedly one of the most classic portrayals of a ride-or-die to ever grace the silver screen. Once again, a middle finger to the haters.