Sunday, June 12, 2005

Crash Coarse

Everyone's a little bit racist, or so the Avenue Q song goes. That's certainly the main conceit of the recent movie Crash, which puts a not-so-fine of a point on that idea.

Crash, much like its name, is anything but subtle. It paints in broad, course strokes, only occasionally using a more understated approach. Not only is everyone racist, but almost everyone is a raving bigot and aren't afraid to express their bigotry. A gun shop owner has no problem insulting the Persian man purchasing a weapon from him and then denying him the purchase. A black police detective doesn't hesitate to demean his Latina partner and lover. A black wife and husband freely hurl invective at each other about how black the other actually is. And everybody is down on the Hispanic locksmith.

Which is not to suggest that the movie is entirely inaccurate. Modern racism tends to be more subtle and insidious than the coarse verbalization found in the movie, but the thoughts and perspectives expressed are certainly valid representations of the way many people think or feel. Although reflected in real life, the movie does take easy shortcuts in dealing with bigotry. The affluent city DA is politically correct in the worst sense; he cares more about surface perception that actually dealing with true racial problems. His wife recoils from any non-white, mortified of any minority after they car-jacked. Racism is also a bit too neat: Americans hate Muslims, black and white people hate each other; black and Asian people hate each other; LA police are corrupt, white and black, etc.

Even with these shortcuts, the film is not devoid of complexity. Just as virtually everybody is racist, so is no one person made completely evil. Even the most compromised characters possess some degree of virtuousness. Characters have to learn to compromise and deal with each other despite their problems and differences. Although perhaps overly simple, paradoxically a complex web of connectivity is created among the principle characters.

Yet it is this simplistic six degrees of separation that is the point to be taken away here. The title of the movie does not apply to car crashes, indeed there are only three crashes: one at the beginning, one slightly over half-way through the movie, and one at the end (and interestingly enough the end crash is the only crash we actually see happen). The movie opens with a line by Don Cheadle who speculates that people crash their cars into each other to have contact with other people that is missing in every day life. Indeed, Crash refers to the way we have the potential to crash into each other culturally. Instead of choosing to reach out in equality and with an open-mind, we choose to be hurtful and oblivious to the people around us. As much of the cultural destruction that happens is purposeful, an equal amount is the failure to see beyond our own cultural filters and lenses.

Ultimately we witness the destruction that our self-imposed isolation (both physical and cultural) brings about in both the lives of others and in our society. Although this point is brought home with a hammer, Crash does seek to raise the audience's awareness of the personal and larger consequences of failing to understand and interact with our fellow human beings. Crash could have been more interesting by playing with the more internalized and subtle aspects of racism. Some of the sub-plot and character development outcomes could have shown more meaningful results (will Sandra Bullock's spoiled rich white woman's revelation truly lead to her making her housekeeper's life better?)

Crash does offer a highly intense and thought-provoking experience that does captivate the audience. And, interestingly, at least in the theater where I saw it, drew perhaps the most diverse crowd I have ever seen at any movie. Crash has the potential to bring about meaningful dialogue and could open doors not normally open for multicultural understanding.

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