Is ‘Fast Five’ Really America’s Most Racially Progressive Movie?

By Alyssa Rosenberg

Thanks to the good folks at PostBourgie, I stumbled across this Wesley Morris article in which he argues that the Fast and the Furious movies are the most progressive franchise in the country. I’m all for movies and television in which characters hang out in mixed-race groups of friends, date, love, and marry of people of races not their own without comment, in which non-white characters have permission to be mendacious, malign, even downright annoying without the content of their character being commentary on the color of their skin. But I also like pop culture where characters can comment on race without being issue movies or shows—this is actually one of the reasons I love Community as much as I do, because of scenes like this:

And this section in Morris’ essay struck me quite strongly:

The movies have often dealt with race, of course, and when they do they tend to treat it as a serious and unwieldy problem. Sidney Poitier became a star in part by helping black and white Americans negotiate their new relationship in the post-Civil Rights era. As a rule, white characters—through white writers and directors—do a lot of the talking in these movies. Black characters rarely travel a similar dramatic arc. The bravery of Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” amounted to two Hollywood legends—Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy—telling the world that a black son-in-law is something they can live with, and so should you, especially if he looks like Sidney Poitier and has degrees from Johns Hopkins and Yale.

That is the loose history of race as a subject in Hollywood: the province of a liberal white industry that wanted to promote fairness and equality, often at the expense of realism and sometimes at the cost of the black characters’ humanness. Movies about race still tend to be self-congratulatory (“Crash”) or mine tension for comedy, the way “48 Hours” and its offspring have. As a rule, a movie starring a white guy and a black guy is a movie about a white guy and a black guy. The enormous success of 2009’s “The Blind Side,” in which Sandra Bullock makes a black teenager one of the family, demonstrates that America isn’t post-racial. It is thoroughly mired in race—the myths that surround it, the guilt it inspires, the discomfort it causes, the struggle to transcend it.

I sympathize with the idea that using movies as a means of doing the work of racial reconciliation is exhausting, and it often comes at the expense of black characters, and by reinforcing the idea that social change only requires a kindly white lady, not a radical revamping of institutions, attitudes, and concentrations of power. But as often as they go badly wrong, I’m not ready to say that we should give up on movies that acknowledge race as an issue rather than as a simple fact. The question should be what kind of work do we want those movies to do? Try to sell white people on working for racial equality by positioning it as a form of self-help?

(For the record, I think Kathryn Stockett’s novel is somewhat more complex than it appears here, and if the movie restores that complexity, it’s not really a nice-white-lady-saves-the-black-people story.)

Should we mash up race and class?

Make period pieces from historical perspectives that Hollywood doesn’t spend much, if any, time in as a way of filling in the tattered document of the past? I don’t have a definitive answer, and I think these are only some of the options. But if we want the movies to do the work of helping us formulate our opinions and means of action on issues of race, we should do the work of making sure they’re good in the first place.