Set It Off

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
Set It Off Movie Poster Image
Friends rob banks in '90s adventure; violence, cursing.
  • R
  • 1996
  • 123 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Some people born into poverty know that playing by the rules will not help them move up the economic scale. Desperation drives people to risky and self-destructive acts.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Although they often fight in stressful moments, four lifelong friends are loyal and supportive.


Armed robbers hold up several banks. Several people are shot, some of them killed. A car being chased by police is riddled with bullets. The driver is killed. A woman bleeds out in her friend's lap. Cars are stolen.


A man is found having sex with a woman under the covers. A woman lives with her female lover; they are seen touching, kissing. A woman is clad in fishnet tights that reveal her buttocks. A brief glimpse of the side of one otherwise covered breast is seen. A man and woman are having sex but all that is seen is a sensual massage with oil and close-ups of skin.


"F--k," "s--t," "ass," "damn," "hell," "bitch," "crap," "p---y," and the "N" word.


Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults smoke cigarettes and marijuana and drink alcohol.


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Set It Off is a 1996 drama about four working-class inner-city friends who work full-time but can hardly pay their bills. One's brother is killed (on-screen) by the police. Another can't afford to keep her baby. Another is falsely accused of conspiring to rob a bank, so she figures she might as well actually go ahead and rob one. The hopelessness of black families living in projects is vividly depicted. Fatal shootings are shown. Violent car chases lead to more shootings. Couples have sex, including a same-sex pair, but no nudity is shown. Cigarettes, marijuana, and alcohol are all consumed. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," "p---y," and the "N" word.

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What's the story?

In SET IT OFF, four childhood girlfriends from the 'hood are fed up with their lives of hardship and relegation to second-class status. Bank teller Frankie (Vivica A. Fox) is falsely accused of collusion when someone she happens to know from the projects robs her bank. Then the college-bound young brother of cleaning lady Stony (Jada Pinkett Smith) is needlessly killed by police. Justifiable anger, resentment, and a sense of futility move Frankie to suggest they get back at the establishment, use her knowledge of banking procedures, and rob some banks. Cleo (Queen Latifah), a convicted car thief, provides weapons and getaway cars. Struggling single mom TT (Kimberly Elise) is motivated to participate after she loses her child to social welfare because she can't afford babysitting while she works. No spoiler alert is necessary to predict that their plan can only end in tragedy.

Is it any good?

This movie boasts solid performances by Queen Latifah, Pinkett Smith, Fox, and Elise. These are roles that in more conventional movies would be played by men, making this interesting even if just for that reason. Most older teens will already have been exposed to movies with equal or greater doses of violence, drug use, sexual content, language, and social commentary. Set It Off feels a bit long, but that won't keep keen young viewers from observing the unfairness of the way minorities are treated and how difficult it can be to live comfortable and productive lives without the availability of safe and high-quality housing and public education. The vivid, believable characters Gary Gray creates here are seemingly far too smart to rob a bank, and that makes their actions less than plausible at times. But the fact that they believe they have no alternative speaks volumes about their lives.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what kind of desperation would persuade people that robbing banks would be better than suffering in their own difficult lives. Do you think the women in Set It Off felt that the system was rigged against them so they had nothing to lose?

  • Do you think better educational opportunities for working-class kids could help people get ahead? Why do you think kids drop out of inner-city schools? Do you think they believe they can't get a break because of societal prejudice?

  • Do you think the protagonists should have seen that their plan would end badly? Why might they have ignored the reality?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love African American stories

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