The characters are not people, but rough drafts of simplistic character-traits, and the actors (game as they all are) cannot create something out of nothing.
While I respect your optimism in your recent column, "In Defense of the Year’s ‘Worst Movie,’” I feel very strongly that “Crash” is not only misguided but dangerous, and so I can only say the same for your column. The film’s presentation of racism is so superficial, so painfully clichéd, that it threatens to actually close people’s eyes to the ways in which racism most frequently and most dangerously presents itself. Almost immediately your column falls into the trap of which many critics of this film are so wary.
After quoting Scott Foundas that “Crash” is a movie for those who say, “A lot of my best friends are black,” you immediately counter (?) that by somewhat snarkily noting that the African-American Film Critics Association "didn’t get the wake-up call," from Foundas and have endorsed the film. You might as well just have said, “But see! Some black people like it!” The implication that this somehow invalidates Foundas’ statement is unfortunate and, well, weird.
Not that I’m fully behind Foundas, and definitely not Dave White. Indeed, you seem actually to have sifted through the criticism of the movie, picked out the smarmiest and least compelling arguments against it, and then attacked them. You’re right, suggesting that racism is dead in America is “smug” and “insular,” (though I don’t think that is White’s intent). The real issue is that racism, as shown in “Crash,” is so extreme, so obvious, that it allows the general public—most of whom probably do not abuse black women, or accuse any Mexican within earshot of theft—to look at the racist characters in the movie as Others, as something very separate from themselves.
You’re right, it’s absolutely insane to say that the film sympathizes with Bullock’s character. The problem is exactly the opposite: it makes these people seem so nasty, so over-the-top racist, that we can say, “Yikes, I definitely don’t think like them!” Racism is one of the most complicated social issues we face today, and this is one of the least complicated “smart” movies I’ve seen in a long time.
As a 22 year old white, Jewish male, who recently moved to Chicago from a small (and very white) town in the Northeast, I struggle with anti-Semitism, and my own prejudices, almost daily. I consider myself open minded, liberal, one of the good guys. And yet, recently while I was driving to work, an African American man was walking by on the sidewalk as I was sitting in a stoplight. It was at this moment that I decided to lock my driver-side door. The man looked more like an FBI agent than a “thug,” and sometimes I get scared of white people too...does that make it okay? I know it doesn’t. It’s racism, and while I’m not proud of it, I’m proud that I recognize it, because that is the kind of prejudice—subtle, pervasive, dangerous—that is the most common today.
Do the more explicit forms of racism still exist? Of course they do; I’m not trying to suggest otherwise. There are many people who will abuse, verbally and physically, anyone of Arab descent, or who will treat any minority like they are sub-human. But “Crash” is simply not challenging anyone. The movie has no subtlety, no shades of gray. The characters move from people who disgust us to people who we pity from scene to scene. They are not at all real; they are defined completely by their racism and their victimhood. Sure, it makes us say, “It’s bad to treat people that way!” But as we say it, we are not acknowledging the less obvious and much more complicated ways in which we are prejudiced ourselves.
One final note: the scene in which Matt Dillon’s character rescues Thandie Newton’s from a burning car is so horrible, so racist itself, that the movie deserves discrediting for this moment alone. Unlike the scene where he molests her in front of her husband—another cliché’ scene, but at least one that is clearly shown as “bad,”—this scene plays out racist white fantasies without showing any self-awareness. The scene is grotesquely erotic, the camera holding close and still as their lips nearly touch and she is forced to put her arms around him. The parallels it draws to the earlier scene are deliberate, but its revelry is not. In a movie supposedly standing against racism, we have, once again in Hollywood, a scene of a black woman at the sexual mercy of a white man, unable to turn him down, indeed even forced to seem grateful, because she “needs” him. It is the most appalling example of this scenario since the last “smart” movie to get critical acclaim but that should never have been made in the first place: “Monster’s Ball.”
Again, I greatly respect your passion and your thoughtfulness as you tackle important issues such as this. But you are doing a disservice to your own good intentions by endorsing a film that allows its audience to shake their heads at the racist caricatures on the screen while turning their gazes away from the very real, and much less obvious, strains of racism and prejudice that exist in their own minds.
Captain's log: eight fifth graders, one adult, one James Cameron movie.
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