Culture

Furious 7: A Trip to Action Movie Utopia

Vin Diesel at the wheel in Furious 7.

In Furious 7, those multi-ethnic automotive street-thugs-turned-law-officers of The Fast and the Furious series reconvene at a sexy/jubilant competition under the banner “Race Wars.” The pun amuses only because, over the past 15 years, this franchise has intentionally transcended modern racial differences, while high-minded social arbiters looked the other way — and white female rapper Iggy Azalea makes a cameo appearance to prove it.

Starting long before the election of Barack Obama, The Fast and the Furious franchise played to American moviegoers’ shared fascination with cars, crime, and bravado. The essence of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling to integrate with “all deliberate speed” was found in the street-level, blue-collar crime-chase genre with its exuberant all-American need for speed. Social mobility and social velocity were exercised by these movies’ white, black, Latino, and Asian squad, headed by Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, Jordana Brewster, and Dwayne Johnson as outlaws and law officers coming together without sanctimony.

This Furious 7 episode revs up the franchise’s credo, mostly in celebration of the late actor Paul Walker, who played cop Brian to Diesel’s rebel Dominic. Their characters’ initial antagonism gave way to “brotherhood,” and Walker’s accidental death during the film’s production last year gave existential significance to the display of cross-cultural camaraderie. Furious 7 is the furthest thing from funereal; it stays true to Walker’s representation of genre-movie democracy. He was the most expressive B-movie star of his era — more radiant than any A-lister — and he gets two impressive set-pieces (running atop an upturned 18-wheel truck and sliding down an endless staircase) that make Furious 7 a spectacular and touching sendoff.

The action in Furious 7 is bigger, louder, and more extravagant than ever: parachuting cars, a tough-girl cat fight, plus niftily juggled shootouts, mano a mano combat, and explosions. This is the Skyfall of The Fast and the Furious movies, but better for the sincerity of its underlying egalitarian fantasy and moral purpose: The ghetto car fugitives expand their rap sheets to include defending government surveillance (a spy system called God’s Eye) and fighting terrorists, represented by Jason Statham as a ruthless mercenary seeking vengeance.

The united front of brotherhood supersedes and outdates the concept of race war. The deep-voiced Diesel perfects the franchise’s raison d’être with Dominic’s repeated pledge, “Everyone’s looking for a thrill, but what’s real is family. Hold on to that.” His oath is underscored by an ISIS-era threat: “A war is coming. We’re gonna face ’em on the streets we know about.” James Wan directs with familiar generic efficacy, like making a younger version of The Expendables. He knows that improbable fights, stunts, and explosions are boring, but impossible ones are not. Furious 7 works on the simplest level: Bad guys die, good guys win. Success.

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Because today’s race wars occur mostly as ideological media fodder, Film Forum’s new 4K restoration of Douglas Sirk’s 1959 Imitation of Life helps us reexamine contemporary racial elitism.

Cinema snobs usually neglect Imitation, Sirk’s most popular film, in favor of his more furiously stylized Written on the Wind and All That Heaven Allows – denigrating Imitation’s socially conscious plot, in which a black girl, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), passes for white to the regret of her dark-skinned mother, Annie Mae (Juanita Moore), and in contrast to the film’s white lead character, actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), whose daughter, Susie (Sandra Dee), is Sarah Jane’s privileged peer.

Diminishing Imitation of Life as an “ironic” statement on race relations, rather than the emotional juggernaut felt by most moviegoers ever since its release, conforms to Ferguson-era media-think. Prizing Sirk’s stylized compositions, artful lighting, and emotional excess over the substance of his story distances its meaning in the same way recent media “reporting” squeezes all racial incidents into a condescending civil-rights-protest paradigm (thus, the hollow acclaim for the pathetic Selma).

Following Brown v. Board of Ed, Sirk’s Imitation maintains an immediacy critics prefer to ignore. Sirk’s reputation has increased in reverse — through academics’ convoluted appreciation of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose 1974 Ali: Fear Eats the Soul remade Sirk’s 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows as an interracial love story, deliberately countering Sirk’s Hollywood overkill with Brechtian realism in the service of Irony.

This politicized Sirk in the worst way and now accounts for the supercilious reassessment of Imitation as ironic. Though melodrama is underappreciated in our snarky era, irony proves insufficient. It does not explain why the Kohner and Moore performances are the movie’s apex. They go to the heart of racial experience and mother-love, the film’s key subjects, about which it is completely unembarrassed. Sirk glosses the political economy of racism (which was the raison d’être of John Stahl’s 1934 version) for his own fantasy about emotional values that strike closer to America’s popular heart than media elites are willing to respect. (Critics overpraised Todd Haynes’s 2002 Far From Heaven, a race-sex Sirk-Fassbinder pastiche that proved resoundingly unpopular.)

Imitation, glitzy and potent as produced by soap-opera specialist Ross Hunter, transcends Sirk’s own self-consciousness. Its one truly “ironic” scene is downplayed: when the white actress’s paramour critiques “that colored angle” in her new show. “Not the dull social worker with the high dreams and low heels!” he exclaims. “It’s absolutely controversial! What do you know about controversy?” He means “race,” and Sirk and Hunter knew to deal with it head-on, for a jolt as timeless as racial inequality is vexatious.

However far our culture has come to cleanse the story’s nagging sense of racial loathing doesn’t mean we have utterly transformed. Furious 7 may fantasize Utopia, but Spike Lee has made a career exacerbating race tensions and being unabashed about doing it, as in his 1991 interracial love story, Jungle Fever where Wesley Snipes played lead character Flipper Purify, a conceited counterpoint to Laurence Fishburne’s patriarchal Furious Styles in Boyz N the Hood that same year.

To revive Imitation as Brechtian irony distances us from our social needs and what makes us human — as in Sarah Jane’s wrenching cry, “And if I have to be colored I want to die!” Sarah Jane’s anguish goes deeper than the historical precedents that film elitists casually endorse (12 Years a Slave, Selma), which pretend the reasons for her distress have been voted away or eradicated. Imitation goes deeper than Sirk’s other, more vaunted, sentimental ironies. It’s an all-out emotional/intellectual appeal — like Spielberg’s The Color Purple, and film snobs still resist ushering that one into the canon.

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Allow a critic to take issue with the sensitive, elegantly made Effie Gray, a movie that otherwise handles the difficult subject of two-way sexual repression with taste, discretion, and some feeling. The second recent film to disparage the inspired 19th-century British art critic John Ruskin, Effie Gray makes a perfect companion piece to Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. But the new film, too, offers less-than-fair appreciation of Ruskin’s genius and of his importance.

Dramatizing the infamous peccadillo of Ruskin’s wedding-night disgust at his wife, Effie (Dakota Fanning in Gish-like postures), for her hirsute privates, director Richard Laxton encases them both in a sentimental, pre-Raphaelite amber — exquisitely lighted by Andrew Dunn (who shot Altman’s Gosford Park).

The main problem is the screenplay by Emma Thompson (who plays proto-feminist Lady Eastlake), which ignores the significance of Ruskin’s cultural contribution. When Ruskin (Greg Wise) testifies, “The purpose of art is to reveal the truth, to reveal God” or “All great art pleases God,” Thompson uses it against him as tantamount to fundamentalist oppression — as if personal eccentricity is the fault of religion. (The actressy Thompson must never have read Tennessee Williams’s Eccentricities of a Nightingale.) Thompson’s fashionable bias makes Effie Gray less than the sensitive bio-pic it could have been. 

— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.

 

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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