After premiering at the opening night of the 2009 Urban World Film Festival, director F. Gary Gray’s latest film, “Law Abiding Citizen,” showed what he does best: tell a story that captivates his audience. ESSENCE.com caught up with the visionary to talk about his Oscar-friendly cast, the cultural significance of his films Set It Off and Friday,” and why he’s still able to keep it moving in Hollywood.
ESSENCE.COM: How does it feel to work with Oscar winner and nominee?
F. GARY GRAY: It’s incredible to work with actors of that caliber; they always bring new gifts to a film that neither the director nor the writer could have envisioned. Take Viola for example; there was one day when Viola jumped on a plane, arrived to set, threw on her wardrobe, and gave us a magical performance. Combine that with Jamie’s ability to always perform on the highest level and what you get is pure fire.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you hope this generation of movie watchers will gain from your new film, “Law Abiding Citizen?”
GRAY: I want them to see a retro-fresh approach to the psychological thriller. The film has a high-powered, mano y mano battle on the surface but you’ll find that a chess game between Jamie’s and Gerry’s characters begin to unravel. It adds a unique complexity to the film and I felt shooting it with a neo-noir look would complement that complexity by giving it a classic look that still relates to a modern audience.
ESSENCE.COM: As a director you have extremely diverse perspectives. What inspired your earlier films “Friday” and “Set it Off”?
GRAY: I wanted people to see a completely new and different perspective of Black culture. Films like “Menace 2 Society” and “Boyz N the Hood” shined the light on socio-economic problems in the inner cities. We wanted to contribute to that cause by using a different avenue. With “Friday,” we developed a film that saw the inner cities from a different angle; a fun, a familial place. Rather than showing the senseless violence that happens, it instilled the message that problems don’t have to be resolved with guns and it had to be funny as hell. With “Set It Off,” I was attracted to how unique the story was. Four Black women who become bank robbers through their individual circumstances. It was a film that showed Black women becoming empowered and taking control of their own destinies, albeit through illegal means. Like “Law Abiding Citizen,” “that film at its core was a morality tale that posed the question in what circumstance is committing a bad act acceptable?
ESSENCE.COM: In retrospect, how do you think your cult classics influenced the urban film landscape and Black America?
GRAY: I don’t know. It may have inspired other filmmakers to tell different stories about their experiences. That’s a tough one. It’s every filmmakers dream to shoot a film that thinks outside the box and still works. Sometimes it doesn’t work. So, when it does and it reaches out to such a devoted audience, it’s really gratifying.
ESSENCE.COM: What is the secret to your sustaining power as a filmmaker?
GRAY: I don’t know if I’d officially declare it “the secret,” but I make sure that I’m deeply passionate about the movies I make regardless of genre. Maybe, they’ve all been so different because I’ve never identified myself with any particular category of film. I just keep making the films that I love and would want to see in the theater.
“Law Abiding Citizen” in theaters nationwide on Friday, October 16.