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How 'The Fast and the Furious' Changed My Life

The classic 2001 Vin Diesel film was my entry into a world of cars and speed I haven't left since.
July 18, 2015, 5:00am

The memory of that day won't leave me. My mom had just received a small settlement. Suddenly, we had disposable income. Back then, I didn't care whether my mom saved or invested it. All I wanted was new toys.

I was selfish that way. Still can be. We weren't poor, I guess, but we certainly weren't rich. Rather, we were decidedly middle-class with a little bit of struggle sprinkled in to keep things interesting. A Sony DVD player was the perfect little bourgeoisie item to warm our hearts. Like the VCR and the color TV before it, and later the internet-enabled computer, this was something I felt put us on the level of the Joneses. I'd gone with them to Montgomery Ward to pick up the bigger Magnavox TV (all of 20 inches), the Sony, and what would be the start to our DVD collection: Shrek for my kid sister, and for me, The Fast and the Furious. And so began my love affair.


Related: I Watched Six Fast and the Furious Movies at the Same Time

Released less than three months before 9/11 would turn America into the nation we were always destined to become, The Fast and the Furious is the only movie I've seen more times than Bad Boys II, and that's plenty. (Jordana Brewster looked just like my high school crush.) After 2000's epic year in film—Gladiator; X-Men; Memento; Almost Famous; O Brother, Where Art Thou; Traffic; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Requiem for a Dream; Battlefield Earth—no one could've foretold that in 2001, this moderately-budgeted Point Break ripoff would actually work, cleaning up at the box office and establishing a franchise now seven films deep and counting. Hollywood's present-day remake mill could learn something from the example Universal set all those years ago: Since making something original is already off the table, instead of remaking an old flick in the hopes of cashing in on a name, just jack an old film's premise and plug it into an unrelated new property.

Like its unofficial inspiration, The Fast and the Furious centers around a pretty-boy cop who must infiltrate a crew of criminals who just so happen to be balls-deep in the hot adrenaline-junkie subculture du jour. In 1991, it was surfing. In 2001, "ricing" out one's Honda Civic and getting real reckless on city streets was the trip. Seeing a Japanese economy car with a huge spoiler, decals, and an obnoxiously loud exhaust today would seem like some fuck shit. But in 2001, it was our collective truth.


Screen caps via Youtube

In director Rob Cohen's auto opera, undercover cop Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) must mob with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his family of racers in order to crack the case of who is ripping off trucks full of goods on California highways. Themes of trust, non-biological familial ties, and power are set against a backdrop of LA street racing: faceless women in bikinis, revved engines, and nü metal by the bowlful. Like Keanu Reeves's Johnny Utah before him, O'Conner ends up deep in the game, both with Dom's sister Mia (Jodana Brewster) and with the street racer culture at large. From the Limp Bizkit blaring on the film's soundtrack to the colorful vinyl halter tops, barbed wire tattoos, and frosted tips, there really wasn't a better example of the "other" 2001—the one before September 11—to be found in cinema. The film prided itself on its use of real racers as extras, drawing the audience into that world the same way Brian was drawn into Toretto's clan.

A few years ago, I went joyriding in a BMW, getting up to 140 MPH on empty stretches of highway at 3 AM, while listening to G-Unit and Nine Inch Nails.

At 16, besides wanting to hook up with girls, there was nothing I wanted more than to turn my mom's sky blue 1989 Honda Civic DX hatchback into something I could roll into Toretto's shop proudly. Unlike the rich kids I went to private school with (shout-out to the kid whose dad let him drive his Ferrari 360 Modena to class), I didn't get a car for Christmas or anything of the sort. Entitled little shit that I was, I expected this of my hard-working parents from 16 on, and I held it against them when they couldn't deliver. I threw a boy-tantrum when my mom eventually traded that old Honda in for a new car. Reality biting yet again. I know now that I should've been grateful for all that my folks worked hard for, hell, least of all that DVD player and the movie that would bring me ease and comfort.


The Fast and the Furious was an escape, more so than other movies at the time. I wasn't allowed to get my license—my parents could already sense that my drinking was getting out of hand around license time—and I always wanted to be a part of something, whether it was with black kids I was "too white" for, white kids I was "too black" for, skaters, musicians, mall goths, cyber goths… Living among the characters in The Fast and the Furious and the "import" scene as a whole seemed like a natural fit, if only in my mind.

A few years ago, I went joyriding in a BMW rental, getting the car up to an (indicated) 140 on empty stretches of highway at 3 AM while listening to G-Unit and Nine Inch Nails. I know it's not all that fast in the grand scheme of things, but before the guilt and morbid what-ifs settled in, the body high from the speed had me feeling like the black Paul Walker circa 2001, apexing turns and stepping the tail out in a prime display of the often dangerous mixture of male ego and high-performance vehicles.

In a turning point scene in The Fast and the Furious, after Brian enters and loses his first race to Toretto, he tells Dominic he almost had him. Vin Diesel shoots back with the iconic line: "Ask any racer. Any real racer. It don't matter if you win by an inch or a mile. Winning's winning." His asphalt aphorism was like a sort of foreshadowing for Dubya's "stay the course" rhetoric during the Iraq War years later. The internal truths of men of conviction, laid at the feet of young, willing blonde boys. It was at that point that Diesel became more than a black tank top, some biceps, and a bald head. He became a mainstay of American machismo.


Even after the first film's success, Vin Diesel poo-pooing the second movie to try his hand at sci-fi ( Pitch Black) and action (xXx) is a classic case of ego as liability. Director Rob Cohen and, most importantly, Ja Rule also declined to take part in 2 Fast 2 Furious. It was a fuck-up that only Diesel would rectify by returning with a weird cameo at the end of the Tokyo Drift.

If you saw the first film, hopped into a Mitsubishi Eclipse, wrecked it during a street race in a drainage canal, slipped into a coma, and came to just in time to see Furious 7, you wouldn't be to blame for not recognizing what the hell is going on in the newest installment. As an OG TFATF fanboy, it can be hard to digest the latest entries in the franchise. Each successive movie puts Dom and the gang closer to the Avengers than a street-racing crew, with stunts, action, and a lack of story that really has teetered into "We don't give a fuck, you'll still pay to see this shit!" territory. This makes revisiting the first film, over a decade later, that much more special.

Paul Walker's death in 2013 didn't hit me the way it might have when I was 16, but I can't front like the customary internet trolling surrounding his fatal car crash didn't shake me up a bit. Maybe I'll just have to file the Paul Walker death memes in the same corner of my mind as the 9/11 ones. In the online atmosphere of "Better them than me," the psychic distance the internet permits brings out the worst in us as much as the best.


I called my sister upon hearing the news that November night, and though neither of us are on celebrities' dicks like that, we both spoke as though we were mourning a close friend. We'd watched The Fast and the Furious together so many times we'd destroyed the DVD, which I promptly replaced with my graduation money. We'd never bonded over something like this flick. And weird as it may sound, seeing Tyrese and Vin Diesel get all weepy during press events for the new movies when talking about Walker has been like watching a friend who's lost a loved one try to press on, because that's what "they" would've wanted.

No matter what your appraisal may be of the franchise's development over time, Universal and other mega-studios' frequent claim that European and Asian audiences don't want to see diverse casts has been obliterated by the box office returns of these seven movies (just over $3.9 billion worldwide). Though anti-blackness is global, people across the world—at least the ones seeing these movies—seem to have more open minds and more sense than the average Hollywood suit. After watching the trailer for the official Point Break remake due out later in 2015, I'm convinced Hollywood would be better off just re-releasing the original TFATF.

In the film's final showdown between Dom and Brian, on an isolated stretch of LA street not unlike the one where Paul Walker met his end IRL, Toretto's mantra of living his life "a quarter mile at a time" ends up biting him in the ass during a balls-out drag race. With the dust settled and sirens encroaching, in an epic display of honor, O'Conner hands over the key to his orange Toyota Supra, the "ten-second" car he'd promised his bro-for-life earlier, allowing a shaken Dom to make his escape into the franchise's next six films. But in my mind, no matter how many more of these movies they make, my ride-or-die will always be the one that started it all, with Paul Walker riding into the sunset of the spirit plane in a black tee and low-top Chuck Taylors 'til the end of time.

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