Directors’ Trademarks: F. Gary Gray

Directors’ trademarks is a series of articles that examines the “signatures” that filmmakers leave behind in their work. With this month’s 25th anniversary of the film Friday, we’re looking at the trademark style and calling signs of F. Gary Gray as director. 

Felix Gary Gray was born on July 17th, 1969 in New York City, although he would be raised in South LA. Growing up with a single parent in a high crime neighborhood, Gray didn’t have a lot of opportunities to immerse himself in film. It wasn’t until a high school audio visual class where he first got the opportunity to use a video camera. With film, he found a way to make his mark, and around the age of 16 figured out he wanted to be a filmmaker. Film school wasn’t an option for him, and so he knew he would have to work his way up from nothing to make a name for himself. 

That effort started right out of high school, where he got a job as a camera operator for TV shows on BET and Fox. As he got more comfortable with the equipment, he got into the music video business. One of his first opportunities was for a highschool friend, rapper WC. Gray directed the first music video for WC and the Maad Circle, and met Ice Cube on set. Ice Cube was impressed by Gray and later offered him the opportunity to direct the music video for “It Was a Good Day.” That video became an MTV staple, and opened up many new opportunities for Gray, including an offer by Ice Cube to direct a feature film, Friday. 

Friday found success at theaters in 1995 and has since become a cult hit. The next year, Gray directed a follow-up, 1996’s Set it Off, which also did well at the box office and was well received by critics and audiences. In 1998, he released The Negotiator, a thriller with Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacy. The film did moderately well in theaters and with critics. Gray’s next film was the 2003 remake of The Italian Job, which became a big hit. What followed were two of Gray’s worst-received and performing films, 2001’s A Man Apart, and 2005’s Be Cool. In 2009 he directed Law Abiding Citizen which found success in theaters, and in 2015 he returned with Straight Outta Compton, which proved to be the most critically acclaimed film of his career so far, and also one of his most successful. In 2017 he directed the eighth film in the Fast and Furious franchise, Fate of the Furious. In 2019 he released his latest film, Men In Black: International. 

So the question posed is, if you are watching a F. Gary Gray film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Mr. Gray’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:

African American Perspective

Growing up in a tough neighborhood without some of the same types of opportunities and resources as other filmmakers had in their childhood has given Gray’s work a unique perspective. On a basic level, his films tend to be more representative of diversity than we typically see in major releases. Often his main character is not white, and his films usually have a large ensemble cast full of men and women from different backgrounds. But his films are more than just giving opportunities to minorities in front of the camera. He took the environment he grew up in and used it as motivation for the types of characters and storytelling he would focus on. 

It starts with Friday, of course. A film about life in the poorer, less privileged neighborhoods of LA. Life here is tough, but the film doesn’t exactly dwell on the struggle as had been seen in other films of the time. Instead, it progresses in a lackadaisical way. It’s a comedy set in an unlikely environment which had been typecast as unfriendly, almost unlivable. Despite the challenges they face, the characters take their situation in stride. They do the best they can and enjoy living their life. The film bridges the gap between the hardcore depiction of gang violence seen in mainstream media, and the actual experience of living in these neighborhoods. 

Gray’s films tend to focus on people who find themselves in compromised positions outside of their own control. The characters are often positioned against an “invisible” enemy, not a specific person, but a system that takes advantage of the weak or those who are alone. For example, Set it Off is about a group of women who are driven to crime because of systematic opression and racial discrimination against them. The Negotiator is about a black police lieutenant who has been wrongly accused of killing his partner and stumbles upon widespread corruption as he fights back. A Man Apart, and Law Abiding Citizen both find their main characters in similar predicaments. Straight Outta Compton tells the real life story of the formation and rise to popularity of the gangsta rap group NWA, whose music spoke on racial oppression and the realities of many African Americans living at the time. Even in his latest film, Men In Black: International, we find the tenacious attitude and hard working spirit Gray is known for in main character Molly Wright. Wright is contrasted against hot shot Agent H, who has grown complacent because of his (unrealized) involvement with corruption inside the MIB. 

Characters Driven to Seek Justice

Cast against this great opression and discrimination, Gray’s character seek justice. The way they seek justice is usually through violent means, and is out of desperation. Without a specific antagonist readily available, the protagonist(s) directs their vengeance as they see fit. With all odds stacked against them, they usually reach some sort of tipping point that causes them to act out. In Friday, Craig and Smokey find themselves indebted to a powerful crime boss due to Smokey’s laziness and ineptitude. Over the course of the film, Craig’s frustration builds as further situations outside of his control continue put him at a disadvantage. Eventually, things come to a tipping point when the neighborhood bully assaults a woman Craig has an interest in. Craig is forced to stand up for himself by violently beating his nemesis. 

But while there are minor victories against injustice to be claimed in Gray’s films, defeat of injustice as a whole is not really impossible. Gray shows how difficult it is as a single person (or group of people) to instill social or economic change for the improvement of people’s lives on both an individual and group level. And although he advocates how hard work and determination can have a positive effect, he also recognizes much of life is outside of our own control. In Set it Off, each of the 4 main characters has something truly terrible happen to them which influences them to start robbing banks as a sort of revenge. At the beginning of the film the idea is floated as a joke, but their circumstances change and it is seen as the only option they have left. But even though they are successful at first, things outside of their control conspire against them and cause more desperation. They have opportunities to surrender, but instead continue fighting back, emboldened by their cause, which only results in tragedy. 

In The Negotiator, it’s not enough for Lieutenant Roman to just prove his innocence. He has to take it one step further and find out who set him up. He acts out desperately to try and expose the corruption and all of the collaborators who went along with it. In Law Abiding Citizen, Clyde Sheldon’s wife and daughter are murdered, and the murderer is able to lessen his jail sentence because of a mistake made by the prosecutor. Sheldon becomes obsessed not just in getting revenge against his family’s murderer, but against the legal system itself. He stages elaborate murders of his own to demonstrate the system’s flaws, but ultimately gets caught up in his own schemes. Even in Fate of the Furious we see a surprising change of heart by Dom after he is recruited by a cyber terrorist. He goes against his own team and “family”, betraying them and attacking them. The real reason is revealed to be so that he can prevent a massive disaster, and had to take the drastic action of turning against his friends in order to make it work. 

Unexpected Casting

As part of his effort to make diverse and inclusive films, Gray has a tendency of casting people for the types of roles we would not expect to see them in, or have not seen them in before. The effect of casting actors outside of their comfort zone has two effects. First, for the actors themselves, it provides them the opportunity to show their range and hopefully open up consideration for roles we may not have seen them in before. Second, it gives Gray’s films an edge. We see our favorite actors in new and interesting ways. More importantly, Gray isn’t afraid to cast those who have no acting experience whatsoever. He is able to recognize when someone has the right type of personality for a role, and capitalizes on that. 

This somewhat controversial approach to casting starts right at the beginning, with Friday. In the film, Ice Cube stars as the main protagonist. At the time, Ice Cube had no acting experience outside of music videos, and his persona was still very much associated with the tough-guy persona of his hard-edged music. Cube of course had control over production (he wrote the script) which helped him convince the production studio to allow him to star in the movie, but Gray was very hesitant. He didn’t think Cube would be able to be taken seriously in this role, let alone show the on screen charisma that would be required to pull it off. But, Gray and Cube worked through the challenges and it would go on to inspire Gray to make similar casting decisions in the future. 

With Set it Off, Gray made a similar casting decision as Cube in Friday. In this film, he cast Queen Latifa in one of her first major feature film roles. At the time, she was still very much associated with her music career, and not as a serious actress. In The Negotiator, Gray cast Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey in equal roles where they would have to work together. Critics lauded this as one of the best aspects of the film, as both of these veteran actors played off of each other to enhance their performances. In Be Cool, he cast former wrestler and action-movie icon Dwayne “The Rock” Nelson as a struggling gay actor. In Law Abiding Citizen, Jamie Foxx was originally going to play the role of the psychopathic convict, and Gerald Butler would be the attorney, but they ended up switching roles. In Straight Outta Compton, we see the casting of Ice Cube’s son to portray him. Finally, in Fate of the Furious, you have typical leading-lady Charlize Theron cast as the main antagonist, a wealthy cyber terrorist. 

Heist Master

All of F. Gary Gray’s films revolve around crime. More often than not, that crime is robbery, and the film details some sort of heist. In Friday, Smokey tries to steal the money he needs from the neighborhood bully. Set it Off is a film full of heists. It opens with a heist, and ends with one. It details the circumstances that would make people desperate enough to try off a risky bank robbery. The Italian Job is another film that is all about heists. It also opens with a heist, and the betrayal that takes place during that first heist sets up the rest of the film. This movie is also based on the original Italian Job, which was itself all about one giant elaborate heist. 

While The Negotiator doesn’t have a traditional heist, it does have the complexity and set up we associate with one. Instead of a heist, the film ends with the main characters working together to pull off an elaborate scheme in order to get a confession out of the man they suspect is the leader of the racketeering scheme. Likewise, in Law Abiding Citizen, there isn’t a heist, but there are complicated ploys to enact revenge. Sitting in prison, mastermind Clyse Shelton oversees elaborate schemes to showcase the flaws of the legal system which failed him to get justice on the murderer of his family. In Fate of the Furious, it is a heist where Dom first turns on his team, and the film later features an elaborate mission where Shaw boards a plane to steal Dom’s child back from the organization which is using the child to control him. 

Finally, to go along with the heist theme, F. Gary Gray has an eye for cars. Of course we have the obvious associations in Fate of the Furious, and The Italian Job, but is a fascination of noteworthy and important cars in most of his other films as well. In Set it Off, Cleopatra drives a nicely restored lowrider Impala. A Man Apart, is full of car chases, explosions, and a pristine Jaguar XJ220. In Be Cool, Uma Thurman drives a bright red 1957 Thunderbird, and in Law Abiding Citizen there is a nice black 1962 Cadillac Fleetwood Special that is featured in several scenes. All of these are not typical cars you see normal people driving around in every day. Most recently you have the updated version of the “Ford POS” from Men in Black as a sleek new Lexus RC-F in Men In Black: International.  

Ultimate Collaborator

Gray has freely admitted that as a young filmmaker he was not very familiar with the work of those famous filmmakers who had come before him. More importantly, he did not have any black filmmakers to look up to. As a result, much of his process as director has been self-taught, or else groomed from his experience working in television and in music videos. Because of this, he has a more workmanship approach to film making rather than an artistic one. Gray is not an auteur, he does not seek total creative control of the projects he works on. His influence is obviously felt in all of them, but he does not dictate every detail of the end result like many of his contemporaries. 

What that makes Gray is an expert collaborator. Of the ten feature films he has directed, he has only produced two of them. That is rare in this day and age when directors tend to also be producers of their own films. Likewise, Gray does not have any screenwriter credits. This is also an anomaly, as usually directors will want a say on the script they agree to direct. Gray leaves those parts of the production in the capable hands of others so that he can focus on direction. Gray is only one of two directors to ever direct a sequel in three different franchises where he did not direct a previous film. 

Furthermore, the cast and crew he works with typically changes on every film he makes. There are some minor exceptions, but he usually does not work with a set DP or writer, or cinematographer. This gives each of his films a unique feel in all aspects of the production – type and density of script, picture quality and texture, music, and editing. While this type of approach probably wouldn’t work well for many directors in the industry who are set in their ways and prefer to work in a specific manner, Gray has found success. Through his hard work, Gray has become one of the most successful African American filmmakers in the industry. 

 Want more Directors’ Trademarks? Check out the last installment here:

Directors’ Trademarks: George A. Romero