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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

I'm Melissa Block, and this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

NORRIS: An unapologetically brash Hollywood blockbuster races into theaters this weekend.

(Soundbite of movie, "Fast Five")

Mr. VIN DIESEL (Actor): (as Dominic Toretto) Chances are, sooner or later, we're going to end up behind bars or buried in a ditch somewhere - but not today.

NORRIS: Fast cars, fast women, sun-kissed backdrop, "Fast Five" is the fourth sequel in the hugely successful "Fast & Furious" franchise. The films do not charm most critics, but one of them, Wesley Morris, calls the series the most progressive force in Hollywood. He's a film critic for The Boston Globe, and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.

Mr. WESLEY MORRIS (Film Critic, The Boston Globe): Thank you.

NORRIS: Now, progressive? That's an interesting term. It's not a word that you would naturally hear attached to a bang-'em-up speed flick, so make your case.

Mr. MORRIS: Well, basically, the thing that I'm most interested in with this series is that it promotes race as this very normal thing. And around these cars are these very different types of people, but it's not the subject of the movie the way it is in most Hollywood movies. Race is just a matter of fact. It is not the way people conduct their business. It is not a cause of friction. These people happen to be Asian, Hispanic, black, white. It doesn't matter. They just really want to steal the cars and catch the people who've stolen them.

NORRIS: And by race, you're talking about sort of a multi-ethnic approach in the cast and the packaging and the marketing?

Mr. MORRIS: Everything. I mean, it's not just multiracial. It's interracial. It's polyracial. It's - I mean, race has just kind of exploded into such a thing in these movies, and it almost doesn't even matter.

NORRIS: So does this happen naturally? Is it sort of organic or is it much like "Sesame Street" or "High School Musical" where it looked like this is just sort of this natural multi-ethnic environment, but behind the scenes, there are a lot of people who are carefully making these decisions in order to reach out to a specific audience?

Mr. MORRIS: I think, initially, it seemed that way. I mean, Vin Diesel's production company is called One Race Productions or One Race Films, and I think that he is one of those people who's frequently kind of annoyed by having to deal with and answer questions about what are you, what background are you? And I think that one of the things he wants to try to do with these movies, whether consciously or not, in achieving that effect is to sort of eliminate race as a point of conflict and use race as a point of normalcy, which I think is a really revolutionary thing to be able to try to do and achieve in a movie that's made almost - well, by the time this fifth movie opens, it will be well over a billion dollars at the box office.

NORRIS: You know, these films are not exactly, shall we say, deep.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORRIS: No, they're not. They're (unintelligible) simple.

NORRIS: There are a lot of fast cars, and they're not, you know, exactly nuanced social commentary. And, in fact, The Onion did a recent spoof that we should listen to before we go on. Let's take a quick listen.

(Soundbite of video)

Mr. BRAD HOLDBROOK (as Jim Haggerty): We're so excited to welcome one of Hollywood's brightest creative talents, the screenwriter behind this summer's blockbuster, the new "Fast and the Furious" movie, "Fast Five." Chris Morgan, thanks for joining us.

Unidentified Child: (as Chris Morgan) Hi.

Ms. TRACY TOTH (as Tracy Gill): Hi, Chris.

Mr. HOLBROOK: (as Jim Haggerty) Hi.

Ms. TOTH: (as Tracy Gill) Now, Chris, these "Fast & the Furious" movies are just getting bigger and better. So when you sat down to write this installment, where there certain elements you wanted to include?

Unidentified Child: (as Chris Morgan) I want the cars to drive fast and then some of them explode.

Mr. HOLBROOK (as Jim Haggerty): Oh, that sounds so great. Now...

NORRIS: So what you're hearing there is a child saying, I wanted the cars to go fast and then to explode, which is essentially what happens over and over and over again in these films.

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah. Well, I mean, look, I just - I think that there's a degree to which the infantile aspect of the way the movies are laid out serves a really interesting corollary to how this race thing functions. I mean, the audience who sees this movie is not going to leave this movie saying, wow, it was so awesome to see all those of people of color just hanging out like normal. That's their life. There's nothing to talk about. It's taken for granted. That's just the way it is. But to Hollywood, I think - I can't overemphasize enough how unique that is, where the "Blind Side," for instance, is a movie that made well over $200 million, but it's also a movie that's in many ways about the way we tend to see race in America after a hundred years of movies, which is...

NORRIS: Here, we're talking about the story of a white Southern woman who takes in a homeless and very large black young man who winds up playing on the football team.

Mr. MORRIS: You would think the story would be about him and having a bad mother and being virtually homeless and not having any options and this woman comes into his life, but the movie is actually about the woman and how good it is that she's brought this kid into her life. It's a vehicle for her goodness, and sort by extension, it tells the story of the history of race in Hollywood. It fosters a very sort of familiar liberal idea which is that I, white person, will make myself feel better by bringing you, black person, into my life.

NORRIS: You know, there are a lot of people who are interested in seeing more nuanced or sort of more multidimensional portrayals of people of color on screen. And to them, "Fast Five" is, you know, while they applaud the success, it is also somewhat of a disappointment because the women are always clad in bikinis and because, you know, the characters are not - do not necessarily come across as particularly deep or intellectual.

Mr. MORRIS: That's a fair criticism. I just feel like all the characters are shallow, not just the women, and all the characters are hot, not just the women, and all the characters have their clothes off, not just the women.

It's an equal opportunity shallow here, and I do think that there is a huge dearth of movies that deal with race seriously, but I don't know. I mean, I feel like this movie is a huge success for treating race as something we deal with every day. And I think a part of the popularity of this series is that it looks like the world that a lot of the people who pay money to see these movies, it looks like the world they live in. And that isn't ever really the case in most Hollywood movies, even in 2011.

NORRIS: Wesley Morris, thanks so much. Good to talk to you.

Mr. MORRIS: Good to talk to you, Michele.

NORRIS: That's Wesley Morris. He's a film critic for The Boston Globe.

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