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Winter 2006

Fall 2005

Shooting Blanks: Crash and the Evolving Dialogue On Race In America

Phil West

Be wary of anyone heralding the must-see movie.

Really, there are two kinds of must-see movie out there - one is the movie you have to see because it's entered into the short-term cultural lexicon and you're never going to be able to fill out your ballot at the Oscar party without having seen it. Brokeback Mountain is a really good example of this - as culturally significant as some are making it out to be, it ultimately had to be be watched so you can understand all the "I don't know how to quit you" jokes which were thoroughly played out by Oscars night. As much as a movie about gay cowboys breaks the mold, everyone associated with the film calls it a love story, and ultimately, that's what it is. (And for Heath Ledger, it almost atones for A Knight's Tale , which makes it pretty magical in its own right.)

But Crash , this year's Oscar winner for Best Picture, attempts to be a must-see movie of a different kind - maybe too much so. Movies that are cultural touchstones, that become defining dissertations on big issues, are hard to achieve, but when they do, we tend to talk about them in a way that effectively makes the jump from water-cooler fodder to material for self-reflection.

And, oh my goodness, doesn't Crash want this in a big way. It deals with race, using the same technique that Altman used in Short Cuts - a collage of individual stories that intersect through the random interactions and chance happenings that earn us life partners and lifelong friends along the way.

But Crash , perhaps more than any movie in recent memory, wants to attain the gravitas that will make it talked about as well as watched. For some, it undoubtedly has done that, which I'm taking as a sign that Hollywood is ever more of a staggering wildebeest than I thought, more than sagging box office receipts over the past year might indicate. To be fair, Crash is an indie film, and was touted as one of the two big indie breakouts of 2005 - the other being, improbably, a documentary about penguins. But despite its indie status, it certainly feels Hollywood.

The movie has certainly generated its share of disagreement among critics of all stripes - the most amusing of these being the tussle involving the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert, who proclaimed Crash to be the best movie of the year, and the LA Weekly 's Scott Foundas, who proclaimed it the worst. They even had a brief contretemps in print which I'm just going to go ahead and call a slapfight.

And while calling Crash the worst movie of the year might be a bit of a provocative overstatement - I'm guessing the Paris Hilton vehicle House of Wax is going to take home an armful of Razzies, and I'd like to call out the Technicolor horror that is The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl for your consideration - I find myself siding more with Foundas than Ebert. For while I find calling Crash the worst movie of the year an overstatement, calling it the best movie of the year is overstatement bordering on PC apologia.

The problem with Crash is two-fold. First, the intersections of the individual characters' lives seem just a little too coincidental - you might even say forced. And second, the thesis of the movie is a little too simple. In fact, it could be summed up in the chorus of Depeche Mode's 1982 synth-pop hit "People Are People," which says, to wit:

People are people, so why should it be
You and I should get along so awfully?

That's not to downplay race relations in America circa 2006. For a lot of Americans, it's still a minefield. Stereotypes still run rampant, and with class divides not quite yet separate from race, the color of one's skin has a lot to do with power. We still, in 225 years of American history, have not had a president who is not a white male. 

But are we going to solve it in a movie? Especially a movie in which the tagline is an accusatory, "You think you know who you are. You have no idea?" Apparently, there's a group of people out there who think that Crash is seriously going to help, who think that it will make us all better to see Matt Dillon portraying a racist cop who still manages to love his sick live-in dad, to see Matt Dillon groping Thandie Newton at a bullying, anything-but-routine traffic stop one day, and then pulling Thandie Newton from a burning car wreck the next day (quelle coincidence!), as some sort of tidy morality tale that will get us from a nation of piggish individuals to a nation of brothers and sisters.

Forgive my skepticism. Part of it comes from feeling that I've evolved from the point at which Crash would really begin to open people's eyes. I consider myself pretty lucky in both my white, male, middle-class privilege and in my having friends of multiple ethnicities. My wife is Latina, my fellow organizers and poets in the poetry slam arena (where I spend a fair amount of my time and energies) are black and Latino and Anglo and Asian, and though I'm certainly as aware of race as any other American, I also feel as evolved from racial biases and simple stereotyping as any American can be in 2006.

Crash is supposed to teach us, to play on a maxim as tired as racial slurs and stereotypes, that you can't judge a book by its cover. In the movie, articulate black men (one of them played by rap artist Ludacris) attempt to seduce the viewer into thinking they're being mistaken as criminals because of their skin color before carjacking Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock, a black television producer is told by a white colleague to make an actor redo a scene in which he's not speaking black enough, a Latino locksmith with a tattoo on his neck is assumed to be a gang-banger before he's revealed to be a dedicated family man, and a Persian convenience-store is assumed to be an Arab with all the Saddam/Osama baggage that's supposed to inspire.

Crash relies on emotional manipulation in the worst possible way. It sets the viewer up to have sympathies for characters who go on to murder and attempt to murder relatively innocent players. When Sandra Bullock's rich white housewife character hugs her Latina housekeeper proclaiming, "You're my only friend," the pathos achieves a saccharine quality that almost begs the swelling of violins. When a principled white cop shoots a black hitchhiker (one of the carjackers who make off with Fraser and Bullock's Lincoln Navigator - the one who isn't rap artist Ludacris, but who is playing the brother of Don Cheadle's cynical detective character - hey, ironic that the detective has a wayward criminal brother, huh?), it's far more inevitable than shocking.

And the most emotionally manipulative scene of all resolves with such cloyingness that it begs the viewer to throw the DVD box across the room in disgust. It involves the Persian shopkeeper, played by Shaun Toub, and the Latino locksmith, played by Michael Pena. The shopkeeper calls the locksmith to fix the lock on the door. The locksmith says the door needs to be replaced, the shopkeeper freaks out, the locksmith leaves in a huff, and that very night, the shop is ransacked and graffiti'd with anti-Arab slurs. The shopkeeper's insurance won't cover the losses because of neglect - he didn't replace the door like he was supposed to - and the shopkeeper has basically lost everything he's worked for.

Naturally, he blames the locksmith, who is naturally blameless, and tracks the locksmith down. The gun, which the shopkeeper's family has bought the shopkeeper for protection, is naturally going to make an appearance, and indeed, he confronts the locksmith with said gun. Of course, the locksmith's adorable daughter runs out to meet Daddy as the shopkeeper is firing the gun, and leaps into Daddy's arm to take the bullet. Only there's no bullet - nothing bad has happened, everyone's shocked to not see blood and the crumpled body of an innocent . and then father and daughter walk back into the house, and the shopkeeper stands dumbly for a moment before presumably walking back to his car. No one calls the cops about the crazy guy with the gun who has just attempted murder. They just, you know, walk back into the house, as anyone who has been shot at with a pistol from close range would do.

The shopkeeper is shown in a later scene holding the gun, with the scene set up to look like he's perhaps thinking about killing himself. His daughter walks in, and he tells the story with a halting exposition that fills in all we need to know, but would confuse the hell out of the daughter. No matter. The whole scene is set up so the shopkeeper can say, of the little girl he almost killed in his impotent rage, "She's my angel." The shopkeeper's daughter opens the register to show, for our benefit, but which we all pretty much figured out after we were manipulated into thinking we were going to have an innocent victim child to mourn, the box of .38 caliber blanks. See? They didn't trust Dad with real bullets. He thinks it's divine providence at work, but nope, just blanks.

Does this sound like the best movie of the year to you? For people who feel that big statements about race trump good screenwriting and plausible situations, perhaps it becomes a strong contender. But as Variety critic Todd McCarthy put it (as quoted by Foundas in his response to Ebert), the movie offers "a narrow, ungenerous and, finally, unrepresentative view of the world, one that suggests people are correct in suspecting others as having only the worst motives."

That's the problem with tackling racism head-on in the vehicle of a two-hour movie - racism is much more complicated than that. We learn differences fairly early in our social formation, and then try to unlearn that in our various social interactions. Some choose to insulate themselves from people of different races - I think, making this perhaps as simple as the Crash filmmakers, that the more you interact with people of different races, the less likely you are to fall into stereotypes.

What the movie doesn't do, and this is perhaps its greatest failing, is adequately detail the connections between race and class. When the Persian shopkeeper shoots a blank, he's not only playing out the most maddening part of the movie, he's offering an apt metaphor for what the film does with respect to the ongoing dialogue of race in America.

If I have biases (and I'd be insincere in saying I don't), they have everything to do with class and education and nothing to do with skin color. While I'm not of the school that anyone can achieve greatness in society with will power and hard work alone - the odds are stacked against a good number of people in our society from the outset, and the gains they can make in such a society are modest at best - my wife and I have run across enough students to know that the effort to make one's life better is hardly uniform and robust.

To put it simply, some settle, and others turn to crime as a riskier but quicker vehicle to wealth and power than taking an entry-level job at McDonald's with hopes to someday make it to manager. With the Bush Administration seemingly intent on widening the divide between rich and poor as if the concentration of wealth was some celestial taffy pull, I don't see this getting better anytime soon. And while the connection between race and class is hardly coincidental, it's more incidental than it was a generation ago, both in terms of actual statistics and for the several generations of Americans who don't have first-hand experience of the institutionalized racism that led to Martin Luther King's activism and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

I don't hate people, but I'm certainly frustrated by people in my day-to-day interactions. I grimace at incompetence and apathy and misspelled and improperly punctuated signs and banners. But I don't assign those frustrations to a particular person's race. I assume that there's some explanation for shortcomings that has its roots in a person's class and education. I don't think that putting Michelle Pfeiffer or Edward James Olmos in their classrooms will magically make all of them markedly better students by the end of the year, no matter how based on a true story those movies are.

Will some of them succeed with attention and nurturing and dedicated teaching? Sure they will. If they didn't, teachers would completely lose hope. But the transformation that education potentially provides is never as easy or as comprehensive as Hollywood or politicians would like to make it.

For all the questions that Crash wants to raise about the way Americans deal with race in the modern era, they don't provide ready answers, perhaps knowing that ready answers simply refuse to come. Some hang onto racism in order to make themselves feel superior, in order to have an enemy that is easily identifiable. Others of us have found more abstract enemies - certain strains of politicians, the capitalist system, abstract nouns like greed, Ayn Randian declarations of objectivism over altruism.

The real evolution in living, and the real lesson to learn in the time each of us are allotted, is finding a way to be compassionate in a world that doesn't necessarily want to be compassionate back. Crash tries to tackle the latter portion of that equation, and even fumbles toward the first part of that, but does so with a hyperawareness on race that is so far from my worldview (and, I'm hoping, the worldview of innumerable other Americans) as to be laughable at best, deplorable at worst.

The praise Crash has garnered indicates that this worldview is not shared by everyone; otherwise, the movie couldn't have been written and produced and praised as widely as it has. But the scorn it has received for being too simplistic is actually a sign of hope. Less than 20 years ago, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing attempted the same discourse, and at the time, the questions it raised were valid and tangible. Now, those same issues are raised in Crash , attempting a wider applicability through a wider assortment of characters, and these issues come off as less germane to the American experience as they were back then. Maybe Crash really is ultimately a regressive look at America, but maybe, just maybe it's an indication of a glacial but palpable progress we've made.