Saturday, February 11, 2012

Transcending Racism in Crash: Why It's Right and You're Wrong

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

© 2011
With the Oscars approaching now ever faster, you’re sure to come across a couple of articles entitled something like the following: “10 Worst Oscar Winners of All Time”.  And almost for sure, one of the movies that will make the list for worst Best Picture winner ever is Paul Haggis’s 2005 Crash—critics bashing it resoundingly.  So of course, the question arises: why does this so frequently make these lists—what’s wrong with it?  Well, critics tend to offer several reasons:
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.


Crash’s Transcendent Argument for Humanity

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.


  1. Really brilliant. This should be widely shared and read.

    1. @ Martin:

      Thanks, Dad! Your thoughts mean a lot to me.

      -The Good-Looking One

  2. I have not seen Crash ... must watch after this review ... great essay.

    1. @ Unsticking:

      Thank you very much for thoughts; I hope you do see this film--well worth the watch!

      -The Good-Looking One

  3. Well-reasoned and argued piece of writing. Like no other film I have ever seen, Crash confronts the viewer with stereotypes and perceptions of race, and challenges him/her to reevaluate ideas about social and individual responsibility to change society. Just when the film leads you in one direction, it snaps you back in another and forces you to confront what you thought you knew to be true. It is one of the most evocative films I have ever seen.

    1. @ Mrs. G:

      I couldn't agree more; the level of thought and constant evaluation from its audience that this film requires is unsurpassed among the films that I have seen that deal with race relations. The concept of individual responsibility that you mention above is imperative to understanding the uniqueness of this film.

      -The Good-Looking One

  4. My Friend,

    Congratulations on finally writing this piece- I know how important it was to you to make your thoughts on this matter known. I personally was not completely impressed with the film, but that is not to say that I turned so negatively against it either as so many of the film community did. (I also felt that there were much stronger films nominated that year for Best Picture- but that's a different matter altogether). Regardless, I am now beginning to see your stance on this film as you argue for it all these years. Well-written piece!

    -The Savant

    1. @ The Savant:

      Thank you for the congratulations, my friend. Definitely, this piece was something that I wanted to write very precisely, in accordance with my impressions of it. And I haven't seen a single other film nominated for Best Picture that year; however, I doubt that they would surpass Crash, in my mind. Crash is among my top 5 or 10 favorite movies.

      -The Good-Looking One

  5. Very thought provoking, Paul! It's a must see movie for me!

    1. Thanks, Mrs. H! I hope you do see the film.

      -The Good-Looking One

  6. The article and the thread here reminds me of a wise-old Satchel Paige line, "It's not want you don't know that hurts you, but what you think you know that just ain't so."

    1. Hmm. In what way does this remind you of the quote, Dad?

      -The Good-Looking One

    2. Nothing complicated here intended by my comments, just in the way that the film, as "Mrs. G" said in her comments above, leads one to reconsider what one thinks is true: "Just when the film leads you in one direction, it snaps you back in another and forces you to confront what you thought you knew to be true." This parallels the way the characters in the film itself are confronted with things in their own world-views in surprising ways. I like the way your review gets at in its critical analysis the parallels between its themes and narrative style, between its form and substance.

  7. While I agree with you that Crash is a phenomenal movie and deserves much praise, I do not think it should have won Best Picture that year. The problem is that it won a entire year after it had been made and had grown in popularity. That is like if the Color Purple had won best picture a year after it's release. It is as if to say that all the other movies that people worked so hard to release that year paled in comparison to it. In the case of Crash this is not true.

    1. @ Nelly:

      Hey! Good to see you here.

      You bring this topic to an interesting vantage point. Consider, though, the case of The Silence of the Lambs. Generally regarded as one of the few actually "flawless" movies ever made and released in February 1991 by a bankrupt studio. It was actually supposed to be released in late 1990 for awards consideration but the studio needed to dump it's assets so the company could be liquidated. No one expected the movie to be anything significant. When it was released, however, and EXPLODED into pop culture thanks to Dr. Lecter, the movie fought off competition for an entire year to be one of only three films in history to win the BIg Five (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay) at that year's Oscars. Granted, The Silence of the Lambs is twelve times a better constructed movie than Crash (sorry Paul!) but I'd venture that politics and homophobia also played a bit more in the decision to award Crash than release date.

    2. Ellen Nelly:

      The above reply is from my partner in crime, Alex "The Savant" Heisman (just wanted to avoid the confusion). It's perhaps true (I don't hold that much stock in the Academy)that it didn't deserve to win, because it was made the year before. However, such certainly doesn't take away from the quality of the film. I see that you thought the film is "phenomenal".

      @ The Savant:
      The Silence of the Lambs is ANYTHING but a "flawless movie". It's melodramatic, for one. And for two, its central premise is fundamentally flawed, its major thesis: for it ultimately portrays a debased form of humanity. It paints a picture of people and the world that is disturbing and evil, neither of which (a) do I believe are true or (b) should be sought after in light of the lack of definitive evidence supporting them.

      The central emotion of the film is disturbing, and a film that disturbs its audience--without positing an argument either (a) justifying the disturbing-ness, or (b) positing an argument to transcend the disturbing-ness--is fundamentally flawed.

      Additionally, one can say what one wants about Crash, but it seems to me that its plot certainly is tightly constructed and subtly resolved. And you really think Hollywood is homophobic? C'mon dude; it's one of the most liberal groups in the nation.

      -The Good-Looking One

    3. @ The Good-Looking One:

      I must say, my friend, I disagree strongly with your post. I was regarding The Silence of the Lambs as "flawless" by every other critic around, not at first as my own personal belief. I brought up this instance because I actually re-watched the movie last weekend.

      I don't see how your first point that what you believe to be true reflects the merit of a movie. You posit many interesting theories on human will and freedom in the mind but whether you truly adhere to one way of thinking or not, that does not debase a movie's merit if you do not agree.

      Please also elaborate more as to your comments on the disturbingness. One of the strongest merits of the film was that it was so unsettling. Hopkins and Foster reached to extremes within themselves to bring out such disturbing/disturbed characters. Their acting is sublime, frequently mimicked, never replicated. There are sick people in this world and if the characterization of Buffalo Bill is one form of expressing one's self, regardless of whether that is based on any known serial killer or not (it is), that does not necessarily mean that there needs to be any background explanation saying "hey, childhood abuse means he's a serial killer".

      As for the liberalism in Hollywood: Hollywood is EXTREMELY liberal, I grant you that. There are however, the majority of the Academy especially, that comprise the "stodgy, old, Republican" stereotype. It would help make my point come across more clearly if I could cite this or that Oscar analyst to back me up in the fact that Crash was not reviled at the time; it merely became that way as a response to beating Brokeback for Picture. (Indeed, it is my lack of clarity that I must resolve to rely on other pundits to help explain my point). Ernest Borgnine and Tony Curtis were famously quoted as saying as they would never watch the "gay cowboy movie" and publicly condemned it before they would ever watch it. Crash was centered in L.A. which is where the Academy is based. These pervading thoughts, certainly amongst many others, led to the surprise win in 05.

    4. @ Le Savant--

      Indeed, I did a poor job explaining myself in the above response. I will herein posit two forms of analysis that people often employ on art, argumentation, etc:

      1) Validity. This is the analytical perspective that a work of art should be evaluated based on whether it accomplishes its own goal. In the realm of logic (as you know, due to your scheduling mishap), it is the evaluation of whether the conclusion logically follows from the premises.

      2) Soundness. This is the analytical perspective that evaluates in a work of art, not only whether it accomplishes its own goal, but whether its goal is worthwhile or not. Similarly, from an argumentation standpoint, it is the evaluation not only of the conclusion's logically following from the premises, but of the truth of the premises.

      Thus, with all this heretofore explained, I can concede the following:

      The Silence of the Lambs is, in my opinion, an excellent film--perhaps even approaching 'flawlessness--from the validity perspective. It accomplishes its own goal with brilliance, poignancy, and clarity. However, from the perspective of soundness--the far more important perspective, in my opinion--it fails, again in my opinion, miserably.

      This is because its goal--that is, the main point that it conveys, or conveys to me--is to present humanity in its most grotesquely depraved state of existence. It has the effect of degrading humanity and undermining the audience's idea of a transcendent human good, or even an objective morality.

      To me, these goals are despicable and insulting. They thrust one down to the abyss, rather than up towards the sky. Of course, these are my subjective view points that require strong argumentation before they should be accepted as objective. So until then, I concede that I am in need of further explanation.

    5. @ The Forever Good-Looking One,

      I did get a great chuckle, thank you, for mentioning my unfortunate scheduling mishap. I merely brought up The Silence of the Lambs as an example of how a film- regardless of whether it "rings true", presents its' views in a valid or sound way, or adheres to the accepted strictures of what generally constitutes a great movie, for example- as a response to our friend Nelly's post. At the risk of beating this dead horse, as you and I talked for 90 minutes on this very subject today, I guess we can chalk it up to: I personally believe that not every narrative necessarily must be structured to emphasize the goodness of humanity, while your view, more structured in philosophy, employs that there is a level of goodness in all that has to be explored.