Crash: Racist, Insightful, Brilliant

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Screenwriter/director Paul Haggis' latest film “Crashâ€? (he's also writer of the 2004 Oscar Winner Million Dollar Baby, has met with great enthusiasm since its May 6, 2005 release. Even Tavis Smiley set aside two consecutive evenings of his PBS talk show - featuring Maxine Waters, Don Cheadle and Paul Haggis to discuss the film. Crash apparently has tapped at the core of many people’s idealizations on race in society.  Americans, Americans of African descent included, possibly especially, rarely directly or meaningfully address the issue of race. Given this factor, it comes as no surprise that Crash’s electric portrayal of "racialized" unrest has caused such a stir. Movies are a powerful medium, and can be observed as if they are in real time and true to life experiences, especially when written and directed as well as Crash. Audiences can be transfixed forgetting or not realizing that film (especially of this genre) is a construction, fiction, created to provoke a certain response, agenda or influence on film goers. While numerous elements of Crash were believable and provocative, it also perpetuated a tendency in Hollywood not to fully dimensionalize Black people. Full dimensionalization would be to depict Black people - without buffoonery or attitude- functionally loving and respecting them selves, their family, their child, their spouse, their community or each other, as a central theme. (Though, over the top, and a bad movie, Denzel Washington’s John Q attempted to do this). Another classic Hollywood tendency occurred in Crash that always seems to happen when a White filmmaker does a film about "race."

No matter how brutal the White supremacist or racist character is, great lengths are taken to make sure the audience (especially Black people) humanizes and cares deeply about that person - anyway.  In Crash White Filmmaker Paul Haggis fixates on the audience gaining compassion for a monstrously racist, Mark Furman-like cop, whose sickly father suffers tragically - before our eyes - from health ailments. (And of course the racist is seen crying and embracing his sickly father). This same racist cop is shown justifying (to the audience) the genesis of his racist perspectives, explaining this to a Black woman reluctant to give his father medical coverage.  In a previous scene the same character, racistly and viciously molests a Black woman publicly after pulling her and her husband over when noticing them having oral sex while driving in their Navigator.  The molestation takes place right in front of the woman's "successful," meek, White people pleasing, psychically castrated, husband! Then later, in a completely over-the-top and manipulative move (by the filmmaker) this racist/abusive White cop heroically saves the same Black woman he molested - on-duty - from a fiery death. Yet Crash is a uniquely powerful film.  For example, in unusually insightful ways it depicts how internalized White supremacy can behaviorally manifest among Black people. But, rarely (if ever) is an opportunity created for the audience to fall in love with or gain poignant levels of concern about the Black characters.

Almost every one of these characters is a thief, corrupt, dead, a drug addict, interracially involved, confused or crazy. These portrayals may have been more tolerable if the audience was also allowed - by the filmmaker - to witness deep levels of context, love, warmth and compassion (and screen-time) allowed the White racist cop. Yes, the Brother's murder realized at the end was sad. But who was this Brother? Who was his father? Why did he turn out as he did?  Why did his Brother, the interracialist cop, turn out as he did?  We were never told that. These are examples of the lack of humanizing dimension had by people of African descent in the film. Still, I think Crash, while being racistly manipulative, is a brilliant, riveting and occasionally insightful (about Black self-hate) piece of cinematic work. I am aware of how movies can affect its audience. So, it left me wondering—when was the last time the death or life of a Black fictional character in film, in a popular film, warmed my heart, and the characters had functional family and self love, and instilled deep compassion or concern among its audience. The answer was almost never.

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