If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
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. Jake Wolff Chicago, IL
I wanted to comment on Mr. Ebert’s wonderful defense of the film “Crash,” the best worst film of 2005. As with 2005’s other Terrence Howard vehicle, “Hustle and Flow,” I found it interesting to watch some more “enlightened” critics cringe at hints of sympathy for the devil. The criticism by Foundas did not seem to be of the film itself, but the idea that to understand is not only needlessly intellectual and heavy, but apparently as great a sin as intolerance. If only he had simply not liked the movie for its script or performances, I could be working right now instead of typing this small diatribe.
In recent years many Americans have begun to turn away from sociological explanations, and towards an idea that to understand a crime, and bother to understand the criminal, is equal somehow to condoning wrongdoing. Furthermore, to attempt to understand the racist is to excuse his or her racism. After all, all remaining racists in this country are neo-Nazis, not blue and white collar families living in integrated neighborhoods and workplaces, cheerfully sharing lemon squares at PTA meetings with the Latina mother of a child’s school friend. And said Latina mother may be just as resentful of her lemon square partner. Neither is justified, but neither is inherently evil, or even stupid. And neither is alone in her sentiments, even if they are wrong.
To treat racism like a rare mental illness or some inexplicable crime only allows it to grow like mold in some dark damp closet. Foundas is correct in that the enlightened person need not say “Some of my best friends are black.” The enlightened person, at least in my opinion, should be able to admit that, under the right circumstances, we are a little afraid, a little desperate, a little resigned to a reality we should not have to accept, and more than a little capable of intolerance. Bethany Barry New York, NY
Although I agree with you that Paul Haggis’ film "Crash" has redeeming social value and tackles the still tenuous if not overt racism in this country, I don’t agree it is a great movie. The actors and the interweaving storyline are on point but the constant barrage of clichéd dialogue accompanied by melodramatic music was almost comical. The scene where Matt Dillon’s character is holding Thandie Newton in his arms while a biblical car fire raged against the sweeping soundtrack hit me over the head so hard I had two pop three Advil.
I really wanted to like the movie based on its concept, actors and positive reviews but I couldn’t get passed its hackneyed urgency. I find a film like "Boyz N the Hood" much more interesting. When the African American police officer hassled Tré on the street. The actors say more with a few resenting glances than the whole operatic two hours of "Crash."
As always, I enjoy your perspective on film and even more so, life. Keep me thinking. Matt Ragan
I read your article about the "Worst Movie", and I would add to your argument in support of this movie. I think the movie is not really so much about racism, as it is about anger and the human condition. It is an examination of the chemistry of anger in our society today. Racism is the consequence that unites the anger of this group of characters. The form of this movie beautifully and with conviction imprints this story in our hearts. I think it achieves greatness, while avoiding the hype of the marketers, endearing it to me all the more. Casey Sills Evanston, IL
Perhaps the animosity toward "Crash" demonstrated in the reviews of writers like Foundas is not because the film is more objectionable than "Chaos" et al., but because "Crash" received so much promotion and adoration from critics in general. I found many of my friends who saw the movie had the same reaction I did: while it certainly had its moments, overall the film was drastically overvalued by the critical community. The film is obvious and clumsily manipulative in the manner of a Made-for-TV movie. The rescue from the burning car was a deeply moving scene, but Haggis couldn't resist ending it with a giant, slow motion Michael Bay-style explosion. The Iranian man is angry with the locksmith in the way only characters in movies are angry, and only then to facilitate the Big Misunderstanding that comes about because he was too busy being inappropriately apoplectic to hear even a single word that was said to him. And really, do even the film's admirers believe the scene where Terrance Howard's latte-sipping yuppie tranforms into an angry black Incredible Hulk? While I think anyone who believes "Crash" is one of the worst movies of 2005 didn't see many movies last year, I sympathize with the frustration felt by moviegoers looking for intelligent, grown-up films in the wake of the independent film movement of the 90's. More and more, rather than finding the likes of "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," "Do the Right Thing," and "Fargo," we are steered toward movies like "Crash" by inexplicably generous critics. Jason Bollinger
I loved your response to those critics who named "Crash" the worst movie of 2005. Here's my favorite part:
"Consider now Foundas describing the black TV director who stands by fearfully as a cop assaults his wife. Terrence Howard, Foundas says, plays the 'creepy embodiment of emasculated African-American yuppiedom.'"
Forget the situation -- two white cops with guns, etc. Did that critic completely miss what happens later in the film, when the "creepy embodiment of emasculated African-American yuppiedom" fights off two car-jackers, disarms an intellectual thug, and then, in a display of reckless bravado, refuses to acquiesce to the commands of three armed LAPD police officers whose guns are pointed at him? Hmm... he doesn't sound so emasculated to me. I guess it's possible for the same person to have an alter ego diametrically opposed to the one we think we know.
What a great premise for a movie! Chris Stucchio Buffalo, New York
Perhaps one’s reading of the character depends on whether you saw Terrence Howard’s actions motivated by righteous courage, or impotent rage resulting in an attempt at “suicide-by-cop”? -- editor
I am an 18-year-old from Lancaster, California, a city about an hour from the supporting character in “Crash” that is Los Angeles. Being so close to this grand city gives me extraordinary opportunities to view many movies…. I was fortunate enough to be in the audience for a presentation of “Crash” followed by an interview with writer/director Paul Haggis and co-writer/producer Bobby Moresco. It was my second viewing of the amazing film. I was touched and torn yet again, but the film lasts, which is what makes it so good. The main reason that I am writing you, though, is to relay some of Mr. Haggis' comments about the controversy of the film. He told some great stories about the writing process and stated that he had gotten the idea originally from being carjacked himself many years ago. He said, as a writer, that he didn't get mad. He said he got curious. He wondered what happened to the kids that had done that to him after they stole his car and so on.
Along with Mr. Moresco, they were able to put together a string of events that were connected amazingly by a very tightly wound script. He also said that he didn't want to make a film that caused people to say "Nice movie." He wants people to either love it or hate it. He wants people to talk. He wants people to argue. Mr. Haggis is a man who wants to live in a world of inquiring individuals and that is part of the reason that some of the characters talk the way they do.
The character played by Chris "Ludacris" Bridges is the obvious example. His grand monologues are the types of thoughts that Mr. Haggis wants his audience to think about, or at least to have philosophical ideas of their own. Mr. Haggis also wasn't sure of the response that his film would receive. He told one story of a particular showing of the film: A man probably weighing over 300 pounds and looking rather rough approached him in the wings of a theatre after the film ended. The man asked him if he had anything to do with the film. Mr. Haggis, unsure of the right answer (this was a "very big man"), said yes. The man told him straight up that the film had "changed him" and walked past him. Now, to me, that is a positive response to a film! I am a film lover and “Crash” is one of the reasons. Films do change people. It changed me. I look at people differently now. I try not to stereotype anymore. We are all guilty of it of course, even men like Mr. Foundas. Maybe they just don't realize it because they are too hardened by all of the crap that Hollywood puts out into theatres. I'm glad that you saw the real meaning of a great film and that your defense of the film made others reconsider their thoughts. Justin Gott Lancaster, CA
I was pleased to discover your feature-commentary article entitled "In defense of the year's 'worst movie'" that you had become aware of the negative sentiments surrounding Paul Haggis's “Crash.” However, as you defended the film I gained the impression that you were personally attacking Scott Foundas claiming that he was "too cool" for the average movie-goer. However, it is your right as a columnist to integrate your personality into your articles and you certainly hold the proper distinction to do so.
When I finally saw “Crash” I couldn't help be feel underwhelmed. Though the film is well-constructed, well-produced, well-acted and well-written, the film struck me as emotionally and morally distant. I was surprised to see the film end up on many top ten lists at the end of 2005. It is no surprise that soon after I had jumped the "Crash is the worst film of the year!" bandwagon. This turn primarily occurred because of my disagreement of its position as one of the year's best.
Now your statement that an essential film is to manipulate the audience is apt. But, feeling cheated, as I did, is not the intention of the movie experience. A journey lacking a substantial or relevant payoff is not worth the price of admission and just as I have been disappointed with many thriller and horror films of the past, I felt the same way with “Crash.” Excuse my candor but “Crash” is an "After school special" dressed in Hollywood clothing. I'm aware that the film is considered "independent" but it seems to have enough showbiz political clout that the film was never in danger of not finding distribution. This film has nothing new to say about racism and humanity that is not already taught through school, family, friendship, and the media.
Many of the problems I had with the film have already been stated by many others. The archetypical representation of the various classes and races in “Crash,” as well as the obviously foreseeable growth of its characters was no surprise. It is conventional and expected. The convoluted coincidences seemed like a cheat of construction as well as a narrative deus ex machine. The saintly daughter, the misunderstood repairman, the conflicted policemen, the sheltered upper-class, etc., all have been represented before in cinema. Paul Haggis created “Crash” by standing on the shoulder of giants but he seems to be the only one getting credit.
The biggest issue I had while watching Crash was how aware I was that I was being manipulated by the material. Because I have seen these stories of redemption and racial equality so many times before I could not become emotionally invested in the material presented. I think film is a wonderful medium that can affect the audience in wonderful ways. I am glad to see that many walked out of Crash touched by its message. But as an Asian-American there was little to gain of what I was already well aware of in our society. Instead it had the opposite effect that was intended by the film and though it my not necessarily remain as the worst film of the year for me, it is definitely the most over-rated I have seen in 2005. Randolph Ma Chicago, IL
I just wanted to say “thank you!” I heard about the movie from a friend of mine, who told me, “Go see it then call me back.” His recommendation, which I agree with, is that “Crash” was a great lead into conversations about racism in modern America. Right on! We don't often get such opportunities in everyday life. My friend and I both feel that frank discussions about racism are discouraged, so we really enjoyed not only the movie but the opportunity it provided.
So thank you for sticking up for it, and seeing through Scott Foundas's, Dave White's and Jim Emerson's jaded facades. Suzanne Courteau Berkeley, CA
I was very surprised and slightly amazed that you pick “Crash” as the best film of the year, especially since I thought it awful. It was just a bad rehash of what Altman has done so brilliantly over the years and also what Paul Thomas Anderson has also been doing so much better than hack Haggis. It was really just a piece of middlebrow garbage. Also I watched your show last Saturday in which you and the other critic picked the 10 worst films and I thought the choices were all easy targets. I mean, come on -- of course these films were rotten. (I would never see any movie with Jessica Simpson in it anyway.) In fact I didn't see any of the films mentioned on either of your lists. As stated above, “Crash” would be on my list of 10 worst films. Also included would be “The Interpreter,” “Batman Begins,” “The Skeleton Key” and “Dark Water.” These are all big-budget Hollywood films and all were terrible. In any case I do enjoy watching you and have respect for your views. Ira Joel Haber
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