It’s a strange world we live in, where the seventh (FUCKING SEVENTH?!) installment of an action franchise that used to be a gearhead punchline is on track to do superhero movie numbers this opening weekend, but the peculiarity inherent in the Fast & Furious universe’s charm isn’t entirely by happenstance. I stress “entirely” because, trust me, “happenstance” has played a serious role here. To say the nebulously tangible hand of fate wasn’t at least tangentially involved in a nu-metal Point Break remake birthing the heir apparent to both the Ocean’s films and the Bond franchise would be offensive to the very concept of cosmic irony. That said, it’s an equal disservice to the men and women who’ve given their considerable lifeblood to these films over the years to say the appeal has nothing to do with them at all.
There are a number of reasons why we love the Fast films (not the least of which is we, as a culture, just fucking love cars), but the resonance with which the later films have been accepted both by mainstream audiences and more discerning critical circles comes from something a little deeper. We love the Fast films because no other Hollywood chain of blockbusters so wholly mirrors the diversity of the modern world.
Look, I know “diversity” sounds a lot like an opportunistic buzzword right now, given the thinkpiece-bloodbath this galactically stupid Deadline piece wrought last week. However, there’s no denying that, in the landscape of mega-budgeted tentpole movies, the Fast films offer more genuine diversity than any of its competitors. Just look at this scene from Fast Five, arguably the franchise’s finest moment.
Now, discounting the obvious heist movie tropes here, this is as close to the assemblage of the Justice League as has ever been captured on film. Just replace Dom, Brian, and Mia with Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, and you’ve got DC’s Holy Trinity putting together the world’s finest heroes. They put together a racially and ethnically diverse team culled from the four corners of the franchise’s history with ease (this is just three minutes of screen time) and they manage to do so without anyone feeling like a token. Tego Calderon and Don Omar’s characters are given shorter shrift by comparison, but their treatment on screen, time devotion-wise, is about on par with that of Scott Caan and Casey Affleck’s in Ocean’s Eleven. Everyone has a place at the table and no one looks out of place. This may seem like a small thing to anyone who’s never given more than a passing thought to the subject of minority representation in media, but, given the general landscape of pop culture, this is a serious achievement.
In 2001, The Fast and The Furious starred Paul Walker and Vin Diesel. There are few people in the history of Earth I would characterize as “whiter” than Paul Walker, but Vin Diesel had been itching for a big break as an action star. Diesel (born Mark Vincent) is multi-racial and, while always identifying as a person of color, has never made it known the specific breakdown of his ancestry (due in no small part to his not knowing it, as he was raised by his mother, never having met his father). Diesel’s ambiguous ethnicity was such a big aspect of his appeal, he directed and starred in a short film on the subject called Multi-Facial. In the short, he plays a fictionalized version of himself, having to adapt to play roles of varying backgrounds. While he’s been accused in the past of downplaying any one aspect of his heritage to keep his acting options open, Diesel is the closest thing to a “post-racial” movie star Hollywood has, discounting of course, his co-star, The Rock, who’s Samoan-African American background is more pronounced. It’s only right that Diesel be the leader and de facto patriarch of the extended Fast & Furious family.
Diesel has long been the face of the franchise, but the late Walker’s Brian O’Conner is the one who goes through the most change. In the first film, Brian, with his TRL hair, piercing blue eyes and affable charisma seems like the perfect modern day Johnny Utah, infiltrating the underground racing culture to sniff out a ring of electronics boosters. When Brian makes it to his first race, there are many races represented, but they’re all divided into groups, not unlike the racial boundaries of the prison system. By 2 Fast 2 Furious, his character is rejiggered somewhat, and we see his childhood relationship with Tyrese Gibson’s Roman Pearce. It’s a small tweak, one that is less a deliberate paradigm shift and more the result of Vin Diesel feeling really good about xXx and wanting way too much money to do a sequel, but it’s important to note. Between the generally more colorful (both in racial make-up and actual stylistics) look of 2 Fast and Brian’s constant, notable code switching implies an entrenchment in the culture that transcends mimicry.
Coming from a black family, I’ve met a lot of dudes like Brian O’Conner, white men who’ve spent a lot of their lives around a predominately black or Latino culture. It’s an archetype that’s ripe for comedy, as noted by this classic Dave Chappelle bit and the preponderance of When You White But The Hood Fuck With You memes, but it’s a real thing. Brian is the White Boy Interloper, but his journey, from undercover cop, to disgraced racer, to FBI agent, to heist planning Point Man, to father, is a fascinating one, if for no reason other than he’s a white lead in a multicultural cast who never completely takes center stage. He begins as the audience’s eyes and ears into a new culture, but as his surfer boy locks are shorn and he marries into “la familia,” the fact that he’s the lead white dude becomes incidental instead of the central focus. While Tom Cruise can be The Last Samurai, Paul Walker ultimately joins this big family, but he doesn’t take a spot that doesn’t belong to him. Dom is so clearly the father figure whose magnetism holds everything together. Brian is happy and proud to stand at his side and support him, never falling into the White Savior Complex.
This thread of diversity doesn’t perfectly run through the entire franchise, of course. 2 Fast 2 Furious has Wings Hauser’s son Cole playing an Argentine drug lord for no discernible reason, while its sequel, Tokyo Drift, despite being tremendously important to the franchise as a cultural turning point, is full of racially dubious decisions, Lucas Black’s Sean Boswell being nearly the polar opposite of Brian O’Conner chief among them. Also, like, why does the love interest Neela (Nathalie Kelley) speak with an Australian accent? Her mother was Aussie, yes, but she died before Neela was born and she was raised in Tokyo. Similarly, Bow Wow’s Twinkie is the closest thing the franchise has to an actual token, even if he does do a surprisingly cogent job of representing every black otaku you’ve ever met.
Despite these inconsistencies, it’s hard to argue against the relative utopia of representation the Fast films provide. In what other film would Chris “Ludacris” Bridges be given the opportunity to believably portray a character like Tej Parker? He’s essentially the team’s Q-like tech expert. In any other movie, this role being filled by a rapper turned actor would be accompanied by a constant winking, but here, we accept that Tej knows his shit (“I had a life before I met you…”). That the films include this scene below shows they’re aware of the disparity.
Ludacris and The Rock emasculating an uppity, racist Englishman? 10/10, would shame again.
The key to what makes this action packed, seven film long Benneton ad work is actually in the beginning of this clip. It’s the one thing that unites every character in these films, regardless of creed, color or religion. Every single person in the Fast universe is a gearhead, and they are all as conversant in auto jargon as Aaron Sorkin characters are in the intricacies of public policy. It’s the kind of minor shift with major implications the best alt history novels are made from. It makes the Fast universe as different from our own as the Marvel universe, or that one theory about why everything is so violent in Tarantino films. It allows directors like John Singleton and Justin Lin to tell stories about real life struggle through a genre film lens.
It’s that superheroic obsession with cars that unites Dominic Torretto’s family (along with barbecue and Coronas). The Fast films, through a combination of happy accidents and subtle cultural commentary, present a world where the singular exaltation of the automobile (and, perhaps on a rawer level, human invention and the pursuit of speed and ferocity), when coupled with familial bonds, can overcome even the most institutional vagaries of discrimination.
We may not actually live in a post-racial society (Thanks, Obama!), but at least we get to visit one every summer.