In 2018, the Arkansas Times Film Series programmed a succession of classic heist films: “Point Break,” “Rafifi” and “Bob Le Flambeur.” In 2019, bank robberies are the theme: In January, it was George Roy Hill’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” in which the increasing difficulty in being a successful bank robber signals the end of an era; in February, it was Barbara Loden’s “Wanda,” in which a despondent divorcee becomes an unwitting accomplice to a failed robbery.
We’ll cap off the bank robbery theme with “Set It Off,” F. Gary Gray’s 1996 action crime drama, and the follow-up to his stoner comedy-turned-cult classic “Friday.” In “Set It Off,” bank teller Frankie (Vivica A. Fox) finds herself falsely linked with a bank robber and, with her dreams of rising through the ranks of the bank hierarchy shattered, she joins three friends who work for a cleaning service: Cleo (Queen Latifah), Stony (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Tisean (Kimberly Elise). Together, they hatch a plan to get ahead in a society that’s designed to hold them back.
The film works not only because it’s compelling crime fiction, but also because it allows each of the four women their own interior lives. Frankie, of course, wants payback for the way she was unceremoniously fired. Stony wants to help her brother pay his college tuition. Cleo is openly gay and wants to purchase elaborate gifts for her girlfriend, and Tisean is trying to raise (and keep custody of) her child. Set against a backdrop of the violence and unrest in the ’80s and ’90s in Los Angeles, “Set It Off” was conceived as a socially conscious film. The protagonists’ impetus for getting into the business of bank robbing isn’t frivolous. It’s a means to an economic end, catalyzed by a rooftop conversation about the disappearance of factory jobs that pay a living wage. So many of the societal ills depicted in “Set it Off” — racism, classism — still resonate over 20 years after its release, and the idea of an all-female crime caper still feels novel, even with last year’s “Oceans 8” and with Steve McQueen’s “Widows.” “Set It Off” uses the crime genre to make timely critiques of the way the most marginalized people in society are themselves robbed of social mobility and fair economic opportunity.
Catch it tonight at Riverdale 10 Cinema, 7 p.m., $9.