When I was a kid, I respected the law. I listened to my teachers. I got bullied for enforcing handball rules. As a fourth grader, I led a protest on the principal’s office with a signed petition to overturn a policy that gave fifth graders more field time. I believed in structure, in order, in the power of working within the system.
My first semester of high school, Prop 8 passed by 600,000 votes outlawing gay marriage in the state of California. My third year of high school, I lost a campaign to get a gay assembly speaker for our moderately titled Acceptance Week. Throughout high school, I watched as cheating — as serious as plagiarism, as innocuous as Sparknotes — rewarded my high achieving peers with better grades and impossible college applications.
I grew a bit feistier — arguing with teachers, not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance, walking out of class in solidarity with various national protests — but my belief in The Law or, at least, the ability to change the law, remained steadfast. All of the messages around me pointed toward broken systems, but like a good liberal, I held onto an out-of-context MLK quote about the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice.
Years before Be Gay Do Crimes became a meme, I was neither out as gay, nor committing crimes. Instead I was following the rules while consuming hours of media that celebrated heterosexuality and law enforcement.
During those years, I prided myself on my transgressive taste in film. It was the only thing transgressive about me. And yet, I still consumed the same amount of copaganda as my peers who were watching network procedurals and the latest big budget action movie. I got mine from work that acknowledged the faults of the police and acknowledged the humanity of criminals, but it was copaganda all the same.
Films like The French Connection and Bad Lieutenant revealed the darker side of police officers — while still granting these men the role of protagonist. Films like Fargo and Magnolia offered a counter-narrative — wholesome do-gooders wearing the badge as a moral act in an immoral world.
There are degrees to copaganda. We can debate the value of corruption stories. We can disagree about which films show behavior without condoning it. We can decide if the wish-fulfillment of a cop sitcom is a positive — or the most harmful of them all. But, undoubtedly, our media is consumed with this career path more than any other. Our media is consumed with a career path born from slave patrols.
When I think of the media I consumed as a kid, one movie stands out as the most explicitly anti-cop and pro-criminal. It wasn’t one of Martin Scorsese’s crime classics or any of my favorite noirs. It was a 2001 rip-off of a much better movie I’d see years later. It was a small street racing action flick that would launch an unlikely franchise. It was, of course, Rob Cohen’s The Fast and the Furious.
The Fast Saga is a convoluted series, and my personal history with it is just as messy, so a warning: This essay is going to get convoluted too.
I rented the first two movies from Blockbuster during a time when my to-watch list — handwritten on notebook paper — was as wide-ranging as it would be for years. Mainstream movies from the past five years alongside absolute classics. The Fast and the Furious, The Godfather, Final Destination, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Anaconda starring J.Lo — all these disparate movies alongside each other with no distinction. I went down the list one-by-one.
I was discovering my taste and — with the help of snobby film forums — the taste I found was one of far more sophistication than the Fast movies. I wouldn’t watch another one until I was dragged to Furious 6 my freshman year of college by my then girlfriend. I got properly drunk and admitted it was “funwp_postsbut gave nothing more. I had no idea the journey it took to get to that sixth movie. I had no idea all the pieces that clicked into place. I did not understand the post-credits scene. I wouldn’t understand any of that until years later — my taste broadening again as well as my gender — when I obsessively caught up on the entire series.
The Fast and the Furious (2001) has nearly the exact same plot as Kathryn Bigelow’s all-time great film Point Break. Both films are about a young cop who goes undercover with a group of cool dudes/criminals, falls in love with a cool chick, and develops a homoerotic relationship with the leader of the cool dudes/criminals. It just swaps out surfing bank robbers for car racing truck thieves. Both movies — spoiler alert — end with the young cop letting his platonic boyfriend get away as he gives up his commitment to law enforcement. If your goal is abolition, it’s really the only way a cop movie can end.
This first film introduces us to several of our main players. There’s Brian O’Conner, the cop, played by the charming blue-eyed Paul Walker. There’s Dominic Toretto, the fastest wheels in LA, played by the soft hypermasculinity of Vin Diesel. There’s Dom’s sister Mia played by DEBS’ own Jordana Brewster. And there’s Dom’s girlfriend Letty played by Michelle Rodriguez, an actor I love so much that I’ve forgiven her for that movie where she played a force-feminized hitman.
This first film has mild ambitions. It hits the beats — of Point Break, of the genre — and hits them well. It gives us some solid car chases and questions the concept of criminality. One thing this film has that its inspiration lacks is a layer of racial politics. While Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves both look like dudes who could smoke weed in front of a cop and get away with it, Walker and Diesel read much differently from one another. Walker looks like a Conservative dream of an All American golden boy. Diesel is mixed race and looks like few other early 00s movie stars.
This first film also establishes that Dom was formerly incarcerated. This is someone who has had his life dramatically altered by the system. This is someone whose primary value is family and who is doing what he can to help them get ahead. No wonder Brian feels his loyalties shifting. If Point Break is a celebration of nonconformity that uses the police as a backdrop, The Fast and the Furious is an explicit celebration of criminal justice in an unjust world.
This wasn’t an afterthought or a mere plot twist. This became the thematic core of the next films even as critics — and my younger self — dismissed them as brainless.
The much-maligned and underrated sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) continues the first film’s messy ambitions with a twist of nitrous gas. Brian is the only character to return but he’s joined by even more homoeroticism.
After letting Dom get away, Brian is hiding out in the Miami street racing scene joined by his mechanic friend Tej played by Ludacris and fellow street racer Suki, Devon Aoiki filling in as the token DEBS cast member. Eventually he’s arrested, and his former boss gives him a deal: If he helps them take down a drug lord, his record will be cleared. He agrees only if he can work with his childhood friend Roman Pearce, franchise standout Tyrese Gibson, who is currently on parole and could use a similar deal.
While this film is the first to have our main criminals working for the feds, Brian and Roman spend the movie prioritizing each other. Brian gets a romance with an undercover agent played by the always excellent Eva Mendes, but it’s comically under-developed compared to the romance between the two male leads. If anyone doubts the validity of writing about these films on a queer website, this entry is the greatest rebuttal. I will always believe that homoerotic criminals are far queerer than explicitly gay cops — and this site covers those all the time.
This is the first film where cars do things they probably cannot do in real life, and director John Singleton deserves far more credit for advancing the tone of this series. The film ends with Brian and Roman free — and stealing half the drug money. They may have helped the feds catch a drug lord — an admittedly boring and politically hollow plot — but the whole time they were in it for themselves.
Before moving to the third film, we need to go back a year to an indie Sundance movie. (I told you this would get convoluted.) Justin Lin’s debut Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) was not intended to be part of the Fast Saga, but when Lin was hired to direct The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, he brought along Sung Kang’s character Han. This dark and twisty crime thriller about a group of high-achieving Asian American high schoolers has more in common with a Tarantino view of criminality than the other early Fast movies — but Han stands out as a natural fit for the franchise with his individual moral code.
Except for a cameo from Vin Diesel at the very end, Tokyo Drift doesn’t carry over any characters from the first two films. While the central performance from Lucas Black as Sean lacks Walker or Diesel’s charm, the film itself is a natural continuation of its predecessors. The movie opens with high schooler Sean goaded into a street race by a fellow classmate. Destruction ensues, and the classmate faces no consequences due to his wealthy family. But Sean is also white, so he doesn’t go to prison either — instead he’s offered the deal of moving to Japan to be with his father who is in the Navy. There he gets involved in the street racing scene, which connects him to Han. Toward the end of the film, Sean and his father reconcile when his father caves to Sean’s worldview. He lets Sean race the Yakuza and save the day! He may not quit the Navy, but he does accept the value of two criminals settling their conflict with an illegal street race — and keeping their word.
If a retroactive origin story and a third film with no original characters wasn’t confusing enough, next we have a short. Directed and co-written by the father of the Fast Family himself, Vin Diesel, Los Bandoleros begins with new character Leo (Tego Calderon) in jail. He’s talking — in Spanish — about the system that profits off keeping people incarcerated. “These assholes got us in a modern-day slavery,wp_postshe says. He then connects this to capitalism and war. He says all we have is each other — criminals helping criminals, regular people helping regular people. Diesel displays beautiful shots of the Dominican Republic as another new character Santos (Don Omar) is introduced looking for gas. There’s a shortage. The second half of the short pivots to something more conventional. Han arrives, and then the rest is spent with Dom and Letty reuniting and getting married.
This short goes directly into the fourth film, Fast and Furious (2009), which begins with Dom, Letty, Han, Leo, and Santos hijacking fuel tankers to steal gas and give it to the people. While this film has few defenders, I’d argue this sequence is among the best of the franchise. Not only is it expertly choreographed, but it perfectly captures the Robin Hood ethos of the series.
The rest of the film is not as compelling. Letty unceremoniously dies, and Brian is back working for the FBI. Most of the film finds a mourning Dom and a fed Brian in conflict as they reluctantly team up to stop another drug lord. While the climactic car chase does almost redeem the film, it’s the epilogue I find most compelling. Brian is under the assumption that Dom’s record will be cleared for helping the same way his was in the second film. But Brian’s request for clemency is denied, and Dom gets 25 years to life. Maybe it’s because Dom isn’t white, maybe it’s because he isn’t a former cop. A disillusioned Brian quits the FBI (again), and the film ends with Brian, Mia, Leo, and Santos beginning a different kind of heist to rescue Dom from the prison bus.
The message is clear: When our justice system is broken, all we have is each other.
Fast Five is the peak of this franchise.
It begins where the fourth left off, delivering a stellar prison bus heist. Already on the run in Rio de Janeiro, the gang get into further trouble when they’re framed by another, you guessed it, drug lord for the murder of a DEA agent. They decide to rob the drug lord’s safe filled with $100 million dollars in cash.
Fans of the franchise know this film as the introduction to Agent Hobbs, played by The Rock. But it’s noteworthy that this is the only film where Agent Hobbs is the villain. No, he’s not as ruthless as the drug lord, but he’s undoubtedly an antagonist. Dom — along with all our living faves including Roman and Tej — is trying to steal from a drug lord. Hobbs is trying to stop them because he views them all as criminals. It’s only once the drug lord’s men kill Hobbs’ team that he lets up on Dom — with the condition that they don’t take the money.
Of course, Dom and the family have a plan to still carry out their heist. The bank vault chase — a franchise gem — does not end with them lawfully handing over their spoils. And while this film lacks the explicit political endings of the first and fourth, it carries over the fun criminal attitude of the second. In our capitalist world, money allows for a certain amount of freedom.
You don’t have to spit in the face of the justice system if you have enough money to walk away.
But, as they say, money corrupts.
And while the next films continue the fifth’s heightening of action sequences, they also move completely away from the series’ thematic core. The sixth film at least has the excuse that everyone is in need of amnesty. And the added detail that the Big Bad Villain is a former soldier. But Hobbs is still a central hero of a film that isn’t really saying anything.
The seventh is even worse. Under the direction of James Wan, this film may tout the franchise’s best action and handle Paul Walker’s death with emotion and grace, but the politics become just as bad as any other big-budget action movie of law enforcement propaganda. The sixth movie’s villain’s brother is the main antagonist, but he’s joined by a “terroristwp_postsplayed by Djimon Hounsou. Our team, along with Hobbs, begins working for a man named Mr. Nobody played by Kurt Russell who, living up to his name, is just a hollow portrait of a government leader — one who is totally secret and doesn’t play by the books.
These two films lean into the idea of chosen family, but they lose any sense of criminality. It’s one thing to Be Gay and not Do Crimes — it’s another to Be Gay and Stop Crimes On Behalf Of The U.S. Government.
The eighth film, The Fate of the Furious (2017), falters even further. Charlize Theron plays Cipher, a random hacker who wants to destroy the world. This is even more uninspired than a drug lord, but it’s the treatment of Dom that really makes the film lose its way.
Cipher reveals to Dom that he has a son and that she’ll kill him if Dom doesn’t betray his family on her behalf. On the surface, it’s an interesting challenge for a character devoted to family — the only thing that could make him turn on family is family. And yet the lengths he goes to fight the others in his crew, the harm he almost causes them, just don’t feel justified. It only makes sense if you lessen the importance of these other people in his life — if you distinguish between chosen family and biological family.
The film also brings the return of Mr. Nobody and his sidekick played by none other than Dirty Harry’s son, Scott Eastwood. With Mr. Nobody’s guidance, they use a device called God’s Eye which provides global unchecked surveillance.
We’re supposed to celebrate the evolution of this rag tag group of criminals working their way up to government operatives. Instead it feels like a betrayal of these characters, this series, and the suggestion that people without structural power deserve their own success. It’s a disappointing low-point — and the action isn’t even that great.
Which brings us to last year’s long-awaited F9: The Fast Saga. With Justin Lin back as director, the resurrection of Han, and the absence of The Rock and regular screenwriter Chris Morgan, it seemed like it might be a return to form. And, rumor had it, our family was going to space.
After eight years away, F9 finds Justin Lin grappling with the behemoth he helped create.
The film begins in 1989, when Dom and Mia’s father was a racecar driver. Dom and their brother Jakob are in their dad’s pit crew, and they watch as their dad is killed by another driver with dirty tactics.
The present-day plot finds the return of Charlize Theron’s Cipher, but it also centers the conflict between Dom and Jakob, now played by John Cena. Throughout the film, we return to the flashbacks, learning that Dom stepped in while Jakob was confronting the driver who killed their dad, leading to his incarceration. We also learn that while in prison Dom realized the crash was Jakob’s fault and upon his return, he challenged him to a race and then told him to leave.
As the present-day action continues the franchise’s quest to be bigger — this time with a lot of magnets — the flashbacks and conflict between Dom and Jakob ground the film. The series is at its best when it centers character, family, and critiques of the justice system. How else are we supposed to feel invested in the action sequences?
But there’s a tension in this film as it tries to encapsulate all that the franchise has become. The return of Cipher, the return of Mr. Nobody, the stakes-so-high-they’re-stakeless world ending MacGuffin, contribute to a film that at times feels as soulless as its immediate predecessors. I’m not against destruction in an action movie, but there’s a thoughtlessness to the sheer amount of casual civilian deaths and empty violence. When the action arises from our sibling rivalry, it works. When the action arises from boring government operative hijinks, it feels flat.
And then they go to space.
Throughout the franchise, Roman and Tej have become a sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern comic relief. By this film, they seem to fully be in a throuple with hot hacker and movie seven addition to the family Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel). They’re not quite the characters introduced in the second film, but at their best they recall the series’ origins of regular people going to extraordinary lengths to survive — sharing some wisecracks along the way. So, of course, they’re the two characters who go to space in order to disable a satellite. And, of course, they’re going to do it in a souped up car.
Fitted with rockets and strapped to the back of a plane flown by some Tokyo Drift characters, Roman and Tej manage to get into space wearing old-timey scuba suits. “Two dudes from the ghetto in outer space,wp_postsRoman says. “You know ain’t nobody going to believe us, right?”
It’s an absurd moment — made more absurd when they have to crash directly into the satellite — but it also perfectly encapsulates how this franchise should have grown and should still grow. With just some goofy guys and a lot of spirit, they manage to get to space. Is it believable? No. But it’s unbelievable in a much better way than the government recruiting former street racers as secret operatives to fight vague terrorists. It’s unbelievable in a way that dreams for more, for all of us, on our own terms.
It’s a dream beyond assimilation.
When I was a kid, I cared about the rules, because part of me knew I was breaking the most important one. Even though I didn’t come out until I was 23, my entire life was marred by a feeling that I didn’t belong. In response, I turned to perfection. If I can’t excel as a boy, I can excel as an athlete. If I can’t excel as a son, I can excel as a child. If I can’t excel as a boyfriend, I can excel as a partner. If I can’t excel in society, I can excel as a citizen.
I felt this pressure evolve when I came out. I’d failed as a boy, so I had to be a perfect girl. I’d put my family through so much, so I had to be agreeable in every other way. There was this idea that queerness was in itself a transgression so I wasn’t allowed anything else. It was the same thing I self-imposed as a child, and I was done with it.
Queerness and transness have been explicitly criminalized for centuries. Especially when compounded with other marginalized identities, this criminalization creates cycles of crime and continued oppression. Even as we’ve made progress in conditional acceptance, this core truth remains. The recent deluge of laws targeting trans youth, the continued laws targeting sex workers, the dismal lack of tangible change after the 2020 protests, are a reminder that our community will not find freedom through the occasional politician or TV star. Our community will find freedom by accepting that as long as our social and political structures remain, we will always have more in common with criminals than law enforcement.
It’s not a coincidence that so many queer characters in our media, especially queer characters of color, are cops. It’s not a coincidence that a franchise celebrating criminals built on a predominantly non-white cast became pro-government once it got too big. Our society, our film industry, reinforces the status quo in ways explicit — such as working directly with law enforcement — and implicit — such as copying tropes from past pro-cop media.
And so it’s up to us to fight back with what we watch and what we create. It’s up to us to resist becoming the exceptional exception. It’s up to us to prioritize our community as we’re reaching for the stars.
Instead, we have to remember what matters most. We have to remember… family.
Slow Takes is a series of “belatedwp_postsreviews by Drew Gregory of queer art released last year that Autostraddle didn’t cover.