Diversity, as San Diego anchorman Ron Burgundy explained nearly a decade ago, was an old wooden ship used during the Civil War. Which, of course, was way off. Ron, played by Will Ferrell in the 2004 comedy “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” was gently corrected by his news director, who said it was very unlikely that he received a network mandate to hire more Civil War frigates. It was a nonsensical conversation and yet, here's the remarkable thing: That was also one of the few acknowledgments in a summer movie of recent memory that mankind is varied. Diverse.
Skip ahead to the summer movies of 2013, and Jamie Foxx, in one of the few nods to the texture of 2013, is the president of the United States in “White House Down” (June 28). There's Will Smith in “After Earth” (May 31), Ken Jeong's Mr. Chow in “The Hangover Part III,” Laurence Fishburne as the first African-American Perry White in “Man of Steel” (June 14). There's “Star Trek: Into Darkness” (May 15), the latest installment of a series that pioneered the idea of everyday cultural diversity in the 1960s. But unless we accept robots as an ethnicity (“Pacific Rim,” July 12) — or Johnny Depp as Native American sidekick Tonto in “The Lone Ranger” (July 3) — it goes without saying that summer movies do not reflect the panorama of our lives.
Almost goes without saying.
Because there is a summer movie franchise with an unappreciated commitment to race and diversity that goes beyond Will Smith and minor acts of thoughtful casting, where the stars are multilingual, multicultural, multi-everything. Its roots are not in robot manufacturing or superhero angst but the juvenile-delinquent exploitation flicks of the '50s. It's preening, loud, full of spectacular acts of property damage and colors insulting to nature. It's also a utopian vision where half-Mexicans, half-Chinese and half-Samoans stand alongside half-whites and half-blacks. It's “Ocean's Eleven” without humor, the Disney Channel with neck tattoos — and diversity is every day.
I mean, of course, the “Fast and Furious” movies, a force for change in a culture of stasis.
When did I first realize that the “Fast and Furious” franchise — despite belching blue smoke, hot pants and neon trim for 12 years, despite a giggle-inducing trailer for its latest, “Fast & Furious 6” (May 24), that suggests car thieves can take down a cargo plane with two grappling hooks, then burst out of its exploding cabin in a small car — was actually the most radical, socially progressive thing coming out of Hollywood?
But it wasn't obvious.
Look, sometimes, in the course of human events, to effect change, mankind requires an unwitting vessel no one takes seriously, a Trojan horse with Paul-Newman-blue eyes and no discernible personality who says “Bro” too much and probably does not realize, as he stares blankly into the middle distance, he is a difference-maker.
We need a Paul Walker.
The first time I caught an inking that this unwitting agent of social justice was part of something larger than himself, it was the summer of 2001 and I was watching the “The Fast and the Furious,” the franchise's first installment. Walker plays Brian, a Los Angeles cop who goes undercover to infiltrate a car racing/stealing ring. Brian has a surfer vibe and speaks in booming, Keanu-like declarative sentences. The problem with this police infiltration, though, is, well, Brian is quite white; he's from Barstow, he says, meaning small-town California — a bit more rural, we imagine, than Walker himself, who, though he has a certain ruggedness, grew up in the LA suburb of Glendale, the son of a sewer contractor and a fashion model, which I am not making up.
The ring is led by Vin Diesel's character, who matches Brian blank stare for blank stare. Diesel plays Dom, and his compatriots, his crew, are a vast array of races, ethnicities and mixed ethnicities who, aside from Michelle Rodriguez, glower. Rodriguez sneers. Rodriguez, whose parents are Dominican and Puerto Rican, plays Dom's racer girlfriend. Dom's sister, attracted to Brian, is played by Jordana Brewster and supposedly, like Dom, is Italian. Brewster, however, has an American dad and a Brazilian swimsuit-model mom, and Diesel, raised by an African-American stepfather, calls himself a mix of Italian and “ambiguous.”
And those are just the leads.
Anyway, here's the moment I realized — socially and racially — this thing was unique: Brian, known to race a mean car, asks to race in a street jam. The Asians, Mexicans and whatever Diesel is scoff at Brian. Brian — who is referred to once as “snow boy,” but whose whiteness rarely comes up in the series — sees that he does not have the cultural capital to be accepted into this group. And so he goes all-in. He demands their respect.
Dom snickers. But Brian says, no, if he races and wins, that's what he wants, simply their respect, nothing more.
He has offered up a rare deal: success on their terms. And, sure, he wins. But when he wins — and here is where the “Fast and Furious” movies truly diverge from mainstream Hollywood — Brian becomes part of the crew, another face. He doesn't dominate the crew. In fact, as the series has gone on (and, curiously, gotten better, bigger), Walker, though still a sandy-haired leading man, is increasingly on equal footing with the others, swallowed into the pastiche. Also, more remarkably, somewhat radically, that cultural sublimation is not acknowledged, not once. On paper, everything about the “Fast and Furious” series would suggest a self-congratulatory life lesson tucked dutifully into its narratives. And yet race and ethnicity are rarely mentioned. The “Fast and the Furious” films are not about a white cop learning to work with thugs. They're about a group of thugs who drive superfast.
In early 2009, a couple of months after Barack Obama was elected president, Tracy Morgan of “30 Rock,” accepting a Golden Globe award, announced: “I am the face of post-racial America! Deal with it, Cate Blanchett!” Which, as goofy as that might have sounded, was not without point. The classic Hollywood instinct for addressing race is to remind the audience it is now dealing with race. Stanley Kramer's “The Defiant Ones” (1958), arguably the contemporary liberal-studio template, starred Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, white and black, shackled together and on the run. They must work together, literally moving in sync, to live in harmony. But there's also what might be called the urban-missionary picture: “Dangerous Minds” (1995), with Michelle Pfeiffer as a good teacher in a black school, and “The Blind Side” (2009), with Sandra Bullock as a suburban mom adopting a black football player. In pursuit of a well-meaning image of equality, situations that might be considered relatively commonplace, or less than surprising, become heroic, full of solemn minority stand-ins and brave white game-changers.
The genius of the “Fast and Furious” series is it ignores the narrative trope that race is a problem to be addressed and accepts that race is what you see when you leave the house. Not coincidentally, there's a small circle of inexpensively produced, not-taken-very-seriously franchises — the “Step Up” dance extravaganzas is another — where race and mixed ethnicity is a way of life.
“Our tension about America's increasing multiethnicity gets played out in these movies,” said Mary Beltran, a film professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied ethnicity in the “Fast and Furious” films. “Except when these films do it, you don't have to think about it.” Much the way, say, “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” is a stoner comedy first, then the most subversively incisive film about racism in the past decade. (Random example: Harold and Kumar ask a jailed man why he's in jail. The man says he was arrested leaving Barnes & Noble: “I'm fat, I'm black, can't dance and have two gay fathers. People have been messing with my whole life.”)
Which is not to say Hollywood's worst tendencies are entirely absent from “F&F.” In the first “Fast and Furious,” when Brian sacrifices his police job to save Dom, that brave-white-hero-stepping-in device returns briefly. And in the second installment, “2 Fast 2 Furious,” when Brian is enticed back into police work, we're subtly reminded of how much easier it is for this white guy to shed his street life loosely, to slide quietly between cultures.
That said, this series is also not interested in the pain of racial complexities. It's about the buzz of a speeding car, the way Rodriguez's character removes her sunglasses, sprawling parking-lot parties, the curves of the cars and women, the way streetlights blur into an onrushing hyperspace when Dom presses that ignition thingy on his dashboard. There's a race every 10 minutes, a spectacular stunt (mostly accomplished without digital effects) every 20 minutes. And the series has gone increasingly global: “Fast & Furious” (2009) unfolded in the Dominican Republic; “Fast Five,” which introduced Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (half-Samoan) to the mix, was set in Brazil; the new film travels to London. But always, the camera crawls over speaker systems, flashy rims, racing lines, hot clothing — you are not defined by race in these films, but by your consumer choices.
The good news is that when you consider the blockbusters of last year — “Avengers,” “Dark Knight Rises,” “Hunger Games” — you have to dig fairly deep to strike anything quite as soulless as the “Fast & Furious” series. The bad news is that you have to dig much deeper before you strike anything as casually diverse, either. Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, who teaches race and film at Columbia College Chicago, told me: “I worry, because once you realize that American movies are how people around the world see America, it hits you: Oh, they think we're all white and rich.”
The “Fast and Furious” series, in comparison, peddles what Beltran calls “racelessness, a visual veneer.” Alongside explosions, speed, flash, va-va-va-voom. Watching the first installment again, I realized that when a driver tells Brian “It's not how you stand by your car (looking supercool), it's how you race,” that driver is really pointing us toward the post-racial horizon we've been hearing about. Except it's not post-racial anymore. It's post-everything, because, you and me, we're moving too fast to notice race and ethnicity now. And Hollywood can't keep up.
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