The Movie Crash and Racial Tensions
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Tension between the African Americans and Caucasians have been present in America since slavery. In the movie Crash (2004), race and culture are major themes that can be seen in the lives of the characters in the film. One character in particular, Cameron, a prestigious color vision director, displays the friction between two cultures. He belongs to the educated, upper class of the Los Angeles area. He is also an African American, yet he seems to have no ties with that class. He has a light-skinned wife, attends award shows, and it appears that his acquaintances are predominately white. When he and his wife, Christine, get pulled over by a racist cop, he experiences emotions of powerlessness and helplessness that he never knew he would experience due to his upbringing and place in society. Cameron goes through a radical transformation where he comes to grips with his background and how he fits into these two clashing cultures.
In the first scene when Cameron is introduced, two white cops get a call about a stolen car. The openly racist cop, Officer Ryan, pulls over Cameron and Christine’s Lincoln Navigator, although it is obvious that their Navigator is not the stolen vehicle. The cop thinks he sees the couple participating in a sexual act while driving. When he approaches the car to ask for registration and license, Cameron and Christine laugh and find the whole situation humorous. Officer Ryan then asks Cameron to step out, and although Cameron obeys, he acts confused. He is obviously not drunk or wanting trouble (in the movie it even states that he is a Buddhist), and he declares that he lives only a block away. When his wife comes out of the car protesting the absurdity of the stop, the officer tells both of them to put their hands on the car so he can check for weapons. The cop then humiliates Christine by feeling her up between her thighs while Cameron is forced to stand by and watch. In this scene, Cameron does not protest but unbelievingly stares at what is happening to his wife. He is in a vulnerable situation because if he objects, he and his wife could be arrested and his reputation ruined. When the police ask Cameron what he should do with what they did in the car he slowly says, “Look, we’re sorry and we’d appreciate it if you’d let us go with a warning, please.
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” He shamefully endures this inhumane act, which not only puts a strain on his marriage, but also causes him to deal with feelings of worthlessness and rage.
A tagline from the movie Crash that could be applied to Cameron’s character is the quote Officer Ryan tells Officer Hanson, “You think you know who you are. You have no idea.” Cameron believes that he has the reputation of a prosperous TV director in a Caucasian culture, but certain events in the story cause him to come to terms with the reality in which he lives. For example, when he finished filming a scene for his TV show, a white producer played by Tony Danza wants to reshoot the scene because he believes that the character Jamal needs to sound “more black.” He believes that his character, Fred, should sound like the smart one. Once again, Cameron finds the situation humorous, realizes that the producer is actually serious, and then submissively submits and reshoots the scene.
Not fitting into the African American culture due to his education and demeanor, he is caught between two cultures, not belonging to either. Cameron thought he knew who he was and his place in society, but these two events show that he really had nothing. Although it appears as if he has a high status like other TV directors, because of his race, he will never be seen as their equal. This is not only a blow to his pride, but also discourages him. He has to function and live in a Caucasian culture, and although he is light-skinned and has a light-skinned wife it is still not enough. As his wife told him, his dignity was taken away from him right in front of his face with the situation with the two white cops.
It is not until two young black men attempt to hijack his car that he reaches his breaking point. He refuses to be helpless in a situation again, and especially not in one created by people of his own race. When one of the young men calls him a nigger, he snaps and starts to beat the hijacker. When police sirens are heard both Cameron and one of the young men jump in the car and drive. They become cornered in a driveway and once again Cameron is told to step out of his vehicle. Cameron, a peaceful Buddhist, now encompasses a whole different attitude than he did when he was first introduced in the movie. Although he eventually steps out of his car, he refuses to put his hands on his head or sit on a curb. He will not let a police officer take advantage of him again. Officer Hanson, the same officer who previously watched Officer Ryan molest Cameron’s wife, finally stops the heated argument between Cameron and the three armed cops. He asks the cops for a favor and persuades them to leave. The audience sees Cameron’s fate decided once again by a white individual and Cameron heatedly tells the cop, “I didn’t ask for your help, did I?” Cameron has no control over any of the situations he encounters in the Caucasian culture.
Cameron has reached the climax of his transformation in this scene. He is forced to compromise his beliefs as a Buddhist and acts out aggressively toward the people around him. When he gets back into his Navigator, the audience can see the adrenaline fading and the somber emotions displayed in his expression. As he pulls over to let the young hijacker out of his car he quietly tells the man, “You embarrass me. You embarrass yourself.” He now understands that he is a member of the African American culture even though he has everything that says he belongs to the Caucasian culture except his skin color (the two young men who attempted to steal his vehicle even mistook him for a white man). Although he does not truly fit into either culture, it is at this moment where he feels connected to the African American culture instead of the Caucasian culture in which he has tried his whole life to be accepted.
Towards the end of the film, Cameron is the character to first see the snow that uncharacteristically falls down on the city of Los Angeles. He is driving at night and when he sees the snow, he steps out and looks around amazed. His expression as he smiles at the snow and as he stands by people making a fire with an old car shows the completion of his change. Through his experiences in the movie, he finally comes to terms with who he is and how he will never fit into either of the opposing cultures. He will never belong to the Caucasian culture because of his appearance. He will never fit in with the African American culture because of the way that he chooses to live his life. Instead of allowing himself to be overrun with anger, Cameron displays a sense of peace with who he is and his place in society.
When Cameron gets a call from his wife he says three words: “I love you.” These three words reveal his final realization in his self-discovery. He understands that the love that bonds him and his wife together is even stronger due to the place that they are in society. The fact that they do not belong to either culture brings them together through all of the fights that occurred between them over his lack of protection for her. He recognizes that he has someone who will accept him for who he is. Cameron will go through life continuing to not fit in, but at least he has someone by his side who understands his place in society and identifies with him. Cameron has been transformed. He now understands himself, society, and the people who matter the most in his life.
Crash is a drama film produced in the United States that premiered at the Toronto International Festival on September 10, 2004. The film’s main theme is racial and ethnic stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination—all of which are still present in modern American society. The film was produced and directed by Paul Haggis, and is based on a personal biographical experience of the director being carjacked outside a video store in 1991. The director assembled a celebrity cast on the set, including Ryan Phillippe, Sandra Bullock, Terrence Howard, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Brandon Fraser, Michael Peña, Jennifer Esposito, and many other well-known actors.
The film takes place in Los Angeles, where eight different stories are developed over a two-day period. There is the story of a Persian immigrant, who struggles to protect his small shop from burglars; an African-American Hollywood director and his wife, who have to put up with sexual harassment by a racist policeman; a district attorney and his wife, who are carjacked by two African-American teenagers; a poor Hispanic locksmith, who lives in an unsafe neighborhood and returns home to find his small daughter hiding under the bed because of the gunshots outside, as well as some other interrelated stories.
The plot of the film is rather unusual since it revolves around various characters that seem to be unrelated to each other in any way. However, this impression slowly dissipates in the second part of the film, when viewers begin to link all the stories with each other and see the full picture behind them. There is one general topic that all the stories have in common—social and racial tensions in Los Angeles, while there are also several subtopics that are revealed in each particular story in the film: violence, immigration, deprivation, social inequality, ethnic stereotypes, anger, criminal situations, racism, and other related issues.
It is worth noting that, for most of the film, the viewer is kept in suspense and strained as the characters communicate with each other with trepidation, and at times even aggression and direct violence. The actors have successfully managed to depict their characters’ inner conflicts and struggles with their personal beliefs, as well as, social stigmas. By the end of the film, it is hard to classify any character as explicitly bad, even though there has been a lot of racism and anger expressed by some of the characters. The reason for that is because the storyline puts the characters in the kind of situations where they have to decide whether they dare to trust their intuition, in spite of some stereotypes and fears they consciously or unconsciously have, and risk their lives believing in the innate goodness of people.
For example, I was particularly struck by the story of a young police officer, played by Ryan Phillippe, who first comes across as a positive character, disgusted by the racist beliefs of his older companion. On his way home from work, the officer picks up a hitchhiker, and they start a friendly conversation, albeit with a hint of tension. However, the officer is far from being free of prejudice himself and when put into a particularly stressful situation and suspecting the African-American teenager to be a gang member and a threat to his life, this officer, unwilling to bear the risk, shoots the young man only because the latter could have presented a danger to him. The young man, in fact, was harmless in that situation and did not present any threat to the officer whatsoever. The bitter irony of the whole situation is that later, ashamed by his own cowardly and indecent act, the officer does an even more terrible deed—he dumps the body of the poor teen into a roadside ditch and drives away.
What I found particularly effective about Crash is the element of ambiguity in every character in the film, even the racist and cruel older police officer played by Matt Dillon, who courageously saves the life of the woman he humiliated the night before. At the end of the film, viewers are left in a kind of troubled reverie. Some curious viewers may even attempt to psychoanalyze the characters on a more personal level, projecting some situations from the film on their own lives and asking themselves whether they would have acted differently, and whether they are free from these obsolete and primitive stereotypes, so firmly rooted in the characters’ subconsciousness.
Even though some viewers might find it hard at first to quickly switch from one story to the other, such an approach to storytelling in my opinion is completely justified. The director obviously did a great job combining the stories in a natural and realistic manner. By the end of the film, when the stories are linked together, the viewer is able to evaluate and review them individually, and the whole social situation in general, from a more integrated perspective. With the powerful and gutsy performance of the celebrity cast, strong and moving life stories and the whole atmosphere of sharp, cruel yet captivating dramatic twists in every story portrayed, Crash is brilliant in its profound realism and pervasive depth.
The film has received generally positive reviews and was a box office success. It was nominated for six Academy awards in 2006 and won three of them: for best picture, best editing, and best original screenplay. The film currently has a score of 76% positive reviews on the website Rotten Tomatoes and 8.0 on IMDb (Internet Movie Database).
Crash is definitely a movie worth seeing, especially because it is essential to be aware of and acknowledge those social issues that are the focus of the film. Even though it is quite possible that some viewers might not agree with the director’s view on the modern-day American big-city social and cultural peculiarities, I am rather positive that any audience of twenty-five years and up will find some of the portrayed scenarios to be topical problems of today’s America. The least this movie can do is give some food for thought and some reasons to take an extrinsic look at our own stereotypes and inflexible beliefs, and possibly reconsider them, like some characters in the movie did.
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