Queen Latifah’s career is the gold standard. Starting out as rapper from New Jersey, Latifah has gone on to do just about everything and anything she wants. Yet despite all her success, the 46-year-old entrepreneur says one of the hardest decisions of her career was choosing to play Cleo Simms, a lesbian, in the 1996 classic film Set It Off.
Latifah opened up about the iconic role with Black-ish star Tracee Ellis Ross for In Style, and said when she agreed to play the gun-toting thief, she had a chat with her family first.
“When I got the role of amateur bank robber Cleo Sims in Set It Off, I sat down with my younger siblings and told them, ‘Listen, I’m playing a gay character. Your classmates might tease you or say negative things about it,’ ” she said. “But I’m doing it because I believe I can bring positive attention to the gay African-American community, and I believe that I can do a great job as an actor.’ They understood, and when those things inevitably happened in school, they were OK with it.”
Latifah’s decision paid off as the movie, also staring Jada Pinkett-Smith, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise, helped to jumpstart her film career. Latifah would later work alongside Catherine Zeta Jones and Renée Zellweger in the 2002 film adaption of Chicago. Latifah’s portrayal as Mama Morton would go on to earn her an Academy-Award nomination.
While The Living Single star was candid about the difficulty playing that role, she’s always been tight lipped about her own sexuality. In 2008, while speaking with the New York Times Latifah made it clear her personal life isn’t up for discussion.
“I don’t have a problem discussing the topic of somebody being gay, but I do have a problem discussing my personal life… I don’t care if people think I’m gay or not. Assume whatever you want. You do it anyway.”