From Hip-Hop to Hollywood

Donnell Alexander interviews "Set It Off" director Gary Gray.

By Donnell Alexander

Published November 11, 1996 6:48PM (EST)

music videos historically have been off the path of the serious filmmaker. But with the growing black market niche in both television and movies, that isn't true any more. Case in point: Director F. Gary Gray, whose stylish hip-hop videos gave him the opportunity to move to the bigger screen, making compelling, well-crafted feature films on urban themes.

A native of South Central Los Angeles, the 27-year-old Gray began his career seven years ago, gigging as a photographer on the young Fox network's rap video show "Pump it Up!" It was there that he met members of the seminal Los Angeles hip-hop group WC and the Maad Circle, who hired him to direct one of their videos. This work led to a prodigious video career, including his helming Coolio's "Fantastic Voyage" and Ice Cube's "Today was a Good Day," which was rated by Rolling Stone as one of the top 100 videos of all time.

It was Ice Cube who helped Gray get his first big-screen job, directing Cube's screenplay "Friday," a funny, low-budget ($3 million) meditation on marijuana and downtime in the hood. "Friday," which made an impressive $30 million at the box office, is likely to remain a cult hit as long as renting videos and smoking pot go hand in hand. One of a handful of hip-hop influenced cinematic classics, along with "Boyz in the Hood," "Menace II Society," and "Juice," the 1995 film explored a day in the life of an out-of-work young black man. As special as this film was, however, its small budget kept Gray from larger visions  ones realized in his new film "Set It Off."

"Set it Off" is not the kind of escapist fare that leaves the mind once the harsh light of the multiplex lobby hits the the eye. It's a stylish tale about a quartet of poor black women (played with uncompromising commitment by Jada Pinkett, Queen Latifah, Kimberly Elise and Vivica Fox) who take to robbing banks when clean living can't pay the rent. Their ill-fated mission, paradoxically, puts them on the path to self-actualization. Though some viewers will be unsettled by its message, others will recognize "Set it Off" as this year's zeitgeist film, a more powerful "Waiting to Exhale."

In street parlance, "set it off" means to set something powerful into motion, an expression that describes Gray as accurately as it does his new film. Gray recently spoke with Salon about his burgeoning film career, hip-hop and making it in Hollywood.

I'm curious to know if fulfilling your long-time goal of becoming a filmmaker is what you thought it was going to be.

I'm more satisfied than I am disappointed. "Friday" is an edgy movie, "Set it Off" is an edgy movie  neither one of them falls along the safe, Hollywood formula film story lines, and they're both close to my heart. So I'm satisfied with the fact that I can make what I want to make and, fortunately, be in the position to turn down films or major budgets, and look at the material that I wouldn't have  especially at this age  been exposed to. On the other hand, it's disappointing that there isn't a lot of good material out there.

Is that a surprise to you?

Yeah, it is surprising. Out of 40 scripts, one may be good. There are a lot of people in the industry who really just write a lot of the same stuff, and it doesn't appeal to me. And I live by the Hangman Theory: Every time you make a bad decision, you get the stick, and eventually if you make enough bad choices, you hang yourself in this industry. Although I want to continue to shoot, and shooting is my life right now, I don't want to do it for the sake of doing it.

Is it important to you to move beyond the "'hood movie" label?

I would say hip-hop has definitely one of the forces that fueled my career and I have a lot of respect for hip-hop. But I also have respect for the art of filmmaking. With all respect to hip-hop, I really don't want to restrict myself, labeling my films hip-hop films, just like I wouldn't want to restrict them as just black films. My plans from this point on will always be to make good stories. If it takes place in the 'hood, if it takes place in outer space, if it takes place in Canada [laughs] or in the Grand Canyon, that's where I'm going to shoot it.

You've featured many rappers in your films, such as Ice Cube in "Friday" and Queen Latifah in "Set it Off." It seems the leap from music videos to film works for your actors as well.

I don't set out to say I want a rapper in this part, a singer in this part. It's individualized to each project. But one thing I can say is that rappers like Ice Cube have a narrative style of rapping, and it's almost like a performance from an actor, because you have to believe that they come from this neighborhood or you have to believe they're going through certain scenarios that they create in their songs. They have to actually act on microphone, and I think that's good practice.

How does making music videos fit into your film work?

Directors don't get an opportunity to play. Actors have workshops. Musicians have bands. Directors, who are in the same kind of creative medium, don't have an opportunity to play or to test certain things. And video is a playground for me. I say "play," but when I play, I'm serious. As a director of motion pictures, you can go two years without making a movie. You don't want to get rusty. It doesn't work for everyone, but for me, it works.

Donnell Alexander

Donnell Alexander is a Portland-based creator of cultural content. Follow him on Twitter @donnyshell.

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