In coming semesters, this year's winner of best picture
at the Academy Awards likely will become one of the more frequently
discussed films in American higher education. Because Paul Haggis's
Crash offers a convenient and generative entryway into myriad
discourses swirling around the ever-interrogated category of race,
many instructors and professors in the humanities and social sciences
will undoubtedly turn to it in reference, or screen it as a surefire
text in the perpetual quest for meaningful classroom discussion.
With an appealing and accomplished ensemble cast, slick production
and climactic moments in plenty, this movie about a difficult subject
has appealed to diverse, youthful audiences and inspired many earnest
conversations. I knew I needed to see Crash when I found
myself in a large group of twenty-somethings who all had informed
opinions about it. However, since watching it for myself, I seem
to have developed some ideas about the film that don't fit neatly
into the Crash conversation.
Those who appreciate the film frequently feel that
it has made them think about race in a new way, or they are intrigued
by the way in which some aspect of it resonates with their own experience
of race; the film's detractors are often dubious of its implausible
plot and the heavy-handed, "in your face" method it uses
to explore its subject. While I find points of agreement in both
camps, my primary reaction to Crash is all but absent from
the discussion the movie seems to provoke. Perhaps I am alone in
my position that, even as this year's "best picture" attempts
to address the contemporary race problem, it also relies upon and
covertly promotes social narratives that are problematically racist.
Some of my students will immediately attack this as a paranoid thesis.
To this I can only respond with the force of argument and a question
recently asked by Dave Chappelle: "What is a black man without
Admittedly, my appraisal is somewhat counter-intuitive;
it's a bit like accusing an investigative-reporter of complicity
in a crime that he brings to the front page of the newspaper. But,
I want to put it into the mix in order to complicate some of the
worthwhile discussion taking place around Crash following
its success at the Academy Awards and the NAACP Image Awards.
For a large, racially-mixed cohort of Americans, the
movie offers an inspiring dose of "gritty," yet cathartic,
racial confrontation. Its frank, insistent engagement with provocative
racial themes has proven palatable for such a large audience primarily
because of its seemingly even-handed critique of the many forms
of racial prejudices and stereotypes that it depicts. Almost all
of the film's characters - black, white, Latino, Asian, Middle-Eastern
- seem similarly flawed and yet equally noble. Its magnanimity leaves
audiences feeling that, in America's contentious racial landscape,
there are few genuine "bad guys," but a multiplicity of
complexly charged social relationships. In exploring these relationships,
the clever narrative manages to avoid harsh judgment of its principle
players while balancing several plotlines that repeatedly crash
into one another at nodes charged with racial tension.
The film keeps its indictments unspecified by making
them ubiquitous. Salon.com declared that Crash is "grasping
you by the lapels, like that uncle you generally avoid at family
gatherings, and screaming into your face: ‘My God! The contradictions!'
It virtually throbs with meaning, and it's the kind of migraine
throb that approaches meaninglessness." Although this sarcastic
critique devalues the meaningful conversations that can be spurred
by that discomfiting uncle, its primary point is undeniable. Crash
is teeming with paradoxes, reversals and implications that are numbingly
difficult to organize.
Yet, for me, there is an itch that makes its way through
the throb. It begins with the movie's central act of gallant heroism
in which a white police officer risks his life in order to rescue
a black woman helplessly trapped in a car that will explode just
moments after they escape from it. Perhaps I should not make much
of the irony that registers in my paranoid mind as a movie with
a diverse cast, apparently marshaled to disrupt simplistic thinking
about race in America, reserves its greatest moment of sacrificial
bravery for the white, male representative of law and order. But,
this hackneyed scene is emblematic of the ways in which Crash
trades in some of Hollywood's problematic racial (not to mention
gender) tropes while trying to convey its many messages.
The film's heroic police officer - played a little
too-believably by Matt Dillon - also happens to be its biggest bigot.
He is introduced to the audience during a phone conversation with
a stubborn HMO representative who will not authorize medical services
needed by his ailing father. When Officer Ryan learns that his
antagonist proudly bears the ineluctably African-American name "Shaniqua,"
he expresses his disgust saying, "Big fucking surprise that
is." In seeming retaliation for this bad experience with a
black person, Ryan pulls over a married black couple and sexually
assaults the woman during a vigorous body search. This is, arguably,
the most viscerally racist act of the movie. Yet, as the thread
of the narrative involving Officer Ryan develops, he is steadily
redeemed. Several scenes later, when he has a face to face meeting
with Shaniqua from the HMO, we are meant to understand why Officer
Ryan has the capacity for such racial hatred. It is because his
father - who has a urinary tract infection, the effects of which
the audience must bear witness to in more than one scene - toiled
in his own janitorial business, worked side by side with his black
employees, paid them a fair wage, but then lost "everything"
when the city began giving its contracts to minority-owned companies.
The audience is virtually instructed to pay close attention to this
anti-affirmative-action saga by Shaniqua, who listens to Officer
Ryan intently, waving away a security guard that attempts to escort
him out of her office.
Once our judgment of the police officer has been softened
by his tale of woe, he goes on to perform his heroic rescue. It
just so happens that the black woman he will save from certain death
is the same black woman he assaulted earlier. There is something
perverse about the structures of this strained coincidence. For
one, the black woman - played by Thandie Newton - is again powerless
and must be acted upon by the figure of white male authority. While
she is terrified when she first recognizes her liberator, the mortal
circumstances dictate that she accept his help. However, as Officer
Ryan calms her hysteria and nestles close in order to cut her free,
it seems that something more than acceptance has developed in Newton's
character. Because of its intimacy (their lips nearly brush), the
rescue becomes their second, forced, quasi-sexual encounter and
by the time it is over the black woman is grateful for it. Once
they are clear of the wreck, she clutches Officer Ryan in a further
expression of her helplessness and gratitude before the bigoted
What meaning can audiences take from all this? Well,
it seems that Officer Ryan's character is meant to demonstrate that
even horrible racists are complexly formed: they love their fathers
(sometimes they are racist because they love their fathers)
and they are capable of very good deeds. While Crash does
not explicitly ask us to exonerate racists like Ryan, it certainly
suggests that we should be more understanding of their flaws - even
if they include sexual violence. It seems that, upon finally reaching
an era in which polite company forces most to acknowledge that racism
is inexcusable regardless of circumstance, America's favorite "race
movie" is now asking us to temper our judgment of the embattled
figure of the bigot.
In its equal-opportunity charity, the movie also implies
that we should be more forgiving of black men who, like Officer
Ryan, are criminals. Peter (Lorenz Tate) and Anthony (Chris ‘Ludacris'
Bridges) are carjackers whom we come to like because of their inchoate
moral sensibility and their comic banter - at moments they are bumbling
blacks with a long Hollywood history. Like Officer Ryan, they
seem to believe that when someone's life is at stake, race isn't
important. After literally running over an Asian man with an SUV
they have stolen - "You're saying there's a Chinaman under
this truck?" - they deliver him to the hospital despite the
risk it entails. However, while the possible motives of white racism
are methodically explained through Officer Ryan's monologue about
his father, there is no painstaking apologia for the criminal lifestyle
that Peter and Anthony have adopted. At one point in the film,
an exasperated white character does sum up the causes of black dereliction
in ten and a half seconds: "I know all the sociological reasons
why - per capita - eight times more black men are incarcerated than
white men. Schools are a disgrace, lack of opportunity, bias in
judicial system, all that stuff." But, this hasty accounting
insinuates that America's systemic racism is old news, hardly worth
mentioning and it stands in stark contrast to Officer Ryan's careful
description of "reverse discrimination."
If the film does not want us to dwell long on the
complicated "sociological" reasons that black men too
often end up on the wrong side of the law, it does finally give
us a more tangible and easily-dramatized explanatory symbol. In
the final movement of the film we deduce that Peter may have turned
to crime because he is the child of a drug-addicted, black single-mother
- one of Hollywood's more recent bugaboos. She is a minor character
in the movie, but more than once we observe her in a state of strung-out
torpor. Thus, in the subtle metrics of the film's narrative, the
self-inflicted suffering of Peter's black mother is weighed against
the undeserved affliction of Officer Ryan's white father.
The failures of Crash as a rigorous anti-racism
text have, arguably, allowed it to become a successful Hollywood
picture. Despite all the commentary suggesting that the movie is
"hard-hitting" and "daring," Crash too-often
reinforces conservative thinking about race and fails to challenge
racist narratives that are deep-seated in the American imagination.
While it may be unrealistic to expect any Hollywood product
to mount a truly radical critique of race-thinking in America, there
should be room for such a critique in the conversation that has
been stoked by the limited audacity of the Crash project.
Unfortunately, the film itself encourages audiences
to dismiss thinking that is revolutionary in its distrust of conventional
social narratives. Anthony, the carjacker, is the movie's paranoid
black man. He thinks that white, corporate America may stand to
benefit from the rampant use of the word "nigga" in contemporary
hip-hop; he wonders why the names of black revolutionaries have
been lost to history; and, although he's a thief, he doesn't want
to steal from his own people. These are thought provoking ideas.
Yet almost as soon as they are uttered, Crash makes them
laughable. The politicized commentary of the paranoid black man
is framed in such a way that it ends up becoming the movie's most
consistent source of comic levity.
Of course, the true comedy is somewhat tragic, and
it registers, not in the movie itself, but in the congratulatory
hoopla that deems Crash a radical achievement in high-principled
American cinema. The discussions that are prompted by Crash,
fortunately, have the opportunity to move beyond the limits of the
film. As these dialogues find their way into our classrooms, we
need to sort through the movie's wreckage, seeking those tools that
will help us to build a challenge to the problem of racism that
is more trenchant and sincere than the one mounted in Crash.
Derik Smith is a professor of African-American
literature currently teaching at Zayed University in the United
Arab Emirates. He is at work on Love's
Lonely Offices, a book about the poetry of Robert Hayden.
Write to him at [email protected].