Let me be honest: The last place I expected to be after watching the 1996 classic Set It Off was caught up in my feelings. I came for a late-night bank-heist film but was left reminded of the endless tribulations impoverished Black women like me face—particularly in our 20s.
Set It Off is about four young Black women in Los Angeles trying to make it out of the projects by earning an honest living. You’ve got Cleo (Queen Latifah), the queer ringleader who needs cash to pay the bills, Stony (Jada Pinkett-Smith), who loses her brother to police brutality, Frankie (Vivica A. Fox), the recently fired bank teller, and T.T. (Kimberly Elise), a single mom who can’t afford childcare. Together they make up a quartet of underprivileged friends who decide to rob a bank so they can afford the cost of staying on their feet.
Growing up, I lived between women’s shelters and subsidized-housing units. Even now, at 26—working full-time after university—it still feels like for every step forward I take five steps back. When you come from poverty, it’s impossible to put yourself first. How are you supposed to invest in yourself when you’ve got debts to pay and a family that’s still in need? So I understood Cleo, Stony, Frankie and T.T.’s desperation to break away from the racism, classism and sexism that set them up to fail.
Before committing to robbing the bank, T.T. and Stony have reservations until Frankie says to them, “Look, we just taking away from a system that’s fucking us all anyway.”
And she’s not wrong. Take, for example, the case of Tanya McDowell, a homeless woman in Bridgeport, Conn,, who was sentenced to five years in prison for enrolling her five-year-old son in a school outside their listed district so he could receive a better education. Felicity Huffman, a white actor, received two weeks in jail for paying $15,000 to rig her daughter’s SAT score.
Black women rarely get a second chance. Even if we make it, the institutions marginalizing us will always be waiting for Black women to screw up. Because the last thing America wants to witness is a Black woman shine. And that’s just the damn truth.
Here are four lessons from Set It Off that have helped me navigate early adulthood as a Black woman.
Lesson one: The system will never be in our favour
While Frankie is employed as a bank teller, a man from her neighbourhood comes in and commits a robbery with a group of accomplices. As she tries to convince him not to do it, the man shoots another woman in the head. During investigations, the lead detective finds out that Frankie lives in the same neighbourhood as the convicted criminal and immediately assumes she is in on the crime. Despite telling the truth and speaking up for herself, Frankie is fired on the spot and unable to work for another bank thanks to her new criminal record earned from being guilty by association.
When the same detective tries to stop Frankie from running away while she’s surrounded by the police after the girls’ heist, she looks him in the eye and asks, “So, what’s the procedure when you have a gun to your head? What’s the fucking procedure when you have a gun to your head?” No matter how hard Frankie tries to do what’s right, the system just isn’t set up to help her succeed or pretend to care until it’s too late.
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Frankie represents what young Black women face in the workforce every day when they’re trying to establish a career. Black women in the U.S., for example, are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from work because of their hair. No matter what we do or how hard-working we are, our labour is stigmatized, which is why we need to stand up for ourselves against employer manipulation and scare tactics. Know your country’s labour laws and use them when necessary to defend yourself. A simple Google search can arm you with the information you need to protect yourself. (Canadian women, this is a great place to start. American sisters, I’ve got you too.)
Lesson two: We are stronger in numbers
One of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever shared with other Black women was when my friend Anita, who runs an African magazine called Zhuri, brought together a group of Black creatives in one room to talk about our lives in the media industry. Just being surrounded by women who understand my struggles, goals and ambitions made me realize that I’m not alone in my journey and experiences.
Teamwork plays a major role in Set It Off. When Cleo, Frankie, T.T. and Stony come together, they’re unstoppable. Black women, please remember that our energy together is unmatched. Sisterhood is Black excellence at its finest, so let’s continue to join forces and make change happen.
Lesson three: Money does rule everything
Desperation for money leads the women to rob a bank and, ultimately (*SPOILER ALERT*), to their deaths. No matter how hard a fact it is to swallow, cash does rule the world. According to Canada’s Colour-Coded Labour Market Report, Black women earn 37% less than white men and 15% less than white women.
As someone who now earns a decent living, I do my best to give back to my community when I can, and I encourage others to do the same by seeking out ways they can contribute to enriching the lives of other Black women who are either in need or seeking donations to make their dreams come true. Sharing our knowledge and resources is a major step forward in growing stronger—especially for women at a young age, when we are all just trying to build the foundation of our futures.
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Lesson four: It’s OK to admit that you’re not OK
Cleo’s character is your classic ride or die. Of the four women, she is the only one who we never see show any emotion—all we know is she wants out of the hood. Even after sacrificing herself to save Stony, Frankie and T.T. and she’s surrounded by cops, Cleo sits in her car, hydraulics on, and lights a smoke before driving into gunfire without shedding a single tear.
Black women have always been portrayed and stereotyped as ill-tempered, hostile, aggressive and angry. Rarely are we given the opportunity to let our feelings out without being scrutinized and looked down upon. So we keep a straight face and continue to repress how we feel—but it’s bad for our health.
Research from Columbia University found that adults in the Black community are 20% more likely to experience serious mental-health problems, such as major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. Canadian Black women are 60% more at risk of developing psychosis.
Cleo needed a good cry. She deserved to have someone hear her out. She had the right to express her pain.
Black women need to allow themselves to admit it when they’re not OK. We all deserve the right to be human and shouldn’t have to just “deal with it.” We don’t always have to be strong. We don’t have to keep normalizing our suffering. Vulnerability isn’t shameful. The U.S. National Alliance of Mental Health’s research shows that only a quarter of African-Americans seek help when it comes to mental health, but recognizing the state of our mental health is part of our path to healing and taking better care of ourselves as Black women.
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Twenty-four years on, Set It Off is still a timeless depiction of the Black struggle. Rarely do we see films with accurate depictions of Black women. When you’re a Black woman in your 20s, there’s no university lecture, guidance counsellor or Reddit forum that can change your life the way this film changed mine. Trust.