When you bring up the latest Fast & Furious movie, people are always quick to ask “Why are they still making these movies?” And then if you ask, “Have you watched them?” The answer is always, “No, I don’t watch those stupid movies.”
If you looked at the numbers, there is no doubt someone is watching them, so why aren’t you? Until Captain America 2 opened this April, Fast 5 had the best opening in the same month. If you looked at the cast, you’d see the most diverse cast in any blockbuster film. A cast that is majority POC. It doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test, but in a cast of 9, it has 4 women who aren’t just damsels in distress. Everyone is capable, everyone is part of the team. When Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) describes their team as family, it doesn’t matter that they all come from different walks of life, different ethnicities and different countries. It goes without mentioning that this family is white, brown, and black.
The first reason someone gives for not seeing the movies is often,”Aren’t they just straight-to-DVD movies?” citing 2 Fast 2 Furious and Fast & Furious–Tokyo Drift, which in terms of quality are admittedly the worst in the series. Those two films essentially destroyed the franchise’s customer loyalty when they came out in 2003 and 2006. But since then, there have been three movies that always made more than expected, each one breaking another box office record. Fast & Furious (2009) made more in its weekend debut than in its entire run. You know what the two worst movies in the franchise have in common? They put as their male lead, a generic white guy with a black sidekick.
It’s really rare for a movie franchise to redeem itself in the public perception after falling so low in quality, but Fast & Furious pulled it off. No one wanted to see another Schumacher Batman, no one wanted to see another Christopher Reeves-ish Superman, and right now, people aren’t sure they want to see another JJ Abrams Star Trek. Where did Star Trek position itself in 2013? #11. Not even in the top 10. Not as many people watched Star Trek as Fast & Furious 6, but a lot more people would defend the decision to make more JJ Abrams Star Trek films. Not to discount Star Trek’s position in the modern American cultural landscape. When it comes to that franchise, you don’t hear people laugh it off as just another dumb “bro” flick. Although its main character wakes up in bed with two women, drinks Bud Light all day, crashes a sports car while listening to Beastie Boys, and fails upward constantly.
Just like Star Trek has somehow created a future of western society where brown people have mysteriously disappeared (even a desert planet evolves extremely pale light-skinned Vulcans), the audiences that watch Fast & Furious have also mysteriously disappeared. There is a huge audience out there watching those films, and they are brown, urban, trans-national and disregarded. I watched the first film as a high school student in Elizabeth, NJ. That opening night, every kid from school was there. Now check out the numbers of my town:
City Demographics (2000 Census data):
- The majority of residents are Hispanic (59.5%), White (26.8%) and Black (20%)
- Almost 45% of the city’s population was born outside the United States.
- Approximately 67% of Elizabeth residents five years of age and over speak a language other than English with Spanish the primary language for almost 50% of the population.
- The median household income in Elizabeth is $35,175
- Almost 20% of Elizabeth households have a female as the head of household.
- 70% of the population lives in rented apartments, houses, rooms, etc
Now check out Fast & Furious demographics:
- 9 main characters: 4 women – from Panama, Dominican Republic/Puerto Rico, Israel. 5 men – 2 African American, 1 mixed race, 1 Korean.
- 4 Directors: (all men) – 1 white, 1 African American, 1 Chinese (Justin Lin, the director of the latest three), and the next film will be directed by James Waan, who is Malaysian.
- The films take place in LA, Miami, Tokyo, LA/Mexican Border, Brazil, London/Spain.
- Languages spoken are English/AAVE, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese.
- At least two of the main characters have single parent households and a family member who at some point was imprisoned.
And for comparison, Star Trek Into Darkness:
- 10 main characters: 2 women – 1 British woman, 1 (NJ NATIVE!!!!) woman from Dominican Republic/Puerto Rico (Same as Michelle Rodriguez actually), 7 white men, 1 Korean.
- 1 director: white
- The films take place in a (should be) utopic post-scarcity future San Francisco and London, and other exotic locales like Utah and Q’onos.
- Languages spoken are English and aliens speaking English, and Klingon.
- All command positions are filled by white males.
- One of the two women in the movie is shown in her underwear for no reason, and the other one is almost always discussing her relationship with the emotionally unavailable Vulcan.
Star Trek, despite its high-minded ideals,completely misses the mark as far as what we might look like in the future. Unless the Eugenics Wars of the 90s just wiped out brown people (It might’ve, if you consider CumberKhan), there’s no reason that the 23rd century should be so pale. The only reason is the fact that the 60s were so damn pale, and modern fans go into fits when any character, no matter how minor, gets a melanin implant. It’s not surprising, that the majority of the world lives in modern cities, and wants to see a popcorn flick that reflects their modern demographics. The 8 other films in the top 10 for 2013 had majority white casts. “Oh, I don’t watch those Fast & Furious movies.” I know you’re watching those other 8 films. Gravity, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel. White People in space, flying through space, falling through space. There’s an Indian guy in Gravity; he gets his head exploded. Don Cheadle is in Iron Man 3; he gets to be a fun sidekick and have his suit stolen from him while he’s wearing it, and Superman hails from a whole ‘nother Caucasoid planet. Man of Steel is especially egregious: a galaxy-spanning empire that looks like Kansas, and then sends their last son…to Kansas.
It might seem simplistic to blame Fast & Furious’s poor reputation on its diverse cast alone. People just say, “The story is terrible”, “It is so unrealistic”, etc. In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark jumps off a building INTO a metal suit. In Fast & Furious 6, Dom Torretto saves his boo by landing on a metal car. Later, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) asks, “How did you know that car would be there to break our fall?” Dom growls “I didn’t.” I don’t think any screen writer honestly thinks a car is a soft landing. The line is ridiculous, but its supposed to be. That’s what action films are for. Do you really believe that in Skyfall, James Bond can fall into a frozen lake then come out and fight the good fight unimpeded? Or that he still has testicles after Casino Royale? Expecting realism in an action movie gets you Gravity, and even that movie should’ve ended like the Challenger disaster. When people use a different standard that they won’t apply to similar films, i often feel like they’re grasping at straws. People who love cult classics, B movies, are often insecure of what they love. There’s a strong urge to be defensive, and as a result, to be more dependent on the tastes of your peers to admit you like something.
If something is so bad it’s good, there’s often the terror that maybe you’re liking something so bad it’s just bad. Everyone’s afraid of being the dude with bad taste, the “fake geek girl” who doesn’t know her stuff, the fanboy with blind allegiance. Praise inflation (the tendency to be over-enthusastic about lukewarm media —Pacific Rim anyone?) goes hand in hand with Hate Ignorance. That is, the tendency to hate things you’ve never seen, won’t ever see, because someone else said no one should see this ever. So all that remains is an increasingly shrinking pool of what is deemed worthy of entertainment, which becomes increasingly protected from any discussion of their merits or lack thereof. Once-skilled writers calcify into dead fossils, once-thriving franchises become paler reflections of what they were.
In Part 2 of the Most Successful Ignored Film Franchise, I’ll compare Fast & Furious to Transformers, Drive, and other B movies we’ve either been told we should hate, or told we should love. Why I believe good actors are the ones you want to keep watching and why we need permission to love bad movies.