A Man Apart
In October 2016, Vin Diesel revealed that the director of The Fate of the Furious, the eighth installment in the multi-billion dollar series of films, would be none other than F. Gary Gray. To those familiar with his work, it seemed like a natural fit. Gray has worked in Hollywood for over twenty years and is one of the most financially successful black directors in history. Coming off of the massive success of Straight Outta Compton (his second film to gross over $100 million dollars at the domestic box office, after 2003’s The Italian Job), Gray seemed like the ideal choice for the latest Fast and Furious installment, where he could return to his cinematic trademarks: guns, heists, fast cars and racially diverse ensembles.
These elements were staples of Gray’s work even before his first feature in 1995. Gray, a South Central Los Angeles native, began as a cameraman for BET and Fox, and made short films on the side. He parlayed his connections from television into a job directing music videos, a position which quickly garnered him significant acclaim. Gray’s music video résumé includes Ice Cube’s classic “It Was A Good Day,” early OutKast track “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” and the multi-VMA-winning mega-hit “Waterfalls” by TLC. Gray belongs to a generation of filmmakers (David Fincher, Michael Bay, Antoine Fuqua, Gore Verbinski and Brett Ratner among them) who cut their teeth directing early 90s music videos before transitioning to Hollywood features, and becoming some of the largest names in studio filmmaking.
But unlike many of his contemporaries, Gray and his films are not studied as a complete body of work. Gray generally doesn’t control different levels of production such as writing or editing, unlike many directors now who earn the title of “auteur.” He better fits the label of a “hired hand,” ready to step in and take the wheel of a production at any time (for The Fate of the Furious, Gray was reported to be the third choice for the position, behind past series helmers James Wan and Justin Lin). Gray has never had a writing credit, has been a producer on less than half of the films he’s directed, and none of his projects share a common screenwriter.
Despite this lack of control of varying levels of production, Gray’s work does unite under a specific vision. Almost every one of his films is deeply preoccupied with the themes of karma and justice, establishing a perceived imbalance between an archetypal good and bad, where evil has the upper hand. This imbalance is then rectified, usually through furious punishment. The films go to great lengths to accommodate this righteous fury, often incorporating large tonal shifts to steer the narrative in the desired direction.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Gray’s first feature, the mostly languorous comedy Friday (1995); Ice Cube (star, co-writer and producer of the film) chose Gray based on their previous music video collaborations. Gray generally keeps the project loose: the film’s events, unfolding over the course of one day on a southern L.A. block, seem to just hang in the air like smoke. Any dramatic incidents occur lackadaisically; the film drifts from social interaction to social interaction without raising either of our unemployed protagonists Craig and Smokey (Cube and Chris Tucker, the latter in his leading first role) from their general malaise. The subplot of a bully, Deebo (Tiny 'Zeus' Lister Jr.), tormenting residents on the block constantly threatens to escalate the level of drama in the film. But in the final ten minutes this plotline completely overwhelms the film, which turns deadly serious as Craig’s fears (instilled in him by his father) about protecting his homefront take over. Friday now goes full paranoiac; the block, photographed in canted camera angles, is suddenly shrouded in darkest night. Craig defeats Deebo in the climactic standoff, bashing his face with a brick and beating him unconscious. Gray’s pattern of enforcing justice through punishment begins here.
In 1998, Gray directed the TNT network mainstay The Negotiator, starring Samuel L. Jackson as a police negotiator who creates a hostage situation that requires the assistance of another police negotiator, played by Kevin Spacey. Danny Roman (Jackson) has been set-up as a patsy for the embezzlement and the murder of his own partner, who was investigating said embezzlement. Renounced by all around him and unable to prove his innocence, Roman sees no option but to seize control in a situation he understands better than anyone. According to the screenplay’s logic and structure, Roman’s innocence isn’t enough of a prize; the real culprits of the murder and embezzlement must be exposed. Roman and fellow negotiator Chris Sabian (Spacey) team up and negotiate obstacle after obstacle until they are able to trick the real perpetrator into a verbal confession in front of the entire police force. According to The Negotiator, guiltlessness isn’t enough—only an indictment provides salvation.
2003’s A Man Apart, Vin Diesel and Gray’s little-known first pairing, is heavy on punishment. A cartel drama, Apart stars Diesel as DEA agent Sean Vetter. After Vetter arrests a cartel leader, a hit is taken out on his home, injuring him and unintentionally killing his wife. This causes Vetter to go outside the bounds of the law and track down the men responsible. The final third devolves into an amalgam of carnage and wrath as Vetter tracks down and murders almost every member of the cartel, usually in vicious, violent fashion. Apart is largely forgettable except for the bone-crunching, flesh-mangling extent to which Vetter’s vengeance is permitted.
Even what appears to be popcorn fare ends up as vengeance-driven entertainment in F. Gary Gray’s hands. His first real foray into blockbuster filmmaking was the remake of the classic 1969 British heist flick The Italian Job. The Mark Wahlberg-led film feels more like a playground for Gray, working here with a $60 million dollar budget. The skeletal feature is comprised of Mini Coopers, eye-rolling one-liners and action set-piece upon action set-piece, its plot set in motion after Steve (a very contractually obligated Ed Norton) betrays Charlie’s (Wahlberg) gang of bandits, robs them of their loot and murders their leader (Donald Sutherland). Norton plays the role as petulantly as possible so the audience can cheer his inevitable fate, tortured to death (off-screen) by Russian mobsters. An uncomfortable aura of vengeance takes over, and the sense of self-satisfied righteousness weighs down an otherwise breezy affair.
After The Italian Job, Gray would move onto the Elmore Leonard adaptation and Get Shorty sequel, Be Cool. Released in 2005, Cool is to date the only film in the F. Gary Gray canon which doesn’t contain an outwardly vengeful narrative. But only four years later, he would double down, returning in full force to his usual style.
Law Abiding Citizen
Gray’s most righteously portentous work is 2009’s Law Abiding Citizen, which plays like a decade-too-late rip-off of Se7en. The movie pits Jamie Foxx’s state prosecutor Nick Rice against Gerard Butler’s supervillain, Clyde Shelton. Shelton is set on exposing the flaws within the legal system because the man who murdered his wife and daughter is ultimately set free on a plea deal negotiated by Rice. Shelton is foregrounded as a victim in the opening sequence: a home invasion, during which the attacker says “You can’t fight fate” just before raping Shelton’s wife and stabbing her to death. However, Shelton follows this by intentionally getting arrested and, while behind bars, killing no less than a dozen people via methods that range from car bombs to phone bombs to oxygen deprivation to murder by Porterhouse steak bone. Each killing is supposed to shed light on a different problem within the justice system, but any actual poignancy is lost due to the generally risible nature of either the murder itself or Shelton’s outlandish explanation of the crime. The film ultimately gives us a double dose of vengeance: Shelton acts in chaotic retribution for the wrong done to his family, while Rice tries to stop Shelton from taking his schemes even further. For the ludicrous “happy” ending, Rice re-appropriates one of Shelton’s Rube Goldberg-esque traps and the audience watches as the man who started the film as a victim is burned alive, done in by his own sense of twisted revenge.
Even Gray’s N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton has an undercurrent of retribution. Compton opens with Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), in the midst of a drug deal gone bad, escaping a federal DEA bust. Compare this with Dr. Dre’s (Corey Hawkins) introduction: lying on his bedroom floor, listening to Roy Ayers, with records by Parliament, James Brown and Marvin Gaye underneath him. The camera slowly pans over him, a delicate lens flare forming above his head, creating a messianic image of Dre. Despite the N.W.A. members’ consistent level of partying and debauchery throughout the first half of the film, Eazy-E is the only one who receives any kind of admonishment. Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), N.W.A.’s manager, ominously cautions Eazy, “You just gotta slow down. You can’t fuck every broad on the planet.” The story’s final third chronicles Eazy-E’s diagnosis and death due to HIV, during which the finger-wagging turns to lionization. The film becomes high melodrama, attempting to retroactively deify Eazy-E. With his death, the group’s wild times are atoned for, and the other members live on, scot-free and tremendously wealthy.
Straight Outta Compton’s blockbuster earnings paved the way for Gray to take hold of an even bigger Hollywood product, the quarter-of-a-billion dollar budgeted The Fate of the Furious. Fate contains many Gray hallmarks, from (for a PG-13 film, surprisingly) graphic violence to vague speechifying about “fate” and “choice.” Fate’s villain is Cipher (Charlize Theron, mostly yelling at computer screens), a hacker so feared that “even Anonymous won’t mess with her,” who has kidnapped people dear to series protagonist Dominic Toretto (Diesel) in an effort to extort him into helping with her vague and unclear evil plans. Cipher delivers many lectures over the course of the 136 minute runtime, including a monologue to a very cornered Dom where she says “That’s the thing about fate: it’s cunning. It’s beautiful and then it’ll bring you moments like this.” But, as with all Fast and Furious films, hope is only a few face beatings and cartoonish action set-pieces away. Dom’s “family” (now consisting of government officials, hackers and vehicular daredevils) saves a hostage, murders hordes of faceless henchmen and progressively disassembles Cipher’s plans until Dom and his previous contributions to evil are exonerated. At the end of the film, almost every member of Cipher’s crew is left captured or murdered, with the only person escaping justice being Cipher herself (surely to fulfill supervillian duties in the next entry).
There is, however, one film in the F. Gary Gray oeuvre that subverts this consistently repeated mold. In 1996, as his follow-up to Friday, Gray counteracted the hyper-masculinity of his debut with a female-centric picture. Set It Off is an action-thriller starring the quartet of Jada Pinkett, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise, made on triple the budget of Friday, yet still firmly landing, at $9 million, within the range of the era’s mid-budget genre fare. Coming five years after Thelma and Louise, the plot of Set It Off doesn’t immediately strike one as too novel: Four women, unable to sustain themselves on their current wages, change their careers to bank robbers. But rather than playing into Thelma and Louise’s self-destructive streak or into the story’s natural pulpiness, Set It Off is, in earnest, one of Hollywood’s finest exercises in empathy. Each of the four leads (importantly, all black women) has a unique experience of systemic oppression that leads them down a path where robbing banks seems like the only reasonable option. Each of these women’s relationship with economic oppression is very specific: governmental discrimination, wrongful termination in the workplace, harassment, and violence perpetrated by the police are all dominating forces in their day-to-day lives. The very idea of the robbery starts as only a seed, but as each of the women’s situations worsen, the heist seems to be the only way out. When asked whose money is being stolen, Frankie (Fox) replies, “We just taking away from the system that’s fuckin’ us all anyway.”
Set It Off
Another integral part of Set It Off’s success is that each woman brings a fleshed-out and exclusive identity to the film and to the group dynamic. Stony (Pinkett), who is recently orphaned and trying to get her brother into UCLA, is the cautious member, shrewd, but never timid. Cleo (a mirthful Latifah) is the loudmouth of the group, a boisterous queer woman with a ferocious impulse to protect her crew at all costs. Frankie, the professional woman and schemer of the clique, and T.T. (Elise), a mother who only wants the best for her child, round out the cadre. Screenwriters Takashi Bufford and Kate Lanier take the time to define these characters, letting them speak for themselves and giving them the space to just exist, often joyously. A scene in which the four protagonists goof around on a roof, smoking a blunt and ragging on each other, offers a brief respite away from the suffocation of daily life, observing as the women revel in their love for one another.
By itself, Set It Off feels miraculous. Yet when viewed through the lens of F. Gary Gray’s career, the film becomes even more tremendous. Like every other Gray work, Set It Off revolves around justice; those who have “done wrong” end up having to pay for their actions. As the film progresses and the law closes further in on the transgressive quartet, the tone shifts from joyous to tragic. This isn’t very structurally different from most of Gray’s movies, but the fundamental distinction here is the overarching sense of empathy. Where almost every other Gray film sides itself with the character or higher power doing the punishing, Set It Off makes it abundantly clear these women have needlessly suffered. This is the only Gray film that accepts that in this world, punishment doesn’t just lead to justice, but often yields injustice instead. Set It Off shows that only by letting go of vengeful wrath could F. Gary Gray provide the film world with an all too rare gift: an act of true filmic empathy.