Political Film Society - Crash

PFS Film Review


CrashIn 1991, Rodney King asked, "Why can't we all get along?" He was referring to racial mistrust in Los Angeles, but his query was interpreted as relevant to the United States as a whole. Because few efforts subsequently have tried to answer his question, the issue could be rephrased, "Why don't we want to know how to get along?" But even that rephrasing assumes that there is meaning to the phrase "we can't get along," that is, that the problem of not getting along can be clearly identified. Crash, directed by carjacking survivor Paul Haggis, serves as perhaps the most eloquent statement of problem identification, but does not explain why the problem exists or what can be done to correct the situation. The method of posing the question and delineating the parameters of the problem is a series of short cuts into the lives of several earnest characters in Los Angeles who have learned to distrust people on the basis of their race, include self-hating blacks. In one case, white LAPD officer Ryan (played by Matt Dillon) stops a vehicle on the spurious pretext that a white female passenger is performing fellatio on a black male driver. Although the black man, Cameron (played by Terrence Howard), keeps his cool, his lightskinned African American wife Christine (played by Thandie Newton) verbalizes contempt for the cop, who in turn pats her down for weapons by feeling every inch of her body. When they return home, Christine complains that her husband has done nothing while she was humiliated, though of course Cameron knows that keeping his cool saved the couple from a night in jail or perhaps worse. The cop's partner, a white rookie named Hanson (played by Ryan Phillippe), is so incensed with his racist partner that he attempts to get a transfer to a nonracist partner, but Lt. Dixon (played by Keith David), his black superior officer, refuses to grant that request, fearing that he will be disciplined for admitting that even one racist cop exists in LAPD. Instead, he grants Hanson's request on the phony grounds that Hanson admits to a flatulence problem. The following night, Hanson picks up a black hitchhiker, Peter (played by Larenz Tate). As Peter begins to pull something out of his pocket, Hanson warns him not to do so; when Peter ignores the request, Hanson shoots him; then discovering that he had no gun, he dumps dead Peter's body and burns his car to destroy evidence of the crime in which he is now the racist. Another situation involves an Iranian store proprietor, Farhad (played by Shaun Toub). After summoning someone to fix the lock to his store. Daniel (played by Michael Peña), a Hispanic male, arrives; he fixes the lock but does not have the expertise or tools to fix the door, so he informs Farhad that the door should be fixed as well. Farhad then loses his temper; he refuses to pay Daniel, complaining that he has not fixed the problem. Because of the hassle, Daniel leaves without receiving payment. That night, robbers break down the door and steal whatever they can of marketable value. The next day, Farhad drives to Daniel's residence, intending to shoot him dead. Earlier, his wife has bought blanks for his gun, so no harm comes to anyone, and Farhad comes to his senses. Several similar scenarios populate the film, including the car crash that begins the film, with the explanatory epigram, "We crash into each other so we can feel something.” Characters of one situation are sometimes present in another. Thus, in Crash, one answer to Rodney King's question appears to be, "We really do not want to get along," whereas a possible remedy is that everyone needs to have an epiphany to wake up to the fact that they are ruining their own lives by mistrusting everyone, believing in stereotypes, and directing their frustrations toward others. A personal anecdote may amplify the lessons that might be learned from Crash. Most Americans are at least vaguely aware that racial mistrust is largely absent in Hawai`i; real problems among the races are dealt with in a remarkably civil manner. In the 1920s, the Chicago school of sociology identified Hawai`i as providing the paradigm model of desegregation that ultimately led to testimony before the Supreme Court of the United States in Brown v Board of Education (1954). After Rodney King's query, I approached several funding sources, including the Ford Foundation, then headed by a black scholar, to solicit funds for a documentary television series on the parameters of and development of race relations in Hawai`i. When my proposal was brushed aside, I concluded that a positive example of race relations was unwelcome because too many interests had invested too much in a desire to keep the racial pot boiling. When the multiauthored book on which the proposed series was to be based was published under the title Multicultural Hawai`i (1998), no newspaper or even scholarly publication ever manifested an interest in publishing a review of what I consider my finest edited publication, and a Los Angeles Times columnist specifically refused my request to do so in 1999 after featuring the umpteenth book depicting insoluble racial problems in the United States. Similarly, Crash is destined not to attract the attention that such an extraordinary picture of life in multiethnic but not yet multicultural America clearly deserves. The Political Film Society, nevertheless, was created to recognize consciousness-raising efforts and has nominated Crash for an award as best film exposé of 2005.  MH

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