Friday, March 10, 2006

Why “Crash” is not the “Best Picture”

This term I am teaching a large lecture entitled “Race, Ethnicity and American Democracy” at the University of Notre Dame. The course approaches issues in U.S. race relations through the lens of American political development. From the beginning of the term, I have tried to build diverse media experiences into the course. We have, for example, watched satires from the irreverent comedian Dave Chappelle’s eponymous television show, screened historical documentaries about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and deconstructed popular song lyrics dealing with race. In light of this pedagogy, it is not surprising that many of my students, fresh from watching the film “Crash” pull off an upset victory over “Brokeback Mountain” in the Best Picture Category on Sunday night, have asked me when they can expect to see clips from the film in my course. The answer to that question is: NEVER!

My problems with “Crash” do not stem from judgments about its quality as art. On the contrary, the movie was certainly entertaining and many of the actors in the ensemble cast turned in powerful performances. Instead, my objections to the film are rooted in the fact that, like so much of our culture, it reinforces many dangerous common sense ideas about the race concept and race relations.

The first of these common sense themes is the notion that race prejudice is both an organic and indelible dimension of the human experience. This basic premise runs completely afoul of one hundred years of research in the human sciences that tells us that racist ideologies emerge from discrete social projects and not nature. For example, social historians from Tocqueville to David Roediger have chronicled the fact that anti-black racism in America grew up with the slave economies of the colonial era. Thus, what “Crash” lacks (for the most part) is an articulation of the sources of the various biases that plague the members of its ensemble cast. Indeed, the only serious attempt to foreground the actions of one of the characters was where Officer Ryan (played by Matt Dillon) reveals that his anti-black racism is rooted in the hard times that his father faced running a small business in the wake do the civil rights reforms of the 1960s. Unfortunately, this narrative, like so many other threads in the movie, simply reifies the uninformed and racist dimensions of white public opinion in post-Civil Rights America.

Consider, for example, how the storyline that casts Anthony (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Peter (Larenz Tate) as the carjackers instantiates James Q. Wilson’s thesis, now much maligned by mainstream criminologists, that white racism is a function of reasonable fears about being the victim of “black criminals.” In other words, by imbuing their victim, Jean (Sandra Bullock), with sharper intuition than her husband, Rick (Brendan Fraser), the film seems to instantiate Wilson’s theory. The fact that Rick, who happens to be in the middle of a campaign for district attorney, would likely know that more than 85% of American crime is intra-racial, only compounds this problem with the film.

The carjacking scene is not the only problematic portrayal of black Americans in the film. On the contrary, there is not one strong black character in the entire film. By far the most disappointing dimension of the film in this regard was the construction of what literary scholars call a “tragic mulatto” figure in Christine (Thandie Newton). She, like all “tragic mulattoes,” forgets her assigned place in the American racial hierarchy when she decides to chastise Officer Ryan for harassing her husband. Of course, the punishments for this transgression also fit the classic mold of the American literary tradition—sexual assault at the hands of this same white man; recognition that the black man that she loves is powerless in racist America; and, of course, redemption at the hands of the same white man who assaulted her in the first place.

The film’s portrayal of white progressives as embodied in Officer Hanson (Ryan Phillippe) as both quixotic and racist is almost as disturbing as the fact that the bigoted Officer Ryan is absolved of his crimes by saving Christine. Indeed, the film is equally committed to characterizing all whites as racists as it is to making the central minority figures, with the exception of Daniel (Michael Pena), the hardworking Latino immigrant, morally flawed. This construction does a great disservice to the long line of white Americans that have toiled for racial equality in the face of ridicule and bodily harm.


Alvin B. Tillery, Jr. said...

Many thanks to Naunihal Singh who noticed two typos in this post! First, the last line of paragraph one should read: "The answer is: NEVER!" Second, the last line of paragraph four should read: "...who likely knows that more than 85% of American crime is intra-racial..."

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen Crash as of yet, but it does strike me that this post basically takes it to task for not having the same view of race as the author. However, if Dave Chappell is used in the course I'd like to take it.


L.Holland said...

Thank you for your commentary. At first, I found the movie a powerful revelation of complex racial relations, both moving and artistic. A couple days later, it made me uncomfortable just thinking about it. Though the story is more complicated for the hispanic and middle eastern families, blacks are largely held responsible for racism, and expected to reconcile themselves to it. A black couple learns to be grateful for the courage of white police officers, one of whom had sexually assaulted the woman in front of her husband. A black superior rejects the pleas of a white officer to address racism. A black detective's own mother accuses him of "killing" his brother for not having paid more attention to him, though the young man had been killed by a white off-duty officer.

The movie reminds me of ER where racism and other types of intolerance are somehow acceptable because the perpetrators are brilliantly saving lives on a daily basis.

Julian Tillery said...

While "Crash" might not be your favorite picture, it certainly deserved to be best picture!

Allow me to begin by saying that I certainly agree that race prejudice is not an organic, indelible dimension of the human experience. I do not agree that this is a part of the theme of the movie. As it's title suggest, "Crash" is not about the origins of race prejudice. It is about the effects of living (the motif is driving) in the United States with race prejudice as our road map. Our daily existence is the wreckage. We all have our preconceived notions. We live by the them at 90 MPH. The movie simply underscores what happens when those prejudices meet. It is not meant to proffer a solution for race prejudices, nor an history of why race prejudice exist. It’s artistic function is to stimulate a cultural dialogue (like the one we having now).

All the characters in this movie are negative portrayals by design. There are no heroes. To state that there are no “...strong black character[s] in the entire film.” and “...the film is equally committed to characterizing all whites as racist as it is to making the central minority figures [morally flawed].” misses the point. The characters are as comfortable with their prejudices as America is functional being a stratified constitutional republic. In the end “Crash” is a well crafted work of art that shows how ridiculously inhuman we are to each other over stereotypes that are all too functional. I urge you to add it to your class. Worst case scenario - you have a really good discussion about deconstructing these archaic stereotypes.suggest, "crash" is not about the origins of race prejudice. It is about the effects of living (the motif is driving)in the United States with race prejudice as our road map.