Look, “The Fast and the Furious” is silly, but I saw a trailer for “F9” the other day that cut quickly between most of the leading heroes. There they were: Black, Latine, Asian.
It sent me spiraling back to what I was watching as a kid growing up in the 90s. Who saved the world and stopped the bad guys then? It was Bruce Willis, Kurt Russell, Harrison Ford, Pierce Brosnan, Mel Gibson, Nicholas Cage, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sure, we had Keanu Reeves, but marketing departments knew in that world audiences should envision him as white, that discussion of his Native Hawaiian and Chinese descent might hurt his box office. It really wasn’t mentioned. Even John Travolta got a damn action career. John fucking Travolta.
If not for Will Smith, we wouldn’t have had a mainstream actor of color consistently lead action movies in the 90s. The best we had otherwise was the occasional Wesley Snipes movie, though he was as likely to be the villain as a hero. I grew up just outside Chicago, and WGN loved to run Carl Weathers TV movie actioners, mostly B-grade Schwarzenegger knockoffs. That was about it.
The first character of color I saw lead a dramatic show on a week-to-week basis was Ben Sisko on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”.
You could forget the concept of a Latine actor leading a mainstream movie or drama series. That was unthinkable. We were villains, and often silly ones. At best, we were the comic relief. But most often, we were portrayed as gangsters, the scenery in the background to prove how tough the hero was when he dared to step into our lair. We were bodies to be disposed of by that hero in the zeitgeist of a country that grew up on those narratives to believe that immigrant and refugee children must also be bodies to be disposed of before they too become gangsters.
Imagine being a young Latino, and everything you watch reinforcing that this part of you doesn’t matter, that there are no heroes in your blood, there’s just second-rate villainy and gang violence but not the white kind we celebrate in Mafia movies, and – if you really get lucky and work hard – you might be the comic relief. You know what, you can survive that. It instills a lot of weird shit you have to get over later in life, but it’s survivable.
Now imagine being a young Latino, and everyone around you having that view reinforced, everyone around you thinking you’re just a villain they can test their strength on, they can gang up against, that the best you’ll do is being an obstacle or sidekick in their story. Imagine the bruises that earns. Imagine coming home with a black-and-blue chest or a broken nose or a ringing headache because you’re the Latino kid. Imagine doing everything perfectly and getting straight A’s, at first because you liked it and enjoyed the challenge, but later because if you fought back, that academic standing was the only thing that made them believe you over the white kid.
I saw what happened to the kids of color who didn’t do well in school, how often they were believed, how often they were sent home for daring to punch back as they were hit again and again by three or four others. I went from being a good student because I loved learning, to being a good student because it afforded me protection and it was my ticket to having those with authority believe me. I went from loving learning to viewing it as a shield, and I went from enjoying doing well to viewing it as exhausting, a power exchange I struggled with resenting.
None of it was because that was my path. It was all because I had to react and manage what my peers and many of my teachers and administrators expected to be my path, because it was never about defending myself – I was the tallest kid in school who trained in taekwondo and kickboxing. I didn’t worry about defending myself. I worried whether others would defend me after I had. The greatest protection I had was being a Latino child who exceeded expectations so much that adults with power actually forgot what I was for a second and gave a shit about me. They forgot that I was supposed to be disposable, the bad guy, the foil for their white kids to succeed, the obstacle. That was the bar I had to clear.
I loved school, until it became less about learning and more about proving others wrong, until getting A’s was less about being proud of myself and more about making others forget I was supposed to be a dumb joke or a future threat to be beaten down until he knew his place. If I got A’s, you couldn’t make me that because it took the adults around us permitting it. And let me tell you, that burden on a kid makes it really hard to still do well.
Toward the end of the 90s, we started getting the “Blade” movies, often forgotten in the discussion of franchises that legitimized the comic book superhero movie. Keanu Reeves’s background started to become part of his appeal and less of an ‘issue’ in marketing. Jackie Chan made crossover films that took place in the U.S. Samuel L. Jackson began breaking into the mainstream more and more.
And yet, I still couldn’t imagine a major franchise being led by eight or nine actors of color. I couldn’t imagine an ensemble of actors of color having crowds cheer for them as they fight white villains. I might sit here in my 30s and roll my eyes at another “The Fast and the Furious” movie. But the part of me sitting there at 10 is in a quiet, needful sort of awe that such a thing is possible, that he could be viewed as a hero or just the protagonist in his own story. Imagine the other kids, the white kids, thinking that, treating that possibility as real. Imagine the white adults thinking that, maybe listening to the kids of color who don’t get straight A’s or perform whiteness or successfully hack their fucked up social system of power exchange.
Measured by worldwide box office, “The Fast and the Furious” is the fifth largest movie franchise in history (after the MCU/Spider-Man, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and James Bond). It’s the only one in the top 30 led by people of color. It might be silly action storytelling (just like those other franchises), but it matters. It matters to whoever’s sitting there as a child, thinking about how they view themselves as a person of color. It matters to whoever’s sitting there as a child, thinking about how they view others as people of color.
It matters as to how they’ll define and treat children of color when they’re adults. It matters what they’ll put them through, whether they’ll listen, whether that child has to do extra work and perform and learn to resent what they love just to visit equality, or whether they’ll start from the assumption of equality and just get to love what they love and be a kid.
“The Fast and the Furious” matters because it makes us matter, because it makes us central instead of disposable, heroic instead of a joke, decisive instead of dumb, worth listening to, worth admiring, worth your vision of humanness, leaders that white characters will listen to and work alongside. It promises we can be heroes in the eyes of children who will one day be making decisions about who will be listened to; who will tell their own children who gets to be a hero, a protagonist, a leader, who gets to be legitimate.
As a kid, I wanted to be human as a rule, not because I was the exception to someone’s stereotype. I’ll always carry that with me, and you can learn to live with it and compartmentalize it, but it still stretches veins into every part of who you are.
But look at this. Look at this movie, this franchise, these trailers that feature face after face from actors and characters of color. You can’t imagine how that lifts a burden people carry inside themselves, even if just for an hour or two. You can’t imagine that those veins that run through you can be turned to something else because they never have for so long. Representation makes you feel like maybe others can see you, want to see you, want to listen, like maybe what you have to say is worth something. People accepting and celebrating that representation, wanting to see more of it, wanting to seek out more that’s like it – that’s what confirms those feelings.
“The Fast and the Furious” is hardly complete representation, it’s not perfect representation, it’s certainly not as intersectional as it could be – but it is, by far, the most we’ve had in this medium, the most accepted we’ve been in the landscape of popular film. There’s a version of me, before that burden was carried, before those veins spread inside, before those exchanges and performances were asked, that sees these trailers, this movie, this franchise, and stares in awe that it is even possible. That is a calm place, and it’s one I miss because I don’t even remember it. It must’ve been there at some point. It has to have been.
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