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The lingering spirit of Set It Off, a neo-Blaxploitation classic
The essence of Set It Off remains very much alive years after its 1996 release. Truly, there is a little bit of Cleo, Stony, Frankie, and T.T. to be found in these newly released movies centered around women who are sick, tired, and over their circumstances. They find comfort, inspiration, strength, and resolve among each other while working as a team.
Set It Off is a neo-Blaxploitation film starring Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett, Vivica A. Fox, and Kimberly Elise as a group of friends who decide to rob banks together. They all have individual reasons that lead them toward the decision to do something dangerous, but the need for a change in circumstance is the common denominator. Even though the genres are different, the same spirit is present in films like Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, Terminator: Dark Fate, and Mad Max: Fury Road.
Spoiler alert: Set It Off ends tragically because of men. Before it all goes downhill, these women are onto something. They collectively decide that if some guys from around their way could knock off a bank for a few thousand, they could do the same. They even make it a point to ensure that no one gets hurt, something their male contemporaries couldn’t have cared less about. It might have been illegal activity, but they were doing just fine until their scummy boss from their day job took their hard-earned stolen money. When the time comes to protect one another when their situation spirals out of control, they do that. T.T. saves Cleo by shooting Luther, Cleo gives Frankie and Stony a chance at escaping, and Frankie, in turn, does the same for Stony when the time comes. The same levels of sacrifice are present throughout movies released in the decades that followed.
In both Terminator: Dark Fate and Mad Max: Fury Road, the women break what has been traditionally happened by taking control of their own destinies. This actually works as a twist for the latest installment in the Terminator franchise. John Connor is out of the picture entirely. Instead of another male child yet to be born who is destined to be the leader of the human resistance against a new sentient threat, it's a young woman named Dani Ramos.
Ultimately, Dani's fate is a result of her own choice; it's a stark departure from Sarah Connor, whose future was altered without her own consent, a future decided by her own unborn son several years in the future. Dani, Sarah, and Grace, the augmented human sent back in time, all band together to ensure the future human resistance get their leader because it's what both future and present Dani want. Grace eventually sacrifices herself to keep Dani safe, while Sarah makes it her new life’s purpose to prepare Dani for the long road ahead.
In Mad Max: Fury Road, the impact of choice is more immediate, and the sacrifice still present. Immortan Joe’s prized breeders/wives decide to ghost his entire establishment, the Citadel, in search of a better life in the Green Place. Imperator Furiosa takes the initiative to save help them with little regard for her own well-being. She does it without any desire for reward, willing to put her life on the line for a group of women she really owed nothing but did it anyway because the hope for a better life was out there. When they all learn that the Green Place no longer exists, Furiosa returns to the Citadel to take it over after killing Immortan Joe, giving the Five Wives and all citizens a safe haven.
Most recently, Birds of Prey has set itself apart from movies of its kind because there are no men involved in providing any kind of assistance. Instead, men only exist as obstacles for women to overcome. Harley Quinn, Renee Montoya, Black Canary, and Huntress all start off on their own individual paths, but by the third act of the movie, they all come together to keep Cassandra Cain in one piece. No man against them is allowed to prosper, and it’s beautifully violent as well as cathartic. It made me wish Set It Off had ended in a similar fashion.
Even though these films belong to their respective genres, the hell these characters go through and come back from transcends all of them. I’ll never tire of movies that remind us that women can come together to get things done in hopes of earning a permanent break from being sick and tired.