« Nuclear Power as Corporate Welfare | Main | Appearance on Air America »

May 16, 2005

Racial Breakdown in Crash

By cinematic measures, Crash is a great film-- snappy directing, great performances, compelling characters -- but I kind of hated the movie for its moral cowardice in dealing with racial bigotry.


Under the guise of letting every form of racial prejudice hang out, it essentially sanctions them as inevitable in a society too complex for moral action to overcome its intractability. And beneath a faux realism, every person is a stereotype, sophisticated ones no doubt, but ultimately a depressing list:

  • Black guys in white neighborhoods who are there to carjack the white folks;
  • Middle Eastern store clerks who turn to violent revenge over a misunderstanding;
  • Alienated rich white housewives whose only emotional bond is with their latino maid;
  • Asian characters with stereotypical accents mocked by other characters;
  • A racist white cop with a heart of gold;

    The toxic part is that the racism of the characters is so self-conscious, with characters enunciating clear rationales for their behavior, from the racist cop explaining why he had the right to use his gun to sexually grope a black woman he pulls over, or a black lieutenant explaining that he won't endanger his job by discplining that racist cop, or a white District Attorney framing a white cop for the murder of a corrupt black cop because he doesn't want to alienate the black vote, and so on.

    And the movie leaves no room for a moral response to this pervasive racism. The racist cop is redeemed because the next day he saves the woman he molested from a burning car, one more trope of justifying police brutality and racism as the price we pay to be safe. And a young white cop who rejects the racism of the racist cop panicks at one point and kills a young black man, so he's shown to be no better. And a black detective who protests the framing of the white cop who shot the black cop morally compromises himself under pressure.

    There are small redemptions in the film but almost none are based on intentional moral engagement with the problem of racism. The vengeful middle eastern guy fails to shoot his innocent victim only because his daughter put blanks in his gun-- and we are supposed to feel some great moral relief from this happy ending? In most of the film, the racism is just pervasive and moral intention is useless in overcoming it.

    Oddly, the only character I came off respecting was one of the young black carjackers. At least he has a viewpoint on racism-- he criticizes other black criminals for victimizing other poor black people when there are rich white folks who can spare a car without feeling the economic hurt. He criticizes rap for making heros out of hedonistic rappers calling each other "nigger" as a substitute for political black leaders of the 1960s. And despite his economic crimes, he saves the life of an asian man he accidently injures and frees from imprisonment illegal immigrants he finds trapped in a van.

    But even his personal revelation -- when he accidentally carjacks a black driver and the driver fights back -- is ambiguous in the lesson we are supposed to take from it, something on the order of poor black folks should learn to ride the bus where they belong.

    As I said, it's a strong film cinematically but I'm not sure a film that puts that much racism out on the table without a solution is a useful exercise. In many ways, it just adds to the drumbeat that there is no solution and all the compromised moral accomodations to its existence by people are justified as the best we can do.

    Posted by Nathan at May 16, 2005 08:59 AM