Thursday, March 16, 2006

Crash: A Liberal Wreckage

With the recent Best Picture award at the Oscars going to Crash, I feel the need to review a movie I found boring and rather annoying. This might seem an unusual departure from the normal subjects of this blog but I think the acclaim Crash has received indicates something about the limited understanding of race in this country.

The film fails on both an artistic and a political level. Artistically, Crash is "crudely manipulative," as A.O. Scott wrote for the New York Times. The director,
Mr. Haggis[,] is eager to show the complexities of his many characters, which means that each one will show exactly two sides. A racist white police officer will turn out to be physically courageous and devoted to his ailing father; his sensitive white partner will engage in some deadly racial profiling; a young black man who sees racial profiling everywhere will turn out to be a carjacker; a wealthy, mild-mannered black man will pull out a gun and start screaming. No one is innocent. There's good and bad in everyone.
[May 6, 2005]

The characters feel inauthentic and the plot is implausible and contrived. It might be possible to overlook all of this if the message was actually compelling but unfortunately, it's not.

Politically, Crash suffers from portraying racism as predominantly a problem of individual prejudice. There is little indication that it has any systemic roots. In actuality of course both factors are integral, which is what makes it so enduring.

I can't say I'm surprised the Academy missed these subtleties. Hollywood may be famously liberal - but it's the liberalism of the elite. Roger Ebert was so impressed with the film he called it the year's best film and even implied it has the possibility of making its audiences better people.
["In defense of the year's 'worst movie'," January 8, 2006]

Thandie Newton, just one of the film's many famous actors, said of the script of Crash that it showed:
that racism was just a tool to deal with frustration and pain. That we were in denial about the way we feel and desperately trying to control their environment the way their lives are. And, ultimately, their scapegoats aren't going to make them feel better. It's just going to increase hatred and the problem gets worse and worse. That's what's so wonderful about the film is that it allows you to see their motivation and to see that behind the aggressive cop is a man in pain. Behind the frustrated housewife is a woman who feels betrayed. You see the motivation, which is so much more valuable than the stereotypes that we usually see in the movies. Racism is just one piece to the whole puzzle that the film offers.
["Matt Dillon and Thandie Newton Discuss 'Crash'," Rebecca Murray, Your Guide to Hollywood Movies]

All of this is well and good and might be the basis for a fine movie if it wasn't so poorly executed.

As film critic Scott Foundas harshly writes:
...Crash is an Important Film About the Times in Which We Live, which is another way of saying that it's one of those self-congratulatory liberal jerk-off movies that rolls around every once in a while to remind us of how white people suffer too, how nobody is without his prejudices, and how, when the going gets tough, even the white supremacist cop who gets his kicks from sexually harassing innocent black motorists is capable of rising to the occasion. How touching. Haggis is trafficking in much the same territory here as Michael Haneke is in Cache, only he lacks the guts to pull out his paring knife and fillet his bourgeois characters with the mercilessness they deserve.
["The Movie Club 2005,", Dec. 29, 2005]

The movie is ultimately, as Scott observes, "profoundly complacent in spite of its intention to unsettle and disturb."

Jeff Chang and Sylvia Chan, cultural critics for Alternet, make some very insightful comments which I'll excerpt at length:
JC: ...we have to go back to the 80s. After the blaxploitation era, a particular kind of race movie really took off: stories that were essentially about blacks or people of color redeeming whites. Start with Spielberg and "The Color Purple" and move on to "Mississippi Burning," "Cry Freedom," "Driving Miss Daisy." "Grand Canyon" is the crowning point of this genre.
SC: It continues to now with "Monster's Ball."
JC: And let's please ignore most of Queen Latifah's recent work. At the end of the 80s, Spike Lee says that he wrote "Do The Right Thing" to confront exactly this kind of movie. In turn, "Do The Right Thing" opened up the door to Black films being financed by the major studios, a trend that accelerated after the Los Angeles riots in 1992.
SC: Ludacris' character Anthony is the most ridiculous kind of black nationalist. He looks like a fool most of the time. Then it turns out he's a criminal, too. Radical thought has to be associated with petty criminality. It parallels how radical thought was criminalized in the American justice system during the Reagan era.
JC: During the 60s, Tom Wolfe portrayed black and Samoan activists in San Francisco and New York City as race hustlers and poverty pimps in "[Radical Chic and] Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers." Anthony is just an update of a kind of 60s white liberal take on radicals of color.
He is redeemed at the end of the movie, after taking a lesson from the Terence Howard's bourgeoisie, white-identifying black director Cameron, who sheds his Oreo aspirations by confronting the police harder than Anthony ever would. Anthony then goes on to free the Thai slave workers.
JC: The main reversal of the movie is when Officer Ryan, who humiliates Cameron's light-skinned wife Christine (Thandie Newton), is forced to save her from a burning car. He learns that he can't blame his problems on blacks, or take it out on them. He needs them to save his father and himself.
SC: Bringing it back to this post 9/11 moment, "Crash" is coming out during a time of war. Our nation is in "crisis," we have a "deeply divided nation," as the media keeps telling us. When "Grand Canyon," and one of the first white liberal Hollywood movies, "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," were released, the nation was at war. Times of crisis and war are when whites have the strongest desire for reconciliation with blacks, when blackness is most desired as part of a triumphant narrative of nation.
Don Cheadle's character is a type of black male protagonist who's very common these days: a proxy for the state, working against all the unruly elements of internal diversity and external threat. Think Denzel Washington in "The Siege," Will Smith in "Men In Black" and "Independence Day," Samuel L. Jackson in "Rules of Engagement," Morgan Freeman as the president in "Deep Impact." This is the type of narrative Hollywood needs to keep putting out there right now--the black man as the symbol for our nation, the guy who's going to provide order for not only the U.S., but for the world. And let's be real: this isn't happening in real life.
In the end, the film paints racism as a postmodern malaise where conflict happens because we don't touch each other except when we crash. That's bullshit. Racism is structural and institutional more than it is personal and sentimental.
JC: The pitch is go to see "Crash," then go home and ponder your prejudices. For some people it may do that. For a lot of people, though, it won't. It's the feel-good race hit movie of the summer.
["Can White Hollywood Get Race Right?," AlterNet, July 19, 2005]

So to amplify on Chan and Chang, the climactic dramatic moments of the film feature a racist white cop finding redemption in heroism and a "bourgeoisie, white-identifying black director" finding redemption in heroically opposing racism - and doing so more boldly than the poor black character (who only manages to follow his lead with some lesser heroics after a tongue lashing from his wealthier social better).

Why would a movie made by such a talented group of people that sincerely wishes to address racism fail so badly? Well, there are the obvious filters that tend to strain out anything too critical of the system: the movie is financed by huge corporations and many of those involved in making the film are themselves part of the elite. To this list one might also add a belief that audiences will prefer to be pandered to rather than challenged. Thus, to this way of thinking, the predominance of whites in this country means it is good business to always have white characters in leading roles (a strikingly consistent phenomenon; movies targeting specific niche markets like blacks are a separate category), often also male. In a liberal movie, the white character starts out flawed and a central element of the movie revolves around the growth of that character. Crash merely adds an additional element by letting the black middle-class get in on the fun too. There's always a danger of reading too much into fiction but I think these observations are at least plausible.


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