By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg
© onublsa.files.wordpress.com 2011
• Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain should have won
• Crash’s plot is based off of unrealistic coincidences
• Crash is too straightforward and overbearing in arguing its thesis
• Crash panders to the liberal, PC Hollywood mainstream, infested with white guilt
• Crash depicts its various characters as one-dimensional, racial stereotypes
• Crash’s views on race relations are facile and old-fashioned
What I’m here to say is this: all of the above critiques are either wrong or insufficient reasons for faulting the film. It’s my contention, which I will herein argue, that Crash not only rises above such critique, but moreover rises above most any film ever made (or at least, that I’ve ever seen) in the dimension of its characters, the depth with which it considers race relations, and its transcendent painting of human goodness. Within this article, I’ll (a) argue against every above stated critical objection, and (b) offer a general view of why Crash should be considered as among the greatest films ever made.
1. “Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain should have won”
I’ve never seen Brokeback Mountain, and thus I’m in no position to comment on its vs. Crash’s worthiness of winning the 2005 Best Picture Oscar (although, from what I’ve heard of Brokeback Mountain, it seems that it is the film that panders to Hollywood’s liberal political correctness—not amounting to much other than its groundbreakingly mainstream portrayal of homosexuality). Nevertheless, whether or not there was a more worthy nominee, just because you don’t agree with Crash’s victory is hardly a reason to dislike the film. That would be like saying that because Hamlet is considered Shakespeare’s best play, while you believe Othello is superior, therefore Hamlet is a bad play. That logic doesn’t follow.
2. “Crash’s plot is based off of unrealistic coincidences”
Yes. This is true. Crash’s plot is based off of totally coincidental events. However, this in itself is hardly a reason to dislike a film. Many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films involve a highly unlikely plot structure, and we don’t say that they are thus bad films. Rather, we accept Hitchcock’s implausible plot structures on the basis that they contribute to a larger metaphor that his films attempt to illustrate. Ditto for Crash—although the film’s events are highly unlikely, they are as such on purpose: to illustrate the inter-connected nature of human thought and action; to represent as a metaphor the way in which our every thought and action affects our larger human community, and either contributes positively or negatively to our environment.
3. “Crash is too straightforward and overbearing in arguing its thesis”
This critique strikes straight to the heart of the pretentiousness and intellectual shallowness of mainstream critics: they think that just because a film clearly communicates its thesis, it therefore must be facile and overbearing. Folks: straightforwardness and clarity is a VIRTUE; it’s characteristic of unfocused and intellectually shallow directors to hide behind obscurity, ambiguity, and unnecessary intricacy (**cough cough CHARLIE KAUFMAN cough cough**), just as it's characteristic of intellectually shallow politicians to hide behind big words and non-committal slogans. What’s much more difficult, as we should know, is to explore complex themes in a subtle, yet straightforward manner. That’s exactly what Crash does: the manner in which all the characters coincide and come to a personal catharsis is subtle, intricate, and thematically linked. And yet: the overall point of the film is quite clear, and indeed its thesis is clearly argued. Haggis ingeniously pulls off such a difficult synthesis.
4. “Crash panders to the liberal, PC Hollywood mainstream, infested with white guilt”
Crash hardly should be said to pander to the liberal, PC, white-guilt-infested Hollywood. Why? Because it lays blame on not only whites for the degradation and inflicted terrors of racism, but instead on every individual—no matter what color. In the film, racism is displayed as a two-way street, with the individual ultimately responsible for transcending its limiting bounds. Each character—with the notable exception of Michael Pena’s Daniel—(I) receives unjust treatment due to some damaging racial stereotype, but (II) also acts in accordance with this stereotype, contributing to its acceptance and influence. For instance, in the scene at the beginning of the film, in which Anthony (Chris Bridges aka Ludacris) complains to Peter (Larenz Tate) about the hatred and alienation they feel from the stares of those around them, as two young black men in a rich, predominantly white neighborhood, Haggis perfectly illustrates this self-perpetuating racist mechanism: immediately after complaining, Anthony and Peter carjack a rich white couple’s Lincoln Navigator.
Similarly, Officer John Ryan (Matt Dillon)—a white cop—feels betrayed by the system of affirmative action that put his father—a white small-business owner who hired blacks before it was socially accepted or legislatively sanctioned—out of business. But instead of taking this righteous indignation out on the system that caused this injustice and fighting for positive change, Ryan unjustly takes his frustration out on blacks themselves, thus contributing to the white-supremacist, racist power structure that made affirmative action a necessity in the first place.
Thus, it should be clear that Crash doesn’t pander to the Hollywood PC, white guilt sensibility. In his advocating of individual responsibility for the abolition of racist preconceptions, and pointing out of the ills of affirmative action, Haggis raises issues within his film that are a far cry from both political correctness and white guilt mongering.
5. “Crash depicts its various characters as one-dimensional, racial stereotypes”
The fault in this criticism I have partially addressed in section (4). However, diving in further, it should be clear that the characters in Crash are multi-dimensional human beings who transcend any racial stereotype.
First, as already discussed above, most every character functions as a complex interaction of socially-inflicted racial stereotypes and self-perpetuation of such stereotypes. Different from Spike Lee, who seems to suggest in his 1989 Do the Right Thing that all racism (in America) is solely due to an oppressive white-dominated society, a society in which all whites and no blacks/minorities are to blame for the existence of such racism, Haggis in his 2005 Crash forces the brunt of the responsibility back on each individual: essentially, he’s saying ‘YOU be the change; if there’s an untrue and damaging stereotype affecting you, refuse to take part in action that only furthers the stereotype and thus contributes to your oppression’. Thus, in holding all individuals at least partially responsible for abolishing the stereotypes that limit them, Haggis upholds the power and multiplicity of his characters and what they represent.
6. “Crash’s views on race relations are facile and old-fashioned”
I’ve seen it claimed that Crash’s thesis on race relations—individuals thinking and acting in accordance with stereotypes is the central root of racial issues—is old-fashioned, compared to the more postmodern, Marxian view of racism as stemming from and ultimately perpetuated by a white power structure.
I’ll concede that Crash certainly doesn’t settle for the simplistic view of modern American racism as solely perpetuated by a white power structure. However, in my eyes, this is a positive of the film, something lending credence to Crash’s claims to nuance in its treatment of racial issues.
Haggis seems to support the idea that it’s in-group/out-group thinking, the false and arbitrary racial distinctions that exist, which lead individuals to form false, damaging stereotypes that they then conform their thought and action towards—he seems to claim this as the root of racial problems in modern America. To me, such is a far more nuanced and less facile view of race relations than the more predominant Marxian theory expressed above.
Thus Far, I have refuted the most common and consistent attacks against Crash, contending that they all are illegitimate critiques. But in the remaining space of this essay, I’ll go one step further and give a positive argument for the integrity of the film’s structure, and the power of its transcendent view of humanity.
Crash’s central plot pattern is as follows: (A) individual is beset by racist stereotype, (B) individual lashes out at another racial group in a small way, (C) individual is confronted with a life or death situation in large part caused by step (B), in which the racist stereotype is either transcended and thus resolved, or brought fatally to bear. The only variation is that sometimes (A) and (B) can be chronologically switched.
This plot structure can be illustrated through Farhad (Shaun Toub), the Iranian store owner: (A) Farhad comes to his shop one night to see that it’s been robbed and vandalized with anti-Islamic phrases spray painted throughout, (B) Farhad blames Daniel (Michael Pena), the tattooed, Hispanic locksmith whom he earlier hired to fix his door but eventually fired out of distrust, and finally (C) Farhad takes his gun to shoot Daniel out of revenge and despair.
Another example of this very structure is present in the interaction between Officer Ryan and Christine Thayer (Thandie Newton). From Officer Ryan’s Perspective: (A) Officer Ryan’s father’s history with affirmative action has hardened Officer Ryan into a racist, (B) Officer Ryan pulls over a guiltless black couple on trumped-up suspicions and sexually assaults the woman (Christine) in what he calls a ‘pat-down’, and (C) Officer Ryan is called to the scene of an accident to help a trapped woman escape from her car, which is about to be consumed by fire; the trapped woman turns out to be Christine, and now in addition to the struggle of getting a trapped woman out of her soon-to-explode car, he must confront her fears of him and his own racism.
Examples of this structure abound; essentially, in using such a consistent structure, the film has a looping effect, allowing the audience to see the inter-connectedness of human interaction, and the powerful, macro effects of racist thought and action initially performed on a micro level.
This structure also illustrates the possibility humans have of transcending our racist preconceptions and coming to an understanding of the universality of humanity—no matter the skin color. As stated, step (C) of this structure confronts those involved with a choice: either realize the pettiness and foolhardiness of your racism, and thus resolve the situation and conserve life, or stay consumed in your prejudice, and continue on the course to death and destruction. In the film, both options are pursued, and at times life is conserved and the racial situation resolved, and at times the racial situation is brought to bear, resulting in death or intended death.
The fact that both options might be pursued proves that Haggis believes it is in the individual’s ability to transcend racial prejudice and connect with others on the more fundamental level of humanity.
Overall, Crash should be seen to grapple with various deeply weighty topics—successfully. It upholds the power of the individual to either descend to or transcend racial thinking and action, while also illustrating humans’ profound, inter-connected and interdependent nature in the effect that any individual’s thought and action has on many others. It deals with the reality of human beings as complex social creatures, creatures whose views and prejudices are influenced by various sources. Thus, Crash paints an ultimately empathetic view of humanity and each individual composing it—a rarity in the finger-pointing racial films prevalent today. Its enduring legacy will be shaped by the unusual depth with which it tackles the issue of race relations, and the transcendent hope it has in each of us as individuals to forge humanity’s path in accordance with our true nature: that distinctions based upon skin color are arbitrary and worthless; what matters is rather what we share: a fundamental human soul.