A couple of Sundays ago, I watched the Screen Actors Guild Awards. (Yes, sadly, I'm addicted to awards shows; the only one I refuse to watch is the People's Choice Awards, because those are chosen by the people. Ew.) At the end of the night, Morgan Freeman came onstage to announce the winner of the Best Ensemble in a Motion Picture award-the SAG version of the Best Picture Oscar. As he was listing the nominees, I said, "I certainly hope it's not Crash." But it was, beating the odds-on-and my personal-favourite, Brokeback Mountain. The press acted as if this was a stunning upset but I wasn't surprised, even if I was disappointed-there are a lot of people who think Crash is the best movie of the year and it has been receiving a number of end-of-the-year awards. But I was pretty annoyed when Crash was given six Oscar nominations two days later.
I loathed Crash. I rented it a few weeks ago-the hype was getting too loud to ignore. I didn't see it when it was in theatres last spring because I tend to avoid seeing movies about race. By "movies about race," I'm referring to dramatic movies about racial conflict-not films about black people or Asians or Latinos (because then nearly every movie would be about race). I mean movies like The Defiant Ones, A Raisin in the Sun, In the Heat of the Night, Mississippi Burning, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever or Rosewood. Even "racial conflict comedies" irritate me, though they don't make me run away. Watching such films can be a profoundly unpleasant experience, and not just for me-it's pretty rare that someone will say that they found Do the Right Thing entertaining. Important, brilliant and disturbing, yes-but not fun.
In these movies, dramatic conflict almost always seems to revolve around racist monsters hurting good people, or good people suffering because of monstrous racism. The stories are nearly always appallingly violent; physically, socially and/or emotionally. There is usually one of two endings-either the racist loses and goodness prevails (A Time to Kill) or the conflicts in the story are resolved but the overall problem of racism is depicted as a shameful, endless system (Crash). Either way, I don't need to see it.
Or maybe I do. Like all white Americans (or perhaps like all people), I have "race issues." It's impossible to be colour-blind, to not have some preconceptions or not form stereotypes. White liberals, like me, to tend to feel very guilty about having these feelings. I was raised by a couple who met during the Lyndon Johnson administration and, like him, they wanted to create the Great Society-a land of racial harmony, social equality, sunshine and rainbows. So when my parents went looking for a house in which to raise their family, they chose one in an "integrated" neighbourhood.
Except that the neighbourhood wasn't actually integrated. Our house sat on the border of an upper-middle-class white neighbourhood and a working-class black neighbourhood. Because there were no white kids my age, I played with the black kids. Notice what I said: "Because there were no white kids my age." See? Even when I was little, I knew that we were different, and I felt more comfortable being among the kids I resembled. The black kids did too.
I knew I wasn't supposed to feel that way. When I was six, I was with my father and saw a large group of local black kids walking down the street. I said aloud, "Here they come." I don't know why I said it-it may have been fear or racism or the fact that they had a big group of friends and I didn't. My dad screamed at me so furiously that I hid under my bed for three hours. This was a direct result of his own guilt; after all that he and my mother had done and worked for, their kid was a racist.
Ever since then, the topic of racism has scared the bejesus out of me. Growing up in the extraordinarily racially conflicted city of Cincinnati didn't help (I took a black girl to my junior prom and raised more eyebrows than if I had brought a boy). Racial tension is so prevalent in the city and the topic itself so demonized that I developed a deep fear of the issue. For example, I cringed in shock and horror when Quentin Tarantino railed about "dead nigger storage" in Pulp Fiction, which I saw in Cincinnati. An extremely agitated black man sitting in front of me at the screening began railing about "honkies." I was terrified-what was this guy going to do to me? He did nothing, and I felt even guiltier.
And so it was that, when Crash arrived in theatres, I didn't attend. I didn't want to go to a theatre to see a movie I knew was going to make me feel guilty about being white and privileged. But when I did finally see it, it didn't make me feel guilty. It made me feel angry-not at the racists in the movie or at our great international race problem, but with Paul Haggis's misanthropy.
Haggis's film is a set of intertwining stories about racial conflict in Los Angeles. Matt Dillon plays a racist cop who sexually harasses Thandie Newton and is then forced to save her from a burning car the next day. Ryan Phillippe is Dillon's partner, who is so appalled by Dillon's racism that he asks for reassignment. Don Cheadle plays a saintly cop who sleeps with his Latina partner and is asked to spin a murder investigation toward racial motivation so that the DA can look like he cares about black people. The DA and his wife, a miscast Brendan Fraser and a screeching Sandra Bullock, have their own problems-two black men have carjacked them. Sandra Bullock subsequently decides that her locksmith, Michael Pena, is a gang-banger, just because the guy has tattoos and is Latino. Another of the locksmith's customers, a Persian, blames the locksmith for having his own store broken into and defaced with racist graffiti. The carjackers, played by Ludacris and Larenz Tate, wander around town stealing cars and having absurd conversations about racial politics. When they try to jack the car of Thandie Newton's very angry husband, Terrence Howard, all hell breaks loose. Tate runs off and hitchhikes home, and his fate is the tragic ending of the film-he is killed by Ryan Phillippe, who assumes that Tate is pulling a gun when he is actually pulling a plastic statuette of a saint out of his pocket.
Like all movies that are top-heavy with great actors and overly intense storylines-Nashville, Short Cuts, Gosford Park, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Traffic and Syriana-Crash tries to do too much in too little time. But Crash and Syriana fail to live up to their genre's predecessors because of their deep, cruel cynicism and their reliance on plot gimmicks rather than on sympathetic, complex characters. No one in Crash changes or is redeemed except for Ludacris, who performs a single act of kindness. Yet his is the most preposterous character-how many carjackers out there sound like a cross between Malcolm X and Dave Chappelle? Dillon may have saved Thandie Newton, but there is no reason to believe he is a better person because of it. Sandra Bullock's character is a monster in her first, second, third and fourth scenes (I was hoping a gang would break in and kill her). Don Cheadle plays a wimp. And Ryan Phillippe's character is a ghastly creation; a man who really wants to do the right thing but ends up doing the worst thing possible by accident. The only truly sympathetic characters are played by Lorenz Tate and Michael Pena, and they are treated worse than anyone else. It is almost as if Haggis is punishing their characters for being nice guys. Nothing in this movie moved me, and I found much of it infuriating.
I also found it impossible to see the point of such a torturous, depressing film. The only message I could discern: people suck and they always will. There was no hope, no catharsis, no epiphany and no reason. That said, a lot of skill and technique went into making this dystopian horror. The stories intertwine seamlessly, cinematography is stark and creepy and gorgeous, and the acting is fierce-though Dillon, Newton and Bullock chew more scenery than I thought them capable of.
Obviously, I was predisposed to dislike Crash, but I was nevertheless surprised by how repulsed I was. How could anyone reward the creator of such an inhumane story? I guess I just can't stand seeing my personal nightmares on the screen.