Fast and the Furious: The changing dynamic of Bad Asses in Film

This article is adapted from Hollywood in Blackface, which comes out Friday.The chapter it comes from is an in-depth discussion of the late 90s – early 2000 action films that worked to de-legitimize the concept of the “white bad ass” hero. In its place is the lovable Angry Black Man (ABM), perfected by Samuel L. Jackson and pathetically imitated by LL Cool J and Ice Cube among others.

Can you spot the “Token White” from Fast Five?

In a review of the poorly received XXX: State of the Union, starring one-time rebel rapper turned family-friendly movie star Ice Cube (isn’t it strange how many gangsta rappers start off as anti-establishment, radical Black Nationalist figures and through metamorphosis become family-friendly actors?: Think Queen Latifah, Ice T, LL Cool J, Mos Def, Ludacris, etc.) Roger Ebert wrote something that confirms what we write about the power of Hollywood to provide and craft positive examples of Black people when society fails to produce them: 

Did I enjoy this movie? Only in a dumb mindless way. It has whatever made the original “XXX” entertaining, but a little less of it. Does it make the slightest sense? Of course not. Its significance has nothing to do with current politics and politicians, the threat of terrorism, and the efficiency of bullet trains. It has everything to do with a seismic shift in popular culture.


Once all action heroes were white. Then they got a black chief of police, who had a big scene where he fired them. Then they got a black partner. Then they were black and had a white partner. Now they are the heroes and don’t even need a white guy around, although there is one nerdy white guy in “XXX” who steps in when the plot requires the ineffectual delivery of a wimpy speech. So drastically have things changed that when Ice Cube offers to grab the president and jump off a train and grab a helicopter, all the president can do is look grateful. Oh, and later, in his new State of the Union speech, our nation’s leader quotes Tupac, although he doesn’t know he does. Well, you can’t expect him to know everything.

Ebert beautifully captures what Hollywood has accomplished over the past thirty years, creating Black Fictional Images through film and turning the accepted paradigm of masculinity from actors like Kurt Russell, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger to actors like Vin Diesel, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Will Smith, and Samuel L. Jackson (who seems to appear in every action film as a mentor of some sorts from XXX, Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Star Wars Episodes I-III and finally to Jumpers).
 
One can never forget that Predator 2 had the eponymous alien hunter being defeated by Roger Murtaugh himself, Danny Glover. Going from Predator, where an elite search and rescue team is decimated by the alien hunter before Arnold puts it down to Danny Glover performing the same act in Los Angeles is a bit of a stretch.
 
Patrick Swayze was originally attached to the role Glover ended up with in Predator 2, but he filmed Point Break instead. Smart move, since that film is one of the last action movies made devoid of any Black Fictionalization: not one Black person has a speaking part in the film.
 
The agenda of movies over the past 25 years has been the gradual demasculization of the white male to the point where 2010s The Other Guys spoofed this concept by having The Rock and Samuel L. Jackson play alpha male cops to Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg’s white-bread nerds:
This buddy cop spoof begins with the triumphant exploits of the NYPD’s coolest cops. In cameos played by Samuel L. Jackson, as the same character he’s done since Pulp Fiction, and Dwayne Johnson, the genial half-Samoan, half-black ex-pro wrestler formerly known as The Rock, the two supercops wreak $12 million in property damage to Manhattan while arresting a smalltime weed dealer. Then Jackson and Johnson take a victory lap around the police station, tossing their unfilled-out paperwork to “The Other Guys,” the precinct’s most pathetic desk jockeys, played by Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, who become the movie’s main characters.

The Other Guys could have been more memorably entitled The White Guys. Much of comedy these days, especially funny TV commercials about doofus dads, gingerly deals with the paradox of a culture in which white guys have seemingly been dethroned from the top of the masculinity pyramid. Yet, the people who have the really good jobs making the movies, TV shows, and ads poking fun at white guys remain, overwhelmingly, white guys like McKay and Ferrell.
Films like Bad Boys, Bad Boys 2 and any Samuel L. Jackson film where he plays his angry Black man stereotype (think Shaft) that somehow now equates to the ultimate manifestation of machismo, have been integral in creating this new dynamic. Perhaps this is why The Expendables was so uninspiring, with the sight of nearly septuagenarian white dudes trying to save the world a reminder of just how powerful the new paradigm of Black masculinity and white pusillanimity in film has become.
 
It is our opinion that this is the reason 2004’s The Punisher starring Thomas Jane performed so mediocre at box office.  Movie fans have been conditioned to only accept Black guys as bad asses (unless they have fantastical super powers, such as Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine or they are superheroes in spandex).
 
Can white guys play the bad ass hero anymore?

The character of The Punisher is just a normal dude out of for revenge; that it did so well in DVD sales, as another vigilante film The Boondock Saints performed, is a sign that a huge market exists for people clamoring for a different type of film. This group has been incredibly marginalized and the only type of actors representing them in film are either foreigners or goofy white dudes like Paul Rudd or Michael Cera. If Shia LaBeouf is the best that Hollywood can give us to replace a guy like Willis, Russell or even Michael Biehn (underrated actor), then fire up that DVD player and prepare to just watch Commando, Escape from New York and Aliens.
 

It’s interesting that Vin Diesel turned down the starring role in XXX: State of the Union, after his role in the first film (XXX) successfully eviscerated the concept of the James Bond-style white superspy as an anachronism in a world where white privilege is fading fast.
 
Diesel, just multiracial to qualify as a token minority to the likes of Racialicious.com, yet white enough to be cast as a World War II era soldier in Saving Private Ryan (remember, the military was still segregated then) knows how to exploit his protean racial identity, as one can see by the phenomenally popular Fast and Furious franchise.
 
Based on a 1998 article glamorizing street racing in the magazine Vibe, the Fast and Furious brand has produced five films that have grossed a cumulative of well over a billion dollars. Sporting a multiracial and exotic cast – as well as Token white bread Paul WalkerFast and Furious offers an intimate look at the anti-establishment world of car racing.
 
It should be noted that Walker is perfecting the role of white boy sidekick and making a career of it having recently starred in 2010s Takers as a white boy sidekick to Idris Elba’s Alpha male character.
The fine folks over at Thegrio.com praised the latest Fast and Furious (Fast Five), not for its artistic merits, but for its diverse casting:

“I didn’t think anybody would ever write a role for me. I didn’t fit the bill. I was too multicultural. There was no place for me,” was how Vin Diesel explained his early Hollywood reality on an Atlanta set for the Fast Five in October 2010.


Hollywood’s “whites only” attitude, especially for leading man roles, is what prompted Diesel to write, produce, direct and star in his 1994 life-as-art frustration short, Multi-Facial about not being black enough or white enough to make the cinematic cut. The short, which landed in the Cannes Film Festival, got Steven Spielberg’s attention and the legendary director cast Diesel in a small role in the Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan. Then, in 2001, Diesel’s career got a major jolt with the blockbuster The Fast and the Furious.


A novel approach to the salt-and-pepper buddy flick concept that had successfully paired the likes of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, The Fast and the Furious, coincidentally built around an article from VIBE magazine about street racing, proved to be no laughing matter. Diesel, who was coming off successful runs in Pitch Black and Boiler Room, was the star power that jump-started the film, with the blue-eyed, blonde Hollywood poster boy Paul Walker following his lead. Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez rounded out the main cast but Asian actor Rick Yune and then hip-hop star Ja Rule did have significant input, not to mention the cars themselves. Actually, The Fast and the Furious was a major wake-up call that Detroit no longer dominated the world auto industry.

When Entertainment Weekly listed its five reasons why, a decade later, this franchise is still viable, they put “The Melting Pot” vibe at the top of the list. “Quick, what do Harry Potter, Spider-Man, Twilight, Pirates of the Caribbean, Lord of the Rings, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman series have in common?” they asked. And the answer was “White people, white people everywhere!” That’s certainly not anything the Fast Five is guilty of.

Set in Brazil, whose economy has been deemed the second fastest growing one next to China, Fast Five’s cast is comprised of original stars Diesel, Walker and Brewster as well as Tyrese, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Sung Kang, who have been pulled from the other franchises, is more diverse than ever. For added value, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Diesel’s multiracial comrade, has been drafted to play the badass cop vowing to catch the robber by any means necessary. Meanwhile, Reggaeton players Tego Calderón and Don Omar help broaden the base even further in supporting roles.
Reviews of Fast Five largely center around the cars as well as the franchise’s transitioning from racing to heist genre but that’s not the real story. Fast Five, which has already topped the box office in Australia, the UK, New Zealand and South Korea, should be Hollywood’s final initiation into the new multicultural, multiracial, global reality. Since people of color have long dominated the population stats, the world has been a rainbow of flavors for a minute now. The difference is that sunburst reality has become increasingly too powerful to ignore yet Hollywood and other Americans are still just peeking at the memo.


While birthers are wasting their time challenging President Obama’s citizenship, the world is literally passing them by. Holding on to the crumbling notion of white supremacy and white privilege is definitely a recipe for destruction. To play in this new world arena, it’s essential to realize that not living in the “real” world is just no longer an option.

Movies will continue marginalizing white male actors, while creating manufactured positive images of Black actors that become the new archetype of “cool” for everyone to emulate. Movies with all-white casts aren’t allowed anymore, for as the Thegrio.com alluded to above that would be tantamount to creating a “white privileged” view of the world that is increasingly one of color.

The white action star is a thing of the past; the multiracial action star is the present and the future. It just took marginalizing whites and the manufacturing of positive images of Black people through  film to achieve this result. 

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