Hollywood Execs Are Crediting Fast and Furious with Growing Embrace of Diversity

Some Hollywood insiders say the Fast and Furious movies have done more for the rise in onscreen diversity and inclusion than any social media hashtag.

Fast and Furious cast in Fate of the Furious
Photo: Universal Pictures

Over the weekend, comic book writer Gail Simone shared an interesting anecdote on Twitter about Hollywood, the industry’s growing need for inclusion, and the Fast and Furious movies.

“I had a very powerful Hollywood insider say that the success of the Fast and Furious franchise had a bigger effect on movie casts getting diversified than ‘all the social media complaints combined,’” Simone wrote. “This happened. If he was being hyperbolic I don’t know. But even if it’s just a commonly held belief at the top levels, it’s interesting to consider. It punches [holes] in the beliefs of both conservative and liberal commentators.”

Indeed, it is very interesting to consider, particularly on the social media platform which has become famous for dictating the direction of “discourse” around popular media on any given day. It also brings sharp attention to the unique vitality of the Fast and Furious franchise.

As a series sometimes written off as the silly blockbuster franchise where Dwayne Johnson once threw a torpedo into a submarine, the “Fast Saga” is actually the rare thing in Hollywood: an original property. Not based on a comic book, 1990s animated film, or space opera from 50 years ago, Fast and Furious made the unlikely journey from a B-action movie with a budget of $38 million to a billion-dollar franchise where new installments cost upwards of $250 million. And it built that popularity with a diverse cast from at least the second film—where Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris joined the first movie’s Paul Walker—creating a more inclusive identity for audiences a decade before Marvel Studios’ Phase Two remained still mostly dominated by white talent in front of and behind the camera.

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Whether Fast and Furious deserves credit for actually changing minds in Hollywood, it certainly got studio executives’ attention when Furious 7 became the first entry in the series to gross more than $1 billion (its final total was over $1.5 billion). That film starred series mainstays Vin Diesel and Paul Walker (in the latter’s last performance), as well as an ensemble which included Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Gibson, Ludacris, Jordana Brewster, Nathalie Emmanuel, and Elsa Pataky.

When it came out in 2015, CNN and other outlets also took notice of how the movie appealed so much more broadly across multiple demographics than typical superhero movies of the era. According to the news organization, the film’s audience was one of the few American blockbusters which had a majority non-white makeup: 37 percent of the filmgoers were reportedly Latinx; 25 percent were white; 24 percent were Black; and 10 percent were Asian.

Star Diesel told Entertainment Weekly at the time, “It doesn’t matter what nationality you are. As a member of the audience, you realize you can be a member of that ‘family.’ That’s the beautiful thing about how the franchise has evolved.”

Additionally, it’s a franchise which has actually cultivated diverse talent behind the camera as well. Of the nine mainline movies, only one has been directed by a white man—Rob Cohen, who helmed the original film way back in 2001. And the director most credited with the franchise’s success remains Justin Lin, who elevated the series from mid-level Hollywood entertainment in the 2000s to a billion-dollar phenomenon. He stepped into the series when it was on the brink of going direct-to-video with Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (part 3) and led it to new heights over an initial tenure which lasted four films. Lin has now returned to the director’s chair with F9 and has spoken candidly about how the industry is still often struggling on a blockbuster scale to create a more inclusive space.

“Hollywood is supposed to be this enlightened place,” Lin recently told Esquire, “and there are great people here, sure. But there’s some fucked up people here that are just able to use the right buzzwords. I’ve always felt like diversity is not me going: ‘I need an Asian for this role.’ It’s like, ‘No man, that’s not what diversity is about.’ It’s about creating an environment to let the best person grab that role. To have the right to say: ‘hey, we had the world come in and we found the right person.’ That’s always been my M.O with Fast. I’m not on a crusade. When you’re excluding people, mathematically, that just doesn’t make sense.”

In the same interview, Lin even revealed one of the primary reasons he was convinced to return to F9 was because, like many of the series’ longtime fans, he wanted to do justice by Sung Kang’s Han Seoul-Oh character, who died at the end of Lin’s Fast & Furious 6, yet whose killer (played by Jason Statham) was treated like a hero two movies later.

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“That was a fucked up move on [F8],” Lin said. “Han is special. It really made no sense and, as an Asian-American, it kind of did shake me to the core. You’re like: ‘Wait, did we just get reduced to a fucking character that you don’t even address? That nobody fucking cares about anymore? Are we fucking back to Long Duk Dong shit again?”

But justice has finally come with Han back, alive and well, in F9 along with a diverse collection of new faces in the cast, from American wrestler turned actor John Cena to Japanese-New Zealand actress Anna Sawai. And after the encouraging success of A Quiet Place Part II at the box office, many in the industry are expecting this week’s F9 to fully kick off the moviegoing season in the post-pandemic era.

So it’s interesting, again, to consider the impact of the franchise on its industry. While no progress or change happens in a vacuum, the Fast and Furious franchise was building a diverse identity long before #OscarsSoWhite caused an overdue reckoning in the way award winners are chosen (and who is doing the choosing). And at least for the decision makers at the top, this franchise’s ability to make as much money without a preexisting IP is likely more convincing than any sort of Twitter outrage of the week—on either side of the political spectrum.

It’s worth remembering that, according to the Pew Research Center, just 10 percent of Twitter users make up 80 percent of the tweets shared, and the app’s users tend to skew younger than the median average in the U.S. Which is to say, its scope and influence may be narrower than many actually believe. Just as Fast and Furious’ surprising amount of sway in the industry may be greater than we’ve fully recognized.