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Queen Latifah’s position as a lesbian financial institution robber named Cleo in Set It Off was seen as a threat, imagine it or not. The yr was 1996, and Latifah was higher generally known as a rapper who’d had just a few bit elements in movies (Home Get together 2, Juice, My Life) and because the star of a sitcom in its third season (Dwelling Single, a couple of group of girlfriends). In Set It Off, her breakout lead position as Cleopatra Sims—Cleo, for brief—Latifah seized her second within the remaining act.
Surrounded by police aiming their weapons at her 1962 Impala, Cleo opts for driving right into a stream of bullets—and a tragic dying—as an alternative of surrendering. The scene grew to become immediately black cinema canon.
However in a sit-down interview that yr, talk-show host Rolonda Watts questioned Latifah’s resolution to star as a gangsta lesbian (extra the lesbian half than the gangsta factor). “A lotta persons are going to say, ‘Queen Latifah is ruining her profession taking part in a lesbian on the film display screen,’ ” Watts stated. “Are we prepared for that?”
We have been prepared. Set It Off made a greater than respectable $8.5 million in its opening weekend, almost eclipsing its $9 million finances. Director F. Gary Grey had beforehand gone from high-concept music movies (TLC’s “Waterfalls,” Ice Dice’s “It Was a Good Day”) to a function movie debut at age 23: the stoner comedy Friday, starring first-time actor Ice Dice.
Set It Off was Grey’s formidable follow-up about 4 girls in Los Angeles desperately in want of money. A traditional antihero heist movie, it was a narrative about cash and friendship, anchored by two rising actors—Jada Pinkett Smith and Vivica A. Fox—and two promising ones, Kimberly Elise and Queen Latifah.
As a substitute of wanting like royalty, or the editor of a hip city journal, as on Dwelling Single, Queen Latifah wore cornrows and saggy denims as Cleo, a self-proclaimed “dyke” who smoked blunts and had a chip on her shoulder. “The hood is the place I belong. I imply, what am I gonna do in Hollywood? Or Thousand Oaks or some shit?” Cleo tells Stony (Jada Pinkett Smith) in a heart-to-heart main as much as their large financial institution heist.
Two ladies at Irvington-Frank H. Morrell Excessive College [Latifah’s alma mater] impressed the Cleo character, which Latifah knew she might pull off. After auditioning for the position, casting director Robi Reed remembers, Latifah advised her over the cellphone, “I’m this bitch.”
“The position of Cleo stated to anybody paying consideration that Dana actually had talent and that something up thus far wasn’t luck or a fluke,” says Reed. “She was seen as a critical actress.” Latifah’s box-office draw spiked from there, and he or she grew to become a part of the primary technology of rappers—alongside 2Pac, Will Smith, Ice Dice, LL Cool J, and Ice-T—to construct a bankable Hollywood résumé.
Latifah the rapper was a savior to hip-hop within the ’90s. In a 1992 interview for her late-night discuss present The Whoopi Goldberg Present, Whoopi praised her for merely managing to keep away from the phrases “ho” and “bitch” in her rhymes — which explains the place rap as a style was on the time.
Queen Latifah wrote in her memoir, “Gangsta rap was ruling on the time, and with it got here all this misogynistic bull—‘bitch’ this, ‘ho’ that. And, loopy because it sounds, I noticed feminine rappers shopping for into it.”
Latifah’s music was offered as a contemporary different that sadly helped arrange a binary: Ladies have been both righteous MCs like her or selected to promote intercourse. For these searching for broader success, there was little room in between.
Round 1986, producer Mark Howard James, aka Mark the 45 King, noticed Queen Latifah at a Newark expertise present, when she carried out with singer Eddie Stockley as a duo named Quiet Storm. “She was a singer, studying how you can rap higher,” says James. “She’s a quick learner. You give her a hammer, and he or she’ll construct a home.” They made a demo tape, “Wrath of My Insanity,” which James by chance or deliberately left at Fab 5 Freddy’s home, and Freddy routed the tape to his pal Dante Ross, an A&R man at Tommy Boy Data. The tune set off alarms.
“I used to be, like, ‘Whoa, what the fuck is that?’” Ross remembers. “It was a type of information that, inside twelve hours, was on the air.” He and Tommy Boy president Monica Lynch signed Latifah to a deal.
She then grew to become a member of the Native Tongues, a collective of acts like Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest who introduced low-end jazz to rap whereas wearing African-inspired prints and medallions. Queen Latifah had the same feel and appear—she purchased the outfit for her first album cowl in Newark at “an African material retailer on Halsey Avenue.” “Everybody else was carrying their intercourse, however I used to be carrying my coronary heart. I wished to be about greater than a designer label. I wished to ship a message,” she wrote in her guide Women First: Revelations of a Sturdy Lady (though girls carrying their intercourse was itself a message). In contrast along with her friends, she was eccentric.
“Latifah and MC Lyte weren’t promoting intercourse. And Salt-N-Pepa offered it slightly greater than Latifah and Lyte did,” says Ross. Latifah’s debut album, All Hail the Queen, produced by Mark the 45 King, included high-speed dance rhythms, home music, and Jamaican patois. Says Ross, “It was reflective of what was occurring in hip-hop. Every little thing was optimistic and about self-empowerment. Public Enemy began the pattern of black empowerment, black consciousness, and the Jungle Brothers and De La [Soul] did it in a much less ‘threatening’ form of manner, a extra psychedelic manner, and Latifah and Monie Love have been a part of that.”
No songs have been extra rebellious and related to the instances than “U.N.I.T.Y”—on which Queen Latifah shoots a pithy five-word comeback at rappers’ favourite epithet for girls: “Who you callin’ a bitch?”—and “Women First,” her motivational duet with London-born rapper Monie Love.
However Queen Latifah’s appearing work overtook her profession a lot that folks forgot her previous life as a rapper. Her profession in Hollywood kicked off after director Spike Lee and Robi Reed noticed Latifah carry out a summer season live performance on the Pier in New York Metropolis. They’d her audition and forged her as a fed-up waitress at Harlem’s legendary soul meals spot, Sylvia’s, in Jungle Fever, Lee’s 1991 movie about interracial relationship.
Latifah’s transient monologue about Wesley Snipes’s character bringing a “stringy-hair ass” white lady on a date to a black institution earned her a SAG card, the Display screen Actors Guild’s credential for working actors. “Spike and I rolled the cube,” says Reed. “With the waitress [role] in Jungle Fever, all she needed to do was be who she was onstage.”
However Latifah’s lasting present to the world is Dwelling Single, a girlfriends-centered sitcom set in a fantastic Brooklyn brownstone. Taking part in one in every of tv’s most iconic characters, Khadijah James, editor of a hip black journal, titled Taste, Latifah introduced the perfect quips (“Khadijah don’t want ya!”), daggers, and shade, alongside a forged of still-underappreciated comedic geniuses, over 5 seasons.
In a enterprise as risky as music, appearing was a logical backup for rappers. Being on-screen took them out of their environments and into faraway, profitable locations. Outdated rock stars might technically tour into infinity (suppose the Rolling Stones), and pop stars reinvent themselves over many years—Celine Dion had a 16-year Las Vegas residency; Madonna is 201 years previous—however the thought of rapping as a lifetime sport remains to be comparatively new.
“It’s actually arduous to have a protracted profession in hip-hop as an MC as a lady with out diversifying drastically,” says author Karen Good. “You’ve acquired to be Eve doing daytime TV or motion pictures. You gotta be Latifah doing different issues. Everyone begins to shift.”
It’s why, after one album with N.W.A, Ice Cube said in 1989, “You possibly can’t rap perpetually. If it ends tomorrow, I nonetheless gotta do one thing to outlive.” Jay-Z, Nas, Ludacris, and Eve have shared the same paranoia in interviews. Eminem stated he couldn’t see himself “leaping across the stage like a fucking child” in previous age (though he did).
Queen Latifah stated the identical in 1996. “I’m not going to be a rapper perpetually,” she told Vibe. “I’m at all times going to put in writing rhymes. However that doesn’t imply I’m at all times going to have the ability to compete on this enterprise.” Whereas rappers like Jay-Z, T.I., and Snoop Dogg have proven what hip-hop longevity appears to be like like, making music past age 40, there was actually no blueprint for the ladies who ultimately hit a ceiling. And with out structural help, the ceiling collapses.
Latifah stopped releasing rap information and found appearing, then went on to star in romantic comedies and household fare and earned an Oscar nomination for the musical Chicago—one in every of solely two rappers to ever be nominated for an Academy Award as an actor. The opposite is a rapper from West Philadelphia who spent his childhood on playgrounds, Will Smith.
By Clover Hope. Abrams Picture.