Set It Off

One of the things this film is about: the proper role(s) for women within commercial hip hop’s gangster cinema and gangster rap.

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  • Set it Off

Study Guide

Note that this guide is not meant to replace careful study of the assigned texts. Instead, this guide highlights some of the important ideas and information. To do well on our tests, quizzes, and class discussions, you will need a thorough knowledge of all assigned texts.

Film scholars use the term “star text” to identify the stories that surround well-known actors and actresses, which inform and influence the meanings of the characters they play in particular films. For example, when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play opposite one another in a film, the fact that they are married in real life affects how audiences understand and respond to the characters and to the film. Star texts are relevant toย Set it Offย  because Queen Latifah’s star text forms a crucial component of the film’s meanings.

Although Queen Latifah is best known today as an actress and television personality, in 1996 (when Set it Off was released), she was at least as famous as a rapper. In the 1990s she was one of a handful of successful female rappers, and she was one of the very few whose persona was not defined by her sexual attractiveness to men. (Although she refuses to discuss this aspect of her private life, Queen Latifah’s star text has long included the “fact” that she is a lesbian.)

These two aspects of her star text–her success in the man’s game of rap music and her lesbianism–inform her portrayal of Set it Off‘s Cleopatra “Cleo” Sims. Latifah-as-Cleo reinforces the project of the film as a whole, which itself challenges the default masculinism of the gangster film genre.

A key example occurs in the scene in which Cleo kisses her hyper-feminine girlfriend Ursula, and her friends react with discomfort. In her article “Black Women Disrupting Gangs and Constructing Hip-Hop Gangster Films,” Beretta E. Smith-Shomade notes that

The scene enunciates the problem of power always being equated with maleness, reasserting [feminist film scholar ] E. Ann Kaplan’s question, “When women are in the dominant position, are they in the masculine position?”