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Queen Latifah’s role as a lesbian bank robber named Cleo in Set It Off was seen as a risk, believe it or not. The year was 1996, and Latifah was better known as a rapper who’d had a few bit parts in films (House Party 2, Juice, My Life) and as the star of a sitcom in its third season (Living Single, about a group of girlfriends). In Set It Off, her breakout lead role as Cleopatra Sims—Cleo, for short—Latifah seized her moment in the final act.
Surrounded by police aiming their guns at her 1962 Impala, Cleo opts for driving into a stream of bullets—and a tragic death—instead of surrendering. The scene became instantly black cinema canon.
But in a sit-down interview that year, talk-show host Rolonda Watts questioned Latifah’s decision to star as a gangsta lesbian (more the lesbian part than the gangsta thing). “A lotta people are going to say, ‘Queen Latifah is ruining her career playing a lesbian on the movie screen,’ ” Watts said. “Are we ready for that?”
We were ready. Set It Off made a more than respectable $8.5 million in its opening weekend, nearly eclipsing its $9 million budget. Director F. Gary Gray had previously gone from high-concept music videos (TLC’s “Waterfalls,” Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day”) to a feature film debut at age 23: the stoner comedy Friday, starring first-time actor Ice Cube.
Set It Off was Gray’s ambitious follow-up about four women in Los Angeles desperately in need of cash. A classic antihero heist film, it was a story about money and friendship, anchored by two rising actors—Jada Pinkett Smith and Vivica A. Fox—and two promising ones, Kimberly Elise and Queen Latifah.
Instead of looking like royalty, or the editor of a hip urban magazine, as on Living Single, Queen Latifah wore cornrows and baggy jeans as Cleo, a self-proclaimed “dyke” who smoked blunts and had a chip on her shoulder. “The hood is where I belong. I mean, what am I gonna do in Hollywood? Or Thousand Oaks or some shit?” Cleo tells Stony (Jada Pinkett Smith) in a heart-to-heart leading up to their big bank heist.
Two girls at Irvington-Frank H. Morrell High School [Latifah’s alma mater] inspired the Cleo character, which Latifah knew she could pull off. After auditioning for the role, casting director Robi Reed recalls, Latifah told her over the phone, “I am this bitch.”
“The role of Cleo said to anyone paying attention that Dana really had skill and that anything up to this point wasn’t luck or a fluke,” says Reed. “She was seen as a serious actress.” Latifah’s box-office draw spiked from there, and she became part of the first generation of rappers—alongside 2Pac, Will Smith, Ice Cube, LL Cool J, and Ice-T—to build a bankable Hollywood résumé.
Latifah the rapper was a savior to hip-hop in the ’90s. In a 1992 interview for her late-night talk show The Whoopi Goldberg Show, Whoopi praised her for simply managing to avoid the words “ho” and “bitch” in her rhymes — which explains where rap as a genre was at the time.
Queen Latifah wrote in her memoir, “Gangsta rap was ruling at the time, and with it came all this misogynistic bull—‘bitch’ this, ‘ho’ that. And, crazy as it sounds, I saw female rappers buying into it.”
Latifah’s music was sold as a fresh alternative that unfortunately helped set up a binary: Women were either righteous MCs like her or chose to sell sex. For those seeking broader success, there was little room in between.
Around 1986, producer Mark Howard James, aka Mark the 45 King, saw Queen Latifah at a Newark talent show, when she performed with singer Eddie Stockley as a duo named Quiet Storm. “She was a singer, learning how to rap better,” says James. “She’s a fast learner. You give her a hammer, and she’ll build a house.” They made a demo tape, “Wrath of My Madness,” which James accidentally or intentionally left at Fab 5 Freddy’s house, and Freddy routed the tape to his friend Dante Ross, an A&R guy at Tommy Boy Records. The song set off alarms.
“I was, like, ‘Whoa, what the fuck is that?’” Ross remembers. “It was one of those records that, within twelve hours, was on the air.” He and Tommy Boy president Monica Lynch signed Latifah to a deal.
She then became a member of the Native Tongues, a collective of acts like Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest who brought low-end jazz to rap while dressed in African-inspired prints and medallions. Queen Latifah had a similar look and feel—she bought the outfit for her first album cover in Newark at “an African fabric store on Halsey Street.” “Everyone else was wearing their sex, but I was wearing my heart. I wanted to be about more than a designer label. I wanted to deliver a message,” she wrote in her book Ladies First: Revelations of a Strong Woman (although women wearing their sex was itself a message). Compared with her peers, she was eccentric.
“Latifah and MC Lyte weren’t selling sex. And Salt-N-Pepa sold it a little more than Latifah and Lyte did,” says Ross. Latifah’s debut album, All Hail the Queen, produced by Mark the 45 King, incorporated high-speed dance rhythms, house music, and Jamaican patois. Says Ross, “It was reflective of what was going on in hip-hop. Everything was positive and about self-empowerment. Public Enemy started the trend of black empowerment, black consciousness, and the Jungle Brothers and De La [Soul] did it in a less ‘threatening’ kind of way, a more psychedelic way, and Latifah and Monie Love were part of that.”
No songs were more rebellious and relevant to the times than “U.N.I.T.Y”—on which Queen Latifah shoots a pithy five-word comeback at rappers’ favorite epithet for women: “Who you callin’ a bitch?”—and “Ladies First,” her motivational duet with London-born rapper Monie Love.
But Queen Latifah’s acting work overtook her career so much that people forgot her past life as a rapper. Her career in Hollywood kicked off after director Spike Lee and Robi Reed saw Latifah perform a summer concert at the Pier in New York City. They had her audition and cast her as a fed-up waitress at Harlem’s legendary soul food spot, Sylvia’s, in Jungle Fever, Lee’s 1991 film about interracial dating.
Latifah’s brief monologue about Wesley Snipes’s character bringing a “stringy-hair ass” white woman on a date to a black establishment earned her a SAG card, the Screen Actors Guild’s credential for working actors. “Spike and I rolled the dice,” says Reed. “With the waitress [role] in Jungle Fever, all she had to do was be who she was onstage.”
But Latifah’s lasting gift to the world is Living Single, a girlfriends-centered sitcom set in a beautiful Brooklyn brownstone. Playing one of television’s most iconic characters, Khadijah James, editor of a hip black magazine, titled Flavor, Latifah brought the best quips (“Khadijah don’t need ya!”), daggers, and shade, alongside a cast of still-underappreciated comedic geniuses, over five seasons.
In a business as volatile as music, acting was a logical backup for rappers. Being on-screen took them out of their environments and into faraway, lucrative places. Old rock stars could technically tour into infinity (think the Rolling Stones), and pop stars reinvent themselves over decades—Celine Dion had a 16-year Las Vegas residency; Madonna is 201 years old—but the idea of rapping as a lifetime sport is still relatively new.
“It’s really hard to have a long career in hip-hop as an MC as a woman without diversifying greatly,” says writer Karen Good Marable. “You’ve got to be Eve doing daytime TV or movies. You gotta be Latifah doing other things. Everybody begins to shift.”
It’s why, after one album with N.W.A, Ice Cube said in 1989, “You can’t rap forever. If it ends tomorrow, I still gotta do something to survive.” Jay-Z, Nas, Ludacris, and Eve have shared a similar paranoia in interviews. Eminem said he couldn’t see himself “jumping around the stage like a fucking kid” in old age (although he did).
Queen Latifah said the same in 1996. “I’m not going to be a rapper forever,” she told Vibe. “I’m always going to write rhymes. But that doesn’t mean I’m always going to be able to compete in this business.” While rappers like Jay-Z, T.I., and Snoop Dogg have shown what hip-hop longevity looks like, making music beyond age 40, there was really no blueprint for the women who eventually hit a ceiling. And without structural support, the ceiling collapses.
Latifah stopped releasing rap records and discovered acting, then went on to star in romantic comedies and family fare and earned an Oscar nomination for the musical Chicago—one of only two rappers to ever be nominated for an Academy Award as an actor. The other is a rapper from West Philadelphia who spent his childhood on playgrounds, Will Smith.