Sunday, September 18, 2005

MovieTime - Review of "Crash" / Why we need "better" racism in the movies

“Crash” is written and directed by Paul Haggis, and features an ensemble cast with a number of big names including – Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, and Sandra Bullock amongst others.

Overall “Crash,” also known as, “look we ‘Crashed’ and landed in Magnolia” is a solid movie. On NetFlix, which is how I saw the movie, and how I see any movie with Sandra Bullock, I gave it 4 stars. I would have preferred to give it 3.5 stars, but no halves allowed on NetFlix, so the ambition of the film bumps it up to a "begrudging 4." As an FYI - my NetFlix review policies dictate that most movies get 3’s and 4’s, by virtue of the fact that I like movies. Great ones get 5’s. Bad ones get twos. There are more 5’s than 2’s. And more 3’s than 4’s. I don’t think I’ve given a 1 out, but something like "Guess Who" makes me think about it.

Magnolia is definitely the better film of the two, it came first, looks and feels more "artistic", and comes off less preachy. Though both movies take themselves very seriously.

Another major difference is that while both explore relationship dynamics, Crash is clearly centralized around the issue of race.

For my money, racism (as it is portrayed in movies), is in need of an extreme makeover. I think Crash recognizes this need, but ultimately doesn’t live up to the lofty ambition of bringing new perspective to an old conversation.

Most movies present what I would call “behind-closed-doors racism,” someone closes the door, and someone else goes on a rant, “damn them ni**as did this, them ni**as did that.”

This is a progressive step from “out-in-the-open racism,” where of course, there was no closing of the door, you just yelled your thoughts right to a ni@@a’s face.

Behind-closed-doors racism is based on the premise that you can’t be racist in public anymore, because no one tolerates it. But the racists still need to bond and vent, so in the interest of public relations, they do so after closing the doors.

But behind-closed-doors racism, like out-in-the-open racism before it, has lost its relevance. When seen on the screen it doesn't get you fired up like it once did. No matter how you dress it up, it's not compelling, because it’s not true to life for most people. There’s also an extra schlock factor because actors/writers/directors are so often proving their moral righteousness. Watching a character make some bone-head racist remark is the equivalent of a Maxim cover, shocking, attention-getting, sexy (in a marketing sense)… but still nothing more than eye-candy. It’s false, doctored, and artificial. It’s glamorized to massage your ego.

This is not to say that racism is no longer a cauldron of emotion and drama ripe for portrayal on the big or small screen. It’s just saying movie-making hasn’t caught up with the real-time national perception on the issue.

I’m sure I’ll explore this some more another time, but as a quick reference, here are two books, and an essay by Shelby Steele that are more relevant to the conversation going on in America today. The racism inherent in our subconscious, the racial implications involved in hip hop’s continuing rise as a commercial and cultural force, the comparison of racial issues to sexuality preference issues … these strike me as better beacons of light to a path that advances the conversation.

So Crash, in my estimation, presents a lot of behind-closed-doors racism. They’ve mixed-and-matched some of the standard racist characterizations, so there’s some novelty to it all, but nothing that really sticks. EXCEPT:

The scenario that plays out with Dillon, Thandie Newton, and Terrence Howard is top shelf and really jumps off the screen. The two main scenes they play together grab and immerse you in the movie. It’s a little over the top, but for proper reasons. And the characters all play it pitch-perfect. And while the initial scenario itself is a bit contrived, the aftermath becomes the most compelling storyline in the movie. The rest of it plays like a sensitive white guy, who has observed racism very closely, and wants to prove he really knows what's going on.

And that stance begs the question, can racism be properly depicted by someone who hasn't experienced it? I'll look for that answer in the next issue of Maxim...

All in all, my language has been a little negative, but I did say I gave it 4 stars. I give a lot of credit for ambition. It’s incredibly difficult to nail a perfect portrayal of race in America, so coming up short is not a failure, provoking the conversation is a worthy-enough goal ... and Paul Haggis certainly remains a talented and insightful writer.

One final note, and it's a return to the comparison with Magnolia...

It’s interesting that Sandra Bullock, who is kind of like a female Tom Cruise, plays a similar role to the one Tom did in Magnolia, one that runs counter to their usual all-american image. Of course Sandra's more like Tom Cruise light, not quite Julia Roberts status ... but that's beside the point.



  1. You're absolutely right! There needs to be more done, and more shown in the movies when it comes to racism. There was a couple of strong scenes in the movie, and I'm "glad" to see that (in the sense of it beeing good to show people how it is).

    Perhaps it's true that someone (white) who hasn't been there, can't portray it with enough reality.

  2. Anonymous9/19/2005

    I hate to fuel paranoid conspiracy theories, but my experience has shown that Dinesh Souza is dead wrong. While I feel that racism, HOWEVER you define it, was on the decline from the late 1960s to the mid 1990s; I feel that it has been rising since then. Some forms are not acceptable in certain circles - I remember just a few years ago, a Texaco CEO was fired for making insensitive billboards. On the other hand, I have seen a jump in not just covert but OVERT racism in Florida. Whereas, in the mid-1990s, I saw some black-Hispanic solidarity (we're all 'niggaz'); today, I see a rise in turf wars and birds of a feather flocking together.

    Of course, IIIII am not racist. Should I start listing my credentials, like how many black friends I have? Dogg.

    Just kidding. Take it easy. Keep writing.

  3. What you talkin' 'bout Willis??

    You lost me at "...racism, however you define it, is on the decline ..."

    I don't have to know what you're talking about to know you can't make that statement - how you define the term is probably the most critical variable in any debate.

    Keep it real.

    I think you should list your credentials...

    :) ??

  4. This was an interesting analysis of Crash. I commented in less expansive language, but I agreed with most of your comments. I however am not as forgiving for effort, and found it to be an offensively bad piece of cinema that had good intentions but had horrible execution.

    I found the scenario involving Thandie Newton and Terrence Howard to be some contrived bullshit, that in no way informed anything on the topic. I know it's an unpopular opinion, but I truly despised this movie.

  5. "Magnolia" sucked compared to Robert Altman's "Short Cuts." Very similar movies, yet they differed profoundly on some major issues. Yes, I liked "Crash," but "Short Cuts" opts for more possibilities, like it might simply have been coincidence, or we may not know what causes it, or maybe we're a lot more tan--and not so black and white--than we like to think. Love your new identity by the way.

  6. I agree with your assessment, TAN. The "behind closed doors" racism, although it still no doubt is alive and well, is no longer the biggest problem. The biggest problem is denial...the racist who doesn't know he's racist. If you're looking for the sources of our corporate glass ceilings, for example, that's the real culprit in most cases, I believe.

  7. I have an admission. I did not like Crash. The triangle of Newton, Howard, and Dillion was too over the top for me. I was actually with it for awhile. The scene where Newton and Howard are in the bedroom yelling at each other was amazing. But when Dillion shows up at the crash site, I was like "Oh, give me a break." And the movie lost a little credibility with me. My favorite scenes were actually the ones with Ludacris. I think by the end of the movie his character actually grows.

  8. I'm a bit late on this one, I stumbled across this post a while ago.. when u just wrote it, lost the url to your blog... and have not been back since...
    But ur are blogrolled now.. so will be often.


    I really liked Crash, but then hated it completely at the same time.

    The reasonning behind the movie, was bullshit... And though some of the characters, like the Matt Dillon character were obviously racist, every single 'light skinned' person in that movie, ended up 'rescuing' a dark sin one.

    Obvious example, matt dillon and thandie... DESPITE, the fact that he molested her earlier. The Ryan Phillipe character.. Rescued thandies husband, from himself.. (But still goes on to kill a black man later), The iranian store owner, firing a blank... I made a whole list when I watched the movie but can't remember it all now.

    But as I said, not matter what the movie was trying to prove... No BLACK person did anything 'good' in that movie.
    No black person did anything particularly bad.
    But they all had to be rescued from themselves.
    Reverse racism.

  9. I can see where the impression to say that comes from. The lighter skinned people seemed to be in control of everything, good and bad.

    But isn't what the movie is trying to ask? Has our racist culture made it so that's the case. That success and failure is contingent on the goodness or evil of the white man. Perhaps the movie is severely criticizing that reality. If it's not criticizing it, it certainly should. Because if that isn't a reality, it is a perception and the movies aims to deal with both, and allow judgement for both.

  10. theteeth5/31/2009

    This is a good post.


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