The resounding beating that Fast & Furious 6 gave The Hangover 3 during the Memorial Day weekend has been a hot topic for the past week. Pundits had predicted a big financial windfall with two hot franchises squaring off. However, no one expected it to be so one-sided with Fast & Furious 6 amassing $97, 375,245 in three days compared to the $41,671,198 gross that The Hangover 3 accumulated. While there are several reasons for the success of the sixth edition in the Fast franchise, the insanely entertaining action sequences being the main component, the dissection of how big a role diversity played is an interesting one.
If you scan the internet you will find articles proclaiming how the film “did well in diverse areas” of America; as well as many posing the question “will [diverse casting] be a new trend in Hollywood?” The disturbing thing about this is that these are the exact same type of comments that occurred when Fast Five rocketed to an $86 million opening in 2011. Clearly Hollywood still has not learned anything two years later and probably will not by time Fast & Furious 7 rolls around. Similar to the shock and awe that occurred when films like Sex and the City and Bridesmaids were considered “surprise” hits, the major studios still have not figured out that the North American population consist of more than just white males.
Looking over the list of all the major summer blockbusters of this year, Fast & Furious 6 is the only one that boasts a truly multiethnic leading cast. Sure there are visible minorities and key female roles in films like Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, After Earth and the upcoming The Heat, but the difference lies in how the characters are utilized. What truly sets Fast & Furious 6 apart is how natural it all feels. Men and women of all different cultural backgrounds co-exist on equal footing. Every member of Vin Diesel’s crew, even the supporting characters who seemingly have no use in this edition, specifically the characters played by Jordana Brewster and Elsa Pataky, have proven their metal over the course of the franchise.
There is no character who feels like the “token” minority figure; none of female characters feel like mere arm candy for the leading men, etc. Sure there is a scene in the film where a bunch women gyrate during a party at an illegal street race, which itself has erotic undertones, but these are only background extras. Unlike, say Alice Eve in Star Trek Into Darkness, none of the main actresses in the film strips down to their underwear for no apparent reason. In a strange way, the Fast & Furious franchise embodies everything that people have been screaming for, specifically diverse casting and strong female characters, for years.
In typical Hollywood fashion though, this type of proven success is still viewed as an anomaly. The same way the four Tyler Perry films that opened in the number one spot were considered flukes. The same way the success of films like The Help and Twilight were dismissed as unlikely blockbusters. For an industry that is focused on making as much money as possible, Hollywood always finds a way of shooting down new potential revenue streams. Part of the problem is that studios often claim there is not a large enough sample pool of hits to indicate that audiences crave more diversity. Of course this poses a chicken and the egg style conundrum as the only way to see if there is a demand is to make more films featuring diverse casts.
This in itself is a problem considering that there is a clear lack of diversity within the studio system to begin with. Despite the advancement that women and visible minorities have made in Hollywood, many of the studios still have that “old boys club” mentality to making movies. They would rather invest in a comedy were Adam Sandler plays his own sister than a potential hit with a multicultural cast.
The situation is just as problematic when you consider the 100 plus films that have been nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Picture category over the last 20 years. Looking over the list of nominees dating back to 1993, only 17 films feature at least one visible minority in a prominent role (e.g. Secret & Lies, Django Unchained, Crash, Traffic, The Shawshank Redemption, etc) and 17 film featured stories that centered around female protagonist (e.g. Winter’s Bone, The Blind Side, Elizabeth, An Education, Erin Brockovich, etc). It is a little disconcerting how few of these industry praised films mirror the cultural dynamics we live in.
It is one thing if these films are set in a foreign country like Letters to Iwo Jima or Slumdog Millionaire, then we could at least justify the one-sided aspect of casting. Unfortunately most of the films are set in America, or at least the studios’ narrow view of what type of people make up America. Though we film lovers are a diverse group, in regards to culture and taste in films, we rarely see characters on screen who truly reflect this.
So once again we must sit back and watch the “surprised” faces of industry insiders when films, that do not feature the traditional (i.e. predominantly white male) casting model, become hits at the box office. We will pretend to gasp at the “wild” notion that woman and men of all backgrounds enjoy this foreign thing known as cinema. Frankly it is a sad state of affairs when an action film like Fast & Furious 6 is more progressive than 90% of the film coming out of Hollywood today.