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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Ten Years Later... Crash (2005)

On this day in 2005

Director: Paul Haggis
Starring: Don Cheadle, Terrence Howard, Michael Pena, Matt Dillon, Ludacris, Sandra Bullock, Ryan Phillippe, Brendan Fraser

Ten years ago today, Paul Haggis' Crash opened to mostly positive reviews (it has 75% on Rotten Tomatoes and 69 on Metacritic). Some ten months later (and from that point on) it would fall victim to a curious phenomenon in which a film seems to be almost universally liked right up until the moment when it wins the Oscar for Best Picture, after which it becomes dismissed as a work that was unworthy of even being nominated in the first place. This doesn't happen with every Best Picture winner, but it happens often enough (especially in the last few years, it seems, as the general public becomes more and more aware of the behind the scenes maneuvering that goes into every Oscar season and every Oscar win), and when people write articles about the "Worst Best Picture Winners of All Time" and the like, they rarely seem to take into account the fact that, while a certain film maybe hasn't aged very well, Best Picture winners tend to be films that people really liked at the time. Crash was a film that, generally speaking, people liked at the time of its release. I didn't, particularly, because I found it facile and heavy handed (I can't prove this, as I wasn't blogging then, so you'll just have to take my word for it), but I didn't hate it either. I still don't hate it, but I find it to be a very frustrating film in which some genuinely moving moments and some very good performances are stuck inside a film that superficially stirs the thematic pot without ever actually coming close to addressing the real issue it presents as its raison d'etre.

The Story

Racism is bad, everyone is guilty of prejudice, and hateful speech is the product of the hater feeling helpless in some other aspect of his or her life.

The View From 2005

The Good: "Sometimes Haggis gets a little precious in his manipulations, fitting his jigsaw together a little too fancily. But this is the rare American film really about something, and almost all the performances are riveting. It asks tough questions, and lets its audience struggle with the answers." - Stephen Hunter, The Washington Post

The Bad: "The idea that bigotry is the public face of private unhappiness - the notion that we lash out at people we don't know as a form of displaced revenge against the more familiar sources of our misery - is an interesting one, but the failure of Crash is that it states its ideas, again and again, without realizing them in coherent dramatic form." - A.O. Scott, The New York Times

The View From 2015

Crash is a well meaning film, but one which is unmistakably told from the perspective of a person in a place of societal privilege and which, as a result, ends up feeling like an apologia aimed at making white people feel less bad about racism by telling a story in which people of various races are shown perpetuating racist stereotypes and speaking hatefully to each other. While it is true that any person, regardless of their race, is capable of prejudice, Crash's "everyone is doing it" narrative ignores something fundamental and without which you can't have an honest and productive conversation about the issue of racism: the black detective (Don Cheadle) might make a racist remark about Mexicans, his Hispanic partner (Jennifer Esposito) might mock a Korean woman's accent to her face, a Persian shop owner (Shaun Toub) might accuse an Hispanic locksmith of being in league with others to cheat him, two black carjackers (Ludacris and Larenz Tate) might repeatedly refer to an Korean man as a "Chinaman," and a white police officer (Matt Dillon) might denigrate the black representative of an HMO (Loretta Devine) by telling her that the only reason she has her job is because affirmative action has given her an advantage over more qualified candidates, but while all those things are bad, they are not equally bad because only one of those people actually has the historical/institutional power to actually oppress with his words. It's naive, if not insulting, to pretend that the ability to string together words in a slur or racial stereotype somehow evens the playing field. Haggis is trying to make a statement in Crash, but his inability to see beyond the white people, beyond his own perspective as a wealthy and white male, and beyond the need to make a story like this palatable to a white audience, dooms the film to failure as a work of social commentary because rather than illuminate the real issues that inform and perpetuate racism, Crash instead subtly (and perhaps unintentionally) affirms the status quo. Consider the fates of some of the characters:

- a black film director (Terrence Howard) is sexually humiliated by having to watch the white police officer molest his wife (Thandie Newton) during a traffic stop, and later accused by his wife of being obsequious to white people in general. At the end of the film, he finally explodes in anger and aggressively confronts a handful of police officers and is only saved from being shot by the intervention of a good white police officer (Ryan Phillippe).

- the good white police officer spends most of the film disgusted by the racism he sees from the other white police officer and then, at the end, shoots and kills an unarmed black man. But this is not just any unarmed black man, this is one of the carjackers, a character that the audience has watched committing crimes throughout the film and seen point guns at people's heads. He was not armed when he was shot, but because of what we've seen, we know it's within the realm of possibility that he could mean harm to the cop, and though that doesn't excuse the murder, it implicitly softens it to make it seem less like an act of hateful, racist violence and more like an act of justifiable fear.

- the Persian shop owner is told by the locksmith that he needs to replace the door of his shop, rather than the lock. The shop owner accuses him of trying to cheat him and berates him until the locksmith leaves in anger. The next morning the shop has been looted and the shop owner takes his gun, intent on murdering the locksmith. When he takes his shot, it seems for a moment that he shoots the locksmith's younger daughter instead, but fortunately for all the gun was unknowingly filled with blanks.

- a rich white lady (Sandra Bullock) gets freaked out after being carjacked and accuses the Hispanic locksmith who comes to her home to change the locks of being a gang member who will give copies of the new key to the fellow members of the gang that she assumes that he's in. Later she falls down the stairs, realizes that there's no one in her life who cares enough about her to come to her aid, and hugs her Hispanic housekeeper, tearfully acknowledging that the woman is the best friend she has ever had.

- the black detective investigates what appears, at first, to be a fairly straightforward case of a white cop shooting and killing a black man, a case which is complicated by the fact that the black man also turns out to have been a cop, and the white cop has a history of shooting and killing black men. Later, however, the detective discovers evidence which suggests that the shooting may have been justified, but for political reasons he's advised by his superiors not to pursue it. He doesn't like what he's hearing, but ultimately agrees to compromise himself by keeping quiet in an effort to protect his brother, who is one conviction away from going to prison for a long time.

- the bad white cop sexually humiliates the black director and his wife, berates the black representative of an HMO, and generally acts like an unapologetic racist, explaining to his young partner that enough time on the job will make anyone racist because of the things they see. His anger at the HMO is later explained as coming from a protective place, as he's trying to get help for his father who is suffering and being ignored as a result of bureaucracy, and in the end he is redeemed (at least in part) by coming to the rescue of the director's wife after she's in a car accident, risking his life in order to save her.
While the film's diverse cast suggests a wide-ranging point of view, it is quietly designed to align the viewer in sympathy with the white characters, to excuse their actions by suggesting that they are no better or worse than the people of color around them (with the exception of Michael Pena's locksmith, who is an almost angelically decent human being) while ignoring the inherent power that whiteness has in Western society. It is a film made by a white person for a white audience about how racism hurts everyone and is perpetuated by everyone, so white people shouldn't feel the psychic burden of being in a position of racial privilege.

Aside from the thematic issues with the film, it also has narrative issues. The characters are very thinly drawn and rarely amount to more than the words that they're saying in any given scene. They aren't people, they are statements, and they don't have solid identities but are instead boiled down to a couple of key words that sum up their purpose in the narrative - the racist white cop, the good white cop, the black detective, the Persian shop owner, the Hispanic locksmith, etc. They don't need to be fleshed out because the film itself is very superficial, making its points with the bluntness of a hammer smashing into a nail, and stubbornly refusing to actually dig deep and become a story that is about more than the way that words can hurt. Moreover, the many threads of the story come together in ways that are manipulative and contrived, which only underscores the inherent superficiality of the project.

All that said, despite Crash's shortcomings, it actually does manage to have moments that are truly moving by virtue of Haggis trusting his incredible cast of actors enough to let them carve out these little moments for themselves throughout the film. Until watching it recently for this piece, I hadn't seen Crash since it first came out, and while I remembered scenes such as the one between Howard and Ludacris, in which the director tells the carjacker that he's an embarrassment (one of the few scenes where the film actually comes close to reaching its intended mark as a discussion on the complexities of racism), I had forgotten how wonderful Cheadle's performance is, particularly his silent devastation in the scene towards the end when he finds his brother dead at a crime scene, and I had forgotten how breathtaking the car crash sequence is both in terms of how expertly it is shot and in terms of how Dillon and Newton play it. There are pieces of Crash that are wonderful. They just have the misfortune of being surrounded by pieces that are overblown with their own sense of importance and would-be insight, and pieces that can't ever truly come to life because they are smothered by the screenwriter's hand as he forces them into being.

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