Watching Crash, I felt like Sandra Bullock’s character: please, white man, don’t patronize me.
Hilton Als, writing in The New Yorker recently, reviewed a very bad play: “The sad fact is that, in order to cross over, most black actors of [Anthony] Mackie’s generation must act black before they’re allowed to act human.”
If only The New Yorker were as scathing when it reviewed Crash (it was quite the opposite, actually). The sad fact is that, in Crash, all the actors must act the ethnicity they’re instructed to stereotype, and are rarely, if ever, allowed to act remotely human.
When Julia proposed this Los Angeles Plays Itself series, the first movie that popped into my mind was Crash. In retrospect, I’m not really sure why, because Crash must be one of the most inaccurate pictures of Los Angeles, of racial tensions, and of racial tensions in Los Angeles that I’ve seen. It’s so unabashedly self-congratulatory, engages in so much reductive reasoning, and so myopic in its portrayal of Los Angeles that I’d say it borders on irresponsible.
For those who haven’t seen Crash, it can be summarized as follows: a lot of characters defined primarily and almost exclusively by their ethnicities do a lot of things that are stereotypical of their ethnicity, even while they verbalize frustration at the existence of said stereotypes and, in a not-surprise, their lives intertwine through a series of unfortunately coincidental events.
Because subtlety is not one of Crash’s strong points, Detective Graham Waters (played by Don Cheedle) explains the title of the film to us in the very first scene of the movie: “In LA, no one touches you,” he says. “I think we miss that sense of touch so much, we crash into each other just to feel something.” As if that were not enough, there is a special feature on the second disc of the 2-disc DVD set entitled, “Los Angeles: The Other Character.” This post almost writes itself! Almost.
This car crash is the flashpoint, the excuse, if you will, for the unleashing of an onslaught of racial tension and anger. No, it’s not the frustration that your destination is so close but for the line of cars moving very s-l-o-w-l-y, or the fact that your little A-to-B car is constantly cut off by huge Hummers – no, the reason for the explosion of anger at the fender bender is race.
Paul Haggis, the writer and director of Crash, explains in one of the special features on this Very Special 2-disc DVD set that he is a 30 year resident of Los Angeles and wanted to make a “fair and accurate description” of what his city is like: racial and racist. Accordingly, the pen that writes the screenplay is made up of very colorful feathers: the African-Americans; the Persians; the Asians; the Hispanics; the Latin Americans; the Mexican-Americans; the Sandra Bullock. The other white feather on the table is for Mr. Haggis’ cap. Yankee’s doodling.
Mr. Haggis himself is a white, heterosexual male, and wrote Crash after penning the hugely successful Million Dollar Baby. This is not to say that he couldn’t have made a fair and accurate portrayal of race – and with it, class – in Los Angeles, but it is to say that his viewpoint from his inherent position of privilege puts his camera at a focal disadvantage.
The disadvantage, it turns out, is comprised of a two-dimensional lens. Try as they might, the characters who attempt valiantly to leap out of their stereotypes are shoved back into their creators’ neat little boxes with ugly bows on top. Anthony the African American, played by Ludacris, doesn’t understand why a white woman on the Westside would be scared of him, rightfully pointing out that, if anything, he should be scared — until he pulls a gun on her. He also does not steal from other black people – until he does. Then there is Hansen the White Rookie LAPD Officer who is disgusted by his white partner’s racism — and then shoots a black man in cold blood. The Persian store owner is angry that everyone believes him to be violent – and then points a gun at a Mexican-American man. There are a several more similar black and white threads throughout the film; what I learned is: people really need to figure out how to use their guns responsibly.
What I didn’t learn was anything about race. The film blames Los Angeles racial tensions on our cars, which isolate and insulate us from each other, causing tensions to fester and eventually explode by virtue of the lack of personal interactions. And yet, the filmmaker doesn’t want us to be riding the bus either; as Ludacris eloquently puts it, the buses have big windows to humiliate people of color who are reduced to riding the bus. Nevermind that this itself begins to poke holes in the central thesis of the film (if non-whites are riding the buses, who, exactly, is crashing into whom?). The more salient point is that the economic and racial underpinnings of Los Angeles’ public transportation system – where the city has chosen to spend its transit funding, the virulent xenophobia that prevented the subway to the sea up to, and including, now, etc. – is actually one of the very few things Crash got right. Rather than focus on this more difficult issue, however, it’s mentioned only in passing.
Don’t get me wrong here. Everyone is responsible for their own -ism, for brandishing it about and hitting others over the head with it. But to ignore the structures that perpetuate and ingrain racism and the racial tensions that frame our everyday interactions is to present a very incomplete picture of race relations in Los Angeles. The ideas that the LAPD is a racist institution, that neighborhoods and gentrifying projects are systematically plotted to keep minorities in certain areas of town, that the overwhelmingly white male politicians in City Hall debate and pass policies like the Safer Cities Initiative that disproportionately affect minorities are all mentioned, but almost as an afterthought. I think if you want to have a dialogue about race in this city, you start there, but in Crash, it’s barely a pit stop. No, these give way to the much more naïve – and dangerous – meme that Los Angeles’ racial tensions come simply are rooted in our self-isolating steel contraptions known as our cars. That’s one factor, but by no means the primary one. It’s also a lousy excuse that conveniently exonerates the (white) people in power whose interests lie in perpetuating and maintaining the structures of their power.
Paul Haggis’ Los Angeles also has no gay people of any color, and Los Angeles women are mere props. Thandie Newton is viciously molested by an officer during a pat-down, in front of her black husband, but this is important only because it symbolizes his powerlessness and loss of dignity (later, she is forced to repent for her loud protests during the pat-down when she gets into a car accident and is saved, wailing and crying, by that very same officer). Sandra Bullock is a explicit white bigot who falls down the stairs and is saved, of course, by her Mexican maid. And Jennifer Esposito has her piece on being Latino, then essentially disappears from the screen.
Falling Down came to my mind when watching Crash; between the two, I’d take Falling Down’s aggressively flawed portrayal of race over Crash’s pretentious patronizing message any day. Unlike the stretches of valleys and hills that make up LA, the social and political landscape of Los Angeles in Crash is flat. Just like how the movie ultimately falls.