January 8, 2006

Crash into Me

Finally saw Crash this evening. After some mediocre reviews from critics whom I normally trust (Slate, mostly), I was a little wary of the film. I had read that the film simply couldn't overcome artistically the fact that its levels of nuance and probability are about the same as porn—utterly lacking in both.

Well, the film is roughly as little nuanced and as improbable as advertised, but I feel it certainly did overcome whatever limitations that dearth may present. I'm not exactly sure what kind of message director/writer Paul Haggis intends by rewriting Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia as a morality tale about racism, but he did it well.

The cast is almost universally well-chosen (though Brendan Fraser is a little stiff, even for a California wannabe politician and Sandra Bullock's scenes could have taken a bit more pruning or at least a touch of levity—Parker Posey would have been a dream cast in this spot). But the really powerful performances are by actors I had to look up on IMDb. Michael Peña is devastating as a Hispanic locksmith with the cutest little daughter of any film of the decade so far. The entire Iranian family—Bahar Soomekh, Dato Bakhtadze, and Shaun Toub—also grabbed my attention forcefully and poignantly.

A lot has been made of the way Haggis places the language of racism front and center, and shows viscerally how that type of language is connected directly to our actions and our reactions. I think this is certainly the most valuable part of the movie, though if you want an even better examination of this idea, watch Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.

Will Crash make you a better person? I almost instinctively say no, but I have a strong inclination to say yes. I feel Crash is the answer to people like Joe Malchow who want to all of a sudden put color-blinders on without addressing the inequalities actually present in America and why those inequalities are often tied to racial differences.

Crash, I think, makes it impossible to look at the problems of race without looking at the problems of racism. Conservatives who focus on racial check-boxes and reverse discrimination via affirmative action never like to talk about the racist conditions that have made some people think that those measures are necessary. If I had a dollar for every time someone followed up a statement like "as every living, breathing, hearing, seeing person who has gone through the college admissions process in the past half-century knows, possessing a certain skin tint is a de facto help or hindrance in being accepted, though the process purportedly seeks only merit" with an appeal for more money for inner-city schools, well, I wouldn't have very much money. Those who get all caught up on skin tints miss the point. The questions we should be asking aren't about race. They're about racism.

Many of the problems of racism are distinct from problems about race. Do questions about the genetic nature of race really apply to the actions of a police officer who pulls someone over for driving while black? That action is about power in the same way a jock shoving a nerd into a locker is about power. Or the way a woman gets paid much less than a man for doing the same damn thing. Racism is definitely about race, but it also is simply when we use racial differences as a cover for an abuse of power.

The problems of racism, then, are the problems of how our systems and society allow these abuses of power. How we've used race as a cover for creating imbalances, inequalities, and injustices that perpetuate themselves—that is what needs to be addressed, and it can't be addressed by pretending to be colorblind.

I think that's what is truly great about Crash; it treats racism as something we must all confront, even if we aren't confronted with race. In Indiana, where I haven't seen a person of Middle Eastern descent literally in days, or an Indian since I left Glasgow, I think this message is even more valuable, immediate, and necessary.

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