With their stranglehold at the box office as this generation’s action franchise, the movies of The Fast and the Furious universe reflect a world that has grown both more self-aware and diverse. The series has doubled down on both, to positive results.
Movie franchises matter. Seeing yourself reflected in art matters. It’s a happy secret that the Harry Potter movies included kids of all shapes, sizes and colors (WHY?). While some franchises have been purposely and appropriately monochromatic (The Godfather), most at least pay lip service to the idea that everyone exists in their sandbox. Some of these are clumsy (Transformers), some are a combination of refreshing and head scratching (MCU recast Nick Fury but has kept some terrific actresses on the sidelines to make more time for Infinity Stones).
One franchise, though, is unique in accurately reflecting a world that has grown more diverse. It has put both minority characters and women in roles where their agency is real and their skin color/gender are neither an impediment nor downplayed as not important. In a world that we are increasingly more sure “sees color,” The Fast and the Furious franchise stands out for its inclusiveness and timeliness.
Since these movies have names that have more in common than a West Virginia wedding, I’ve created a helpful list of easy to remember names for each movie in the series. It’s only a matter of time before my abbreviations become the common lexicon for the franchise. Here goes:
First Movie (2001): The Original: the one that’s an actual movie, and not a self-aware riff on action tropes.
Second (2003): Dodged Ja Bullet: the one where Ludacris and Tyrese become series regulars. Fun fact, Ja Rule had a minor cameo in the first movie, and he was offered half a million dollars to reprise his role and keep continuity since Vin Diesel elected not to return. Mr. Rule turned that role down, and the franchise moved to their second-round draft pick, Ludacris. That’s an all-time upgrade; Luda has a far better rap career and has carried scenes in dramatic movies by himself, while Ja Rule couldn’t even get a reality TV show off the ground. Imagine you drafted Tim Tebow to be your QB, only he doesn’t want to play, and you’re forced to go to your second option, Russell Wilson.
Third (2006): Tokyo Drift: the one where they drift in Tokyo. I cheated here, I kind of wish they would have done this for the entire series and you could talk about them like Star Wars movies, but sometimes differentiation is a goal unto itself.
Fourth (2009): Vin Back: the one where Vin Diesel came back.
Fifth (2011): Rock Bank Vault: the one where, The Rock shows up, and the one where they drag a bank vault down the streets. Way to give the people what they want.
Sixth (2013): Long Ass Runway: the one where Michelle Rodriguez’ character, Letty, is working with the bad guys and can’t remember Vin Diesel. Cute, but since there’s no plot in this franchise’s MacGuffin, it’s really the one where they hold an airplane down with cars after approximately 47 minutes of fighting.
Seventh (2015): See You Again: the one where each and every person reading this teared up when Vin and Paul drive off on separate roads and the song plays.
Eighth (2017): Bad Vin: the one where Vin is a bad guy now. I’m going out on a limb since this will go to press after the movie has premiered, but there is nothing that can happen in The Fate of the Furious that will make you remember it as anything other than, “The one where Vin Diesel is a bad guy because [fill in the blank].”
What started as a likeable and overdramatic Point Break rip-off set in a different California subculture, the movies operate on the premise that the charismatic Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) holds his group together through more than fear, and everyone contributes equally.
The standout in the first movie is Michelle Rodriguez’ Letty, a Latina woman who can drive and fight as well as anyone in the gang. She is patient zero for what an audience would accept for both people of color and for women being prominent characters with their own agency, in a way that wouldn’t have happened even ten years earlier.
Each of the subsequent movies adds to the Letty premise—making main characters out of Tyrese’s brash jokester, Ludacris’ mechanic and tech-wiz, Sung Kang’s laconic confidence man and planner, Gal Godot’s weapons expert, and The Rock’s federal agent with a Basic Allowance for Body Butter. Everyone except Tyrese is playing against type in some form, and in this world, that is presented as a normal occurrence without commentary. Film is a visual medium, and seeing characters who look like dynamic characters and not just stereotypes is important.
The Original was released on June 18, 2001, the last summer before America’s false sense of security was permanently shattered by a trio of planes. In the intervening years, we have seen an extended military campaign against a shifting transnational threat, expanded human rights and disaster response roles across the world. The explosion of communications methods, a proliferation of data and the 24-hour news cycle, a global recession, and a minority, and woman as major presidential party nominees. Our reasonable expectation of privacy has been eroding, video evidence of police use of force discrepancies have been on the rise, and there has been a major increase in LGBTQ awareness. College campuses now resemble a United Nations meeting more than Pleasantville, and Americans now meet people who don’t look like themselves daily.
The Fast and Furious franchise is our best look back – and I’d argue, forward – at how these issues have affected America. Through a cloud of nitrous oxide, of course.
Remember when I said earlier that those funny movie titles would become important? Now’s the time.
Dodged Ja Bullet (2003) reflected a home front still absorbed with what’s going on around it despite an international threat, and was released three months after the invasion of Iraq. It also reflects the police not entirely trusting a group of people who dressed like Allen Iverson.
Tokyo Drift (2006) took the franchise international with a Navy father and son relocating to Japan and fighting organized crime as Operation Iraqi Freedom was entering its third year and amid American infighting after not finding WMD’s.
Vin Back (2009) brought the series back to its core group by reuniting Vin Diesel and Paul Walker months after President Obama’s inauguration.
Rock Bank Vault (2011) featured the characters in a poverty-stricken country stealing money a year after the crash of the housing market. Long Ass Runway (2013) made the group look in the mirror at a team of mercenaries who can hack the computer chips in their cars the same year the Edward Snowden leaks happened and the Wikileaks trial ended with a conviction for Chelsea Manning.
See You Again (2015) deals with the dangers Brian (Paul Walker) and Mia (Jordanna Brewster) are growing tired of in the wake of the 2014 national conversation about police brutality and the legitimate violence those police officers themselves face daily. Finally, Bad Vin (2017) comes out as the American presidential office transitioned from a calm diplomat to a narcissist who continues to wage war on abstract concepts like decency and truth. Filmmaking occurs in the years before its debut, and the writing often takes place years before. But as the only film franchise set in the modern world, the Fast and Furious folks have managed by serendipity or blind luck to reflect where America is at in a way few other mediums have.
I would acknowledge that this may seem like a stretch to some. After all, the plots and timelines of these movies tie themselves in needless knots, and conveying emotion through the thespianism of Vin Diesel and The Rock is like trying to cook lasagna with a socket wrench. You get points for bringing a tool, you just didn’t bring the right one. There are no LGBTQ characters, and the franchise still finds ways to make the string bikini as important as the muscle car in each movie.
But the Fast and Furious franchise has existed for long enough that all of this can’t entirely be an accident. They get major points for making a group as diverse as the #F8 picture above not only appear diverse, but feel real the way earned friendships are.
Fifteen years ago, an action movie took a chance to feature people of color and women as competent members of a non-nuclear family, and that has paid off to the tune of nearly four billion dollars at a cost of just over one billion. Maybe inclusiveness makes your workplace, and the product better. And all this time, not one person has asked if they were “as qualified” to be there.
Michael Gardner, Culture Correspondent, Lima Charlie News
Michael Gardner is a former officer in the US Coast Guard, serving seven years in a variety of anti and counter-terrorism capacities and deploying to support National Special Security Events including the 2011 H8 Summit and 2011 Republican National Convention. Michael graduated with a BS in Government from the US Coast Guard Academy, and is currently a medical sales professional based out of Hoover, AL, having worked with the public health departments of both Alabama and Florida on large-scale health events. An avid tabletop gamer and moviegoer, he also has the misfortune of being a lifelong San Diego (Los Angeles) Chargers fan.
Follow Michael on Twitter | @MGardnerLC
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