The last time F. Gary Gray directed a movie, the world got an in-depth look at the area he grew up in. It was his 2015 Straight Outta Compton, the origin story of one of the best hip-hop collectives to ever step inside a recording booth. Rock & Roll Hall of Famers N.W.A. launched the careers of producer/impresario Dr. Dre and film star and mogul Ice Cube, both of whom have created multimillion-dollar empires and influenced not only hip-hop music, but Hollywood and culture as a whole.
Straight Outta Compton was a dream come true for Gray. It was one of 2015’s best reviewed films and it was the No. 1 movie in the country for three weeks in a row. This got the industry debating — again — the merits of black films, and how well they can do around the country and around the world. Gray had his pick of projects; certainly his name was tossed around as a contender to direct Marvel’s Black Panther. Then quite ceremoniously — on Twitter — Gray announced he’d be directing the next installation of the The Fast and the Furious franchise.
“The story and the challenge,” Gray said, explaining why he went with The Fate of the Furious, which opens on Friday. “Dom [Vin Diesel] going rogue is something that you’d never expect, if you follow the franchise at all. Dom goes into Darth Vader mode and does something that’s really surprising for a lot of the fans.” The story line is a major twist in the franchise, which this time is set in New York City, Cuba, and Iceland. “Then you combine all that with the biggest action heroes in the world, and sprinkle in a couple Oscar winners. I think that’s a great recipe for a fun ride.”
It’s also a recipe for another record-breaking box-office success story: $380 million globally is the prediction. The Fast franchise — this is the eighth film — destroys the notion that people of color can’t carry a film overseas. The films star a bevy of brown actors in various hues — Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris and Michelle Rodriguez — and does some of its best work in coveted international markets. The film’s seventh installment was its best (it also was the last for franchise star Paul Walker, who died in a 2014 car crash) and was, in terms of box office might, the fifth biggest film of all time.
Gray has done some of his best work telling diverse, well-rounded stories: 1995 cult classic Friday, 1996’s Set it Off, 2003’s The Italian Job, and 2009’s Law Abiding Citizen. “Globally, a lot of the fans can see themselves as one of the characters in these stories,” Gray said. “It feels inclusive and diverse.”
The success of the Furious film series didn’t scare Gray. It energized him. “I always want to top myself,” he said. “I always want to see what I can do that I’ve never done before.” He knows fans expect a certain spectacle from a Fast movie and believes he and his crew delivered on that. “But I wanted to push the limits of the story, the performances, the drama, and the humor. And add my twist to it. Am I nervous? Maybe a little,” he said. “But once you’ve defined what your goal is, it’s just about hitting that. How can we make this franchise, this movie, each installment, fresh — not only for the fans, but for newcomers? That was the goal.”
Another goal? To challenge himself personally. And that mission was absolutely accomplished.
“Shooting in Cuba was profound for me. Sometimes as Westerners, you get comfortable, and when you go to a place like Cuba — you realize what things we take for granted,” he said. “Although you’re being creative and you’re shooting a movie, you walk away slightly changed, and hopefully better as a person, as a director, a storyteller.” He said he watched the Havana residents see Havana from the air for the first time as it brought tears to their eyes. “To see their beloved capital from a bird’s-eye view was profound for them, which made it profound for us.”
And if he can sharpen himself professionally, that’s the cherry on top.
“I’m walking into a franchise that has existed for 15-plus years. Actors who know their characters. And while I’ve worked with more than half of the principal cast, I had to change my approach. I had to adjust my approach to get performances,” he said. “I like to think I’m better for all of that.”