By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
At least part of the oversight is Gray's own doing. Though his films read as stunning racial (and class and gender) texts, he downplays the sociopolitical aspects of his films: "I really don't want to focus on the race issue, because that would be the easy thing to do. Now, if there's anything you get from [the films] beyond entertainment, any sort of political thing, then, hey, I'm with it." It's a savvy stance. For while it means that he's been denied the media play afforded to Lee and Singleton, he's also not been boxed in by the crushing expectations that greet their every work; he's not obligated to deliver explicitly political work or give a soundbite anytime the media needs a public Negro to explain black folks to white folks. And he's been allowed to hone his craft below the radar. Thanks to Sundance, young directors are expected to emerge fully formed with their first effort. Gray, having been bypassed for showier prospects, has escaped that ludicrous pressure.
He grew up in South-Central, studied film and television at L.A. City College before dropping out of school at age 20 to work as a cameraman for Fox television, CNN and E!, then quickly moved on to direct music videos for the likes of Ice Cube, TLC, Coolio and Whitney Houston. It's a rich irony, given his stint as an MTV auteur, that his film style eschews the fashionably bombastic, quick-edit approach in order to focus on stories and characters.
In The Negotiator, Samuel L. Jackson plays an ace cop wrongly accused of murder and embezzlement, who must then go up against the co-workers - a sea of white faces - who betray him. He's snared in a ring of police corruption and conspiracy that confirms a lot of black folks' fears about the powers that be. He's negotiating for justice, but, more importantly, he's wrestling with the perception his co-workers have of him, why they were so quick to believe him guilty, why no one would defend him. The part was originally cast with Sylvester Stallone, and as proof that casting is a film's destiny, The Negotiator would have been another generic Sly-versus-the-system flick if he'd kept the role. Jackson, with his unambiguously Negroid features and scary nigger unpredictability imbues The Negotiator with dense cultural weight; he turns the part into a very definite "black thang," and that the film registers at all is because of it. "It's really coincidental that Sam is black," says Gray with a smile. "My focus was really on getting the audience behind Danny Roman, Sam's character, having them root for him and take that journey with him. It was more that than any political-type thing." And as he sits smiling, you wonder if even Gray really believes that.
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