words: Tears in Dom’s World
12 April 2015

zen-tabletop

I cried during Furious 7. That should neither be a marker of the film’s quality nor a judgment on whether or not you should cry. But I might as well mention it now. Blubber-like tears. Fake Zen garden fountain in your dad’s living room tears.

I’ve shed tears in Furious films before. I mean, who didn’t choke up when Dom saved Letty in Fast & Furious 6? And there were probably at least a few crocodile tears scattered in there some other places, like when Han dies in ‘Drift. Before he comes back alive a film or two later.

That a series so stuffed to its celluloid skin with ball sweat often turns teary says something both about its aim – higher than the crotch, somehow – and its attention to classical storytelling. “Those explosions were just to get your attention,” it coos in your ear in some accent you can’t quite place just as the subwoofer’s rumble dies, “this story is really about what’s in here,” and its supple palm rubs that spot on your chest.

It’s hard to seriously consider any filmed entertainment about the sanctity of family as anything but a retread of The Godfather. Yet when these films wax lyrical, the story hums notes that Carmine Coppola never hit. Less minor notes, to be sure. Notes that are thinner, maybe less important-sounding; different enough that we hear something new in the Song of Family. This tune is all about harmony – of racial backgrounds, of personalities, and of the international party scene. Furious 7 wants you to believe that the midriff-bearing chicks in magazines like Lowrider actually exist, and that they wear non-branded clothing while strutting across impossibly clean garage floors in twos and threes, chewing gum and checking out who’s packing a big engine. No, these are not serious films. But what of their success?

Spontaneous applause erupted four times during the matinee at the Court St 12. Once after Paul Walker’s character ran uphill on the side of a vehicle in one of the most breathtaking action sequences ever filmed. Once when Dwayne Johnson’s character Hobbs momentarily turned into the Hulk character he was watching on a hospital television and broke a cast on his arm using only the muscles trapped inside. Once when the villain was finally vanquished… we think. And once again before the credits, the highest mark of popcorn excellence.

No film or franchise has worked as hard to be as racially inclusive as Furious. Onscreen guys are all shades and the women are all shades of tan (the skin color politics could use some work). Behind the camera, three of the series’ four directors have been men of color. For this, credit must be spread between producer Neil H. Moritz, the only producer credited on all seven films, the writer Chris Morgan, veteran of the 5 most recent ones, and, I speculate, Vin Diesel himself. Being bi-racial is an essential part of Diesel’s identity and persona. That, as actor and later actor/producer, he would co-sign sharing screen time with the most famous other bi-racial action stud, Dwayne Johnson, over the course of three films shows more than business savvy, but the hints of a worldview that is broad enough to envision some cultural oasis far on the horizon, too far for many in Hollywood to see, but getting closer with every inbound foreign bank transfer. These stories live in Babel, the film texts are its Tower.

The films are, of course, a business, a franchise. They are designed to do business. They do swift business. And we, the viewing public, give them more reasons to stay in business every time around. But what if the financial rewards are a consequence of an actual quality germane to the films themselves, rather than the output of some algorithm cynically spritzed on the American and world box office every summer or two?

Or maybe the algorithm is more sophisticated than that of its competitors. A Moneyball version of the film franchise algorithm that exploits classics like T&A, explosions, and far-flung locations, but injects a fresh take on race like a canister of Nos hidden under the passenger seat and jets past other would-be franchises every time.

Ever since Dom came back, the point of these films is, I think, two-fold: to prove Hollywood wrong about Vin Diesel, and about race.

Hollywood has known for a long time that demographics are changing, that the American movie-going public is over-subscribed by people of color, and that the global box office is now more important than domestic. Yet Hollywood has shown little interest in making films that reflect these demographic shifts or that play these representational politics with any skill. The Furious films serve as an ever more sore-thumb-y counter-argument to Hollywood’s false racial logic. And they’re hitchhiking all the way to the bank.

The results were promising after just one week:

Had Hollywood shown any interest in why these films were doing business, we surely would have seen more copycats by now. Torque, aka “the motorcycle version” from 2004, (directed by asian-american Joseph Kahn, and featuring Ice Cube and Faizon Love in the Ludacris and Tyrese roles) was the only direct attempt at a rip-off of the formula, and was also produced by Moritz. All of that to say that if a cynical copycat version failed, then maybe there’s something unique to this series’ recipe that makes it hum. Again, Diesel.

Vin Diesel knows his way around a one-liner. It may be his single greatest gift as an actor. Billie Holliday was said to have a range barely over an octave. Diesel has even less. But the films are nothing without him.

Whereas the first two films used characters of different races much in the same way some Chinese joints serve tacos, the way your neighborhood grocery store stocks bento boxes of Sushi, the third installment brought an entirely new multiracial cast. Vin Diesel’s return as star and appearance on the producer roll for the fourth film signaled that the ensemble-multiracial-cast thing was not only the candy paint on the chassis, it was the engine. And the series has been roaring ever since. The seventh film even features the series’ first Arab character.

That there might be a profit in featuring a multiracial cast, is a point every non-white producer in the film industry has been trying to raise for at least a generation. So it’s no surprise that the producer to finally ride that 10-second car to the bank is none other than Diesel himself, the franchise’s star, id, and conscience. Diesel’s absence is the reason the second and third films foundered at the box office even as they were captivating and entertaining in their own right. Moreover, it’s what Diesel stands for that was missing from the recipe. Tokyo Drift in particular deserves credit for re-binding the series to its roots in the car subculture, and recapitulating the series’ most persistent, imaginary and canonical setup: the multiracial street race party. But ’Drift did not attempt to do what the fourth film did when Diesel rejoined the cast as both actor and producer, which is stoke the flames at the film’s multiracial family fireplace. The emotional center of the four most recent films lies in that hearth: the warmth of a chosen family, an idealized racial and emotional reconciliation for which every death-defying stunt is enacted to protect.

“I don’t have friends”, Dom grunts at one point, “I have family.”

The key to the Vin Diesel persona is that he’s anything but cynical. The Riddick films trade on his sneering delivery and bulk to deliver one note: that a human, pained and flawed, lurks somewhere inside the crusty exterior. Tawny Bruce Willis on steroids. The Furious films play this note a measure further: that slice of emotion is available to a small but diverse group of people and through them, to us in our seats, even as the tough exterior destroys everything else in its way.

Hollywood has been on notice for three sequels in a row. And with domestic box-office sagging overall, and belly-aching think pieces on what it all means at an all-time high. With Empire shattering viewership records in its own version of swarthy screen power. With Selma, 12 Years a Slave, Fresh Off The Boat and everything else brewing in non-white Hollywood, the scene is set. Brown, yellow, and tan booties are jiggling everywhere. Engines roar, and some hip-hop-ish/reggaetón mezcla that absolutely nobody listens to in real life is somehow making this thing hop. The needless cameos from T-Pain and Iggy Azalea prove we’re far from where we need to be, but then…

VROOM. Dom Toretto revs his engine again, looks across the passenger side and we’re back on track. We, the brown under-represented, are right there in the driver’s seat with him. The cars nudge the line and it’s American power versus… some anonymous… Hollywood suit? In a foreign car? A wicked sneer from Dom. No, he’s earned that sneer. Even erstwhile hero Brian O’Conner, the blonde Paul Walker, gives his curtain call in as poignant a moment you’ll ever see in a tentpole action flick. And at the Court St 12 there’s not a dry eye in the house, from the loud black women behind me who spent the trailers tut-tutting a friend’s welfare strategy, to the Brahmin advertising executive with a hyphenated last name to my right, to the wailing latino toddler two rows in front. And my dad’s stupid fake Zen garden fountain doing it’s thing down my cheeks. Everyone is crying. We don’t even need to see the chica in micro Daisy Dukes drop the hankies because we’ve seen what’s coming next in our dreams. The film rounds a billion in global box-office on its last boost of Nos, and Hollywood finally has to toss over a set of keys to the dark man striding back to the garage party like he knew it all along. Because he’s our guy. Barack Obama in a wifebeater. That’s the movie version anyway.