Multiracial cast of 'Fast Five' makes it a milestone film

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“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.

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With its multicultural verve and hip-hop swagger, The Fast and the Furious took a serious detour from the typical summer blockbuster that often lacks even the slightest tan. That one grossed just over $40 million its first weekend and several sequels followed, with Diesel unexpectedly opting out of the action. When Diesel stepped back in for the 2009 fourth installment, Fast & Furious, the box office ka-ching revved up to just under $71 million its opening weekend, ensuring another sequel, only Diesel refused to just play Dom, his white t-shirt and jeans tough guy character.

As Fast Five is posed to overtake this weekend’s box office when it opens Friday, Diesel, now in the producer’s seat, has come a long way from his Multi-Facial frustrations. Dragging Hollywood further into the new millennium, Fast Five is on the pulse of the world’s multi-racial, global reality to which Tinseltown somehow remains oblivious.

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.

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Diesel knew this way before The Fast and the Furious was being pitched in Hollywood conference rooms and the 2010 census data rolled in. No doubt it’s the reason he named his own shingle One Race Films, which coincidentally shines boldly on the big screen in the opening credits of Fast Five. If there is a bone to pick with the multiracial reality served up in The Fast and the Furious franchise, it has to be the absence of women of African descent. In this franchise, Latinas, and not the Afro variety either, largely rule, with Asian actress Devon Aoki, who appeared in first sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious, serving as a notable exception. Perhaps, as the franchise powers on, that slight will be rectified.

The Fast and the Furious series should also really be commended for its diversity behind the camera. Rob Cohen may have directed the first one but John Singleton helmed the second one and now Justin Lin has served as the man behind every Fast and Furious installment since Tokyo Drift. As much of a trailblazer as Lin is for Asian American directors, it is interesting that very little attention is paid to his background. Considering that Asians in the film world have largely been in a Kung Fu/Karate chokehold, it is extremely significant that it is Lin who has been charged to guide this billion dollar, global film franchise to new heights.

No Fast Five won’t change Hollywood’s perceptions of what and who works overnight, or even over 10 years, but the serious revenue that the film will generate this weekend alone should get some of the others really thinking. In the land where it’s rumored that cash rules everything, this money should shout. It’s not a stretch to say that the $100 million come-up that fuels the greatest action in the film will be chump change when the dust clears on the summer’s box office numbers. Fast Five is more than a movie; it’s a cultural milestone that should challenge and pull American filmmaking in a new direction. After all, diversity should be good business even in Hollywood.