1996’s “Set It Off” is a classic film. Directed by F. Gary Gray, it tells the story of 4 friends pushed to the brink by financial hardships. It starred a-listers Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise. While their portrayals of Cleo, Stony, Frankie, and T.T are now iconic, the movie was almost very different and could have been a completely different cast.
“Set It Off” was a breakthrough film for everyone involved and helped make stars out of much of the cast. It grossed over $30 million in the US and over $40 million worldwide against its $9 million budget. It garnered mostly positive reviews and currently has a 71% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Cinema Score rated it an A, and Robert Ebert called it “a lot more than a thriller,” sighting the movie’s realistic portrayal of 4 black women and their friendship.
The film’s soundtrack also went on to become a huge success. Featuring contributions from Queen Latifah, Busta Rhymes, Seal, Brandy, Gladys Knight, and Chaka Khan, it debuted at #4 on the Billboard charts. Its biggest hit was En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go (Love).”
In addition to having a standout song on the soundtrack of the film, Brandy Norwood was also supposed to star in the film as T.T. T.T was the soft-spoken one of the group, who reluctantly decided to join the girls in their bank robbing spree after child protective services began trying to take her son away. Elise would eventually score the role of the single mother and was captivating in her scenes showing off a lot of vulnerability and fear. While it was initially written for Brandy, at the time, Brandy was still a teen pop star just starting her transition into acting. She would go on to star in Moesha instead.
Vivica Fox opened up about auditioning for the roles of Frankie and T.T. She was approached to do Set It Off while filming Independence Day with Will Smith. Will decided to help Fox practice for her audition, pushing her towards Frankie’s role. According to Fox, director F. Gary Gray had already cast Rosie Perez in the role of Frankie but did not tell anyone. So he was pushing for Fox to do T.T until he saw her act out Frankie’s scenes. He then promised Fox that if Perez dropped out of the role, he would cast her. Sure enough, Perez dropped out a week later.
Fox says she was a fan of both Jada and Queen Latifah’s work and really wanted to be a part of the film once she knew they were in it. Fox had done some work on Latifah’s sitcom living single and knew Jada from her husband, then-boyfriend, Will Smith.
Writer Takashi Bufford admits that he wrote the film with both Jada Pinkett-Smith and Queen Latifah in mind despite not knowing either one of them. While she was always their choice for Stony, Jada reportedly pushed to play Queen Latifah’s Cleo for a bit. In an interview about the movie, Gray said that Jada felt Cleo was the juicier role. However, everyone felt Jada’s energy was better suited for Stony.
They were right about everyone being perfect for their roles, so right in the fact that they were able to ad-lib a lot of their lines. The girls really slipped into their roles and became really good friends in the process. Fox says that a lot of their scenes on the roof were ad-libbed as well.
Vivica A. Fox told Vulture in 2020 that the original script was a bit different. Jada’s character was initially supposed to be addicted to crack, something Gary Gray changed. The pressure was on to get everything right because New Line Cinema had already rejected the film three times. The company did not believe that men would support an all-black female cast. Vivica recalls that Gary was really hard on them as a result of this because he did not want to give the studio any excuse to pull the plug.
Set It Off became so successful that at one point, they were contemplating a sequel. Writer Takashi Bufford says that the studio green light a follow-up, but Jada Pinkett-Smith turned it down, killing any hopes of a follow-up.