Vin Diesel still recalls the bad old days of street-race apartheid. In 2001, his breakthrough movie, The Fast and the Furious, powered into multiplexes featuring separate but equal factions of outlaw hot-rodders from across the racial divide—glowering Latino gearheads, African-American wheelmen with cornrowed hair, a pack of Asian “tuners” known as the Little Saigon crew—all competing for drag-strip primacy in late-night L.A.

“There were cliques not totally unlike The Warriors or other gang movies,” says Diesel. “It was segregated in its own way while still trying to incorporate a multicultural theme.”

But over the franchise’s transformation into one of the highest-grossing series of all time, boundary lines of turf and skin color have become increasingly blurred. By the fourth installment, 2009’s Fast & Furious, members of those factions had banded together to form a United Nations-like “family” of scofflaw speed demons, including an ass-kicking Latina (Michelle Rodriguez), a Korean-American cool guy (Sung Kang), a golden-boy cop-turned-criminal (Paul Walker), and Diesel’s own ethnically ambiguous, chrome-domed dragster Dom Toretto. At last, here was a cast that reflected the reality of our country’s racial makeup: 37 percent of Americans now identify as nonwhite, and the U.S. Census Bureau projects a “majority-minority” population in 2043. The importance of the Furious movies’ multiethnic ethos is not lost on Diesel, who is gearing up for Furious 7, in theaters April 3. “It doesn’t matter what nationality you are. As a member of the audience, you realize you can be a member of that ‘family,'” he says. “That’s the beautiful thing about how the franchise has evolved.”

Too bad Hollywood can’t keep pace. Despite the films’ cumulative worldwide gross of almost $2.4 billion, their racial inclusiveness remains an outlier; American movies are still overwhelmingly white. According to UCLA’s 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, a mere 16.7 percent of 2013 films starred minorities in lead roles (see page 38). Sure, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek films showcase an array of ethnicities, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe introduced its first black superhero, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), in last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But in terms of sheer multicultural visibility, the Fast & Furious films stand as a singular splotch of color where the rubber meets the road.

To be blunt, this is bad business. While it’s ridiculous to expect Hollywood to make movies with diverse ensembles just to be PC, nowadays more color can mean more money. Minorities bought 46 percent of movie tickets in the U.S. in 2013. And fully one-third of the domestic audience for 2013’s Fast & Furious 6—which introduced Samoan-African-American action hero Dwayne Johnson into the fold—was Latino, according to Universal Pictures. Another 29 percent was African-American and 13 percent was of Asian descent. In other words, three-quarters of the people who saw Fast 6 were nonwhite and close to half were under 25, the demographic that buys the most tickets nationwide. Moreover, a recent ListenFirst Digital Audience Ratings survey found that Furious 7 enjoyed the highest fan engagement of any major franchise in or approaching theatrical release. The message is clear: Multiculturalism sells.

“Diverse stories with diverse characters need to be told,” says Jeffrey Kirschenbaum, Universal’s production co-president. “Not out of any sense of altruism, but because your audience is looking for stories they can connect to and access. If they can’t connect and access, they’re not coming. All of us have to take heed of that.” He adds: “We’re starting to recalibrate how we’re looking at not only movies and how to cast them, but who our heroes are.”

That shifting industry outlook helps explain why Matt Alvarez, the producer behind such hits as the Barbershop franchise and last year’s Ride Along, was hired in August as president of Relativity Studios’ newly formed multicultural division. As he sees it, casting diversity is crucial to mass appeal. “You want your movies to reflect what’s out there in society,” he says, pointing out that 2016’s Ride Along 2 will employ a color wheel of supporting players, including Ken Jeong, Benjamin Bratt, and Olivia Munn (not to mention stars Kevin Hart and Ice Cube). “What the Fast movies have done is force people to make movies that are reflective of how America looks. That’s a standard-bearer for films.”

Yet to hear it from a cross section of actors and directors of color, Hollywood keeps falling short of that standard thanks to one persistent bit of conventional wisdom: that minority stars don’t sell tickets overseas, the market that now accounts for 70 percent of total annual box office. But according to the UCLA study, that assumption is false.

It turns out that films with diverse casts boast higher global grosses and returns on investment than movies whose casts are predominantly white. (It’s not an accident that 70 percent of Fast 6‘s worldwide $789 million haul came from outside the U.S.) Actors of color have their own anecdotal evidence to back up this data. “I would dare studio heads to travel internationally with us,” Gabrielle Union (Think Like a Man) told EW recently while promoting her BET show Being Mary Jane. “They have the belief that you [an actor of color] can walk the streets of London and no one will notice or care—and that is not true.” As she sees it, the industry is simply reluctant to change its ways and be more inclusive. “They just don’t do it, so there’s nothing to disprove their theories. So they’re able to keep saying the same thing over and over again.”

Rodriguez, a Texan of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent, can point naysayers to the combined $5 billion her movies have grossed around the world. “I’m bigger overseas than I am here,” she says. “I got mad love in China! Hollywood has become the standardized voice of our planet. But it does not represent the majority of people. And a lot of people here forget how many people around the world are brown or yellow or black.”

Despite these actors’ frustrations, there is some reason for optimism. Fast & Furious producer Neal H. Moritz suspects the industry isn’t as flummoxed by diversity casting as it once was. “A lot of the time, Hollywood is slow to react,” he says. “It’s like one of those huge ocean liners that really take a long time to turn around.” UCLA’s report bears this out: While less than 17 percent of lead film roles went to actors of color in 2013, that number has been on the rise. It was only 10.5 percent in 2011, and 15.1 percent in 2012. In three years, it spiked 59 percent (see page 38).

So it’s a start. Now Hollywood just has to keep at it. There is no excuse not to, according to Rick Famuyiwa, who directed 2007’s Talk to Me and the Sundance hit Dope (in theaters this June). “Putting diverse faces on screen is the most American thing you can do,” he says. “Throughout history, what’s distinguished this country—by force or choice—is that we’re a nation of immigrants from vastly different cultures. The clash and celebration of that is who we are.” In the Fast films’ case, that celebration means leading the pack—and waiting for the other cars to close the gap.

Additional reporting by Tim Stack and Kevin P. Sullivan. This article appears in Entertainment Weekly‘s April 3 issue.

Furious 7
  • Movie
  • 129 minutes