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‘Set It Off’ Taught Us How to Root for the Bad Guy

The movie turned 20 this month and is ripe for a rewatch

New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

Do you remember Set It Off? Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of its release so if you don’t remember it, then I suppose that makes sense. I watched it again this weekend and two questions came up.

But first, a refresher: Set It Off is about four women who decide they need to rob banks. Let me be sure to say that summary is more true literally than philosophically: Mainly what they do — or what they want to do — is rob “the system.” They aim to do so as retribution for the way the system — financial institutions, the justice system — has cast them aside, and the movie does a good job of engaging with that idea. To wit, of the four women — Stony (Jada Pinkett Smith), Cleo (Queen Latifah), Frankie (Vivica A. Fox), and T.T. (Kimberly Elise) — three of them experience radical injustices during the first 20 minutes, each one touching on a different part of the way a person’s life can be ruined.

Frankie: The movie starts with her at work as a bank teller. A man who lives in the same projects as her comes into the bank with several others and attempts to rob it. He tries to get Frankie to empty her money drawer quietly, but when she tries to talk him out of it, he shoots a nearby woman in the head. Everything turns awful; three of the four bank robbers get killed, and other people get shot. During questioning, a detective implies that Frankie was involved with the robbery because she knew the guy who came to her window. She gets fired on the spot — like, they legit tell her she’s fired while her face and clothes still have blood on them from when the guy shot the woman in front of her. Later, she talks about how it’s become impossible for her to get a job at a different bank because her former bank won’t absolve her of the robbery, despite there being no evidence to support their claims.

T.T.: She works for a janitorial service (actually, following Frankie’s firing, all four of the women work at the same janitorial service). The pay there is so low that she’s unable to afford daycare or a babysitter for her son while she works. She takes him to work with her one day but her son, even though he stays nearby, injures himself. By all measures, T.T. is otherwise a good and caring mother, but while at the hospital a CPS worker informs her that her son is being taken from her and being placed under the state’s care until she can prove that she can take adequate care of him.

Stony: The police, while on a raid to catch the fourth bank robber who escaped during the heist at the beginning of the movie, shoot and kill Stony’s younger brother. They do so because he has the same haircut as the robber, and if that’s not troublesome enough, then let me also tell you that he was lying on the floor weaponless and complying with their demands when they shot him dozens and dozens of times.

After all of that happens, the women start robbing banks, each attempt a little more daring and dangerous than the last. There are other, smaller subplots in the movie — Stony, for example, begins a relationship with a bank professional she meets while casing a potential robbery site — but that’s really all you need to know to get to the two questions that came up.

So, the questions:

First: When does it become OK to root for the bad guy (or, in this case, the bad women) in a movie? Because that’s exactly what ends up happening in Set It Off.

And it’s not one of those situations where you root for the bad guy because he or she is so obviously bad that it becomes cool (like, say, Scarface in Scarface or Ben Wade in 3:10 to Yuma or Regina George in Mean Girls or O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill: Vol. 1). Those types of situations make it easy to decide to root for the bad guy. It’s just fun. It’s fun to watch them lord over something (Regina and O-Ren) or buck back against something, be it overwhelming goodness and moral stoutness (Ben Wade vs. Christian Bale’s Dan Evans in Yuma) or general rottenness (Scarface vs. all of the intricacies of the drug trade).

And it’s not one of those situations where you root for the bad guy because he or she is just so obviously inadequate that they become sympathetic (basically any bad guy in any comedy). That’s fun, too. It’s fun to cheer for a lackluster someone, even if sometimes the lackluster person you’re cheering for is acting amorally.

And it’s not one of those situations where you root for the bad guy because he or she is just so obviously crazy that it becomes important that they remain alive and active because you want to see what they’ll do (like Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs or Annie in Misery). That’s also fun.

None of those situations accurately describe Set It Off. None of the members are bad in a way where their badness transcends their existence — matter of fact, the cause of their first big group fight is when someone gets hurt during one of the robberies and Stony is shaken by it. And they certainly aren’t inadequate bank robbers, either. (By the second bank, even T.T., the group’s most timid and reluctant member, proves herself clever and capable. She pretends to be a bank customer and lies there on the floor with the other customers to make sure no one attempts to thwart the robbery, then puts a gun to a man’s head when she sees him trying to sneakily reach for the gun.) And they of course aren’t crazy. (The craziest thing that happens in Set It Off is after they rob the first bank and divvy up the money, Cleo uses her $3,000 to get about $20,000 in upgrades to her car and everybody pretends like that could’ve actually happened.)

So it feels a little weird to watch them do bad things and feel yourself hoping they make it out OK. Weirder still is the doom that soaks into your bones when you realize after their last robbery goes sideways that there’s no way they’re going to escape the noose that begins tightening around their necks as the police chase them. And weirder than that is the sadness that falls from the sky when T.T. gets shot and killed by a bank security guard …

And then Cleo gets killed after she climbs out of her car and opens fire on police officers …

And then Frankie gets shot in the back as she tries to run away following a standoff with the detective who set everything in motion (the same one who got her fired from her bank job at the beginning of the movie)…

These are all of the things that the four women do in Set It Off, listed from Least Bad to Most Bad:

  • Run from the police.
  • Steal several cars.
  • Destroy hundreds of thousands of dollars in city property.
  • Steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from three separate banks.
  • Threaten to shoot dozens of people.
  • Threaten to kill a woman in an attempt to get information out of her.
  • Threaten to kill a witness to a crime.
  • Shoot at police officers.
  • Kill a man after he steals their bank robbery money and refuses to tell them what he did with it.
  • Shoot and kill a bank security guard.

That’s a lot of bad stuff. And yet, all I could do, as the movie wound down toward the foursome’s inevitable ruination, was squint my eyes and hope to make it through the final 20 minutes without getting too upset. Stony is the only one who survives, but even that feels like more of a punishment than if she’d just gotten killed (she has to live with all of her friends being dead, her younger brother being dead, her parents being dead, her play nephew becoming the property of the California Department of Social Services, and that’s nothing to say of the toll that’ll weigh down on her head from having shot at and helped kill the bank security guard).

So why does it end up happening that way? Why does it feel OK to root for the bad guys? Is it because they don’t start out as the villains in the movie, they just get shoved forward into that role? And so that’s just the prism they get viewed through: good humans doing bad things because they have to? I think that makes the most sense, but I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just the overwhelming likability of the group? I don’t know.

I like this, though. I like this uncertainty. And so I guess that’s how we get to the second question:

It’s been 20 years. Why don’t more people talk about Set It Off?