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Can White Hollywood Get Race Right?

Film critics proclaimed 'Crash' one of the best recent movies about race. Our cultural critics disagreed; so they sat down, Ebert and Roeper-style, to make their case.
 
 
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Oscar award-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis' directorial debut, "Crash," is the movie many people are still talking about this summer. Writing in the New Yorker, David Denby said it "makes previous movie treatments of prejudice seem like easy and self-congratulatory liberalizing." Ella Taylor of Los Angeles Weekly hailed it as "one of the best Hollywood movies about race."

Set in post-riot, post-9/11 Los Angeles, "Crash" literally slams together a number of racialized "crashes" that drive the film forward. It openly draws on L.A. films like "Grand Canyon" and "Falling Down," as well as the works of Spike Lee. Although studios have shied away from dealing with race since 9/11, "Crash" is being marketed as "a provocative, unflinching look at the complexities of racial conflict in America." It is meant to challenge its viewers "to question their own prejudices" through the multiple perspectives of its star-studded, multiracial cast.

So what does it mean to be a post-9/11 race movie? Is "Crash" better than its Hollywood predecessors? Is Hollywood finally dealing with race? Cultural critics Jeff Chang and Sylvia Chan sat down, Ebert and Roeper-style, to figure it all out.

Keeping it Real

Jeff Chang: They're pitching "Crash" as a "race movie," a genre that has been anathema to Hollywood after 9/11. There isn't any explicit reference to the Iraq war, but I think the war is what "colors" the entire movie.

Sylvia Chan: What is a post-9/11 race movie? How have perspectives on race changed since 9/11? Besides the fact that there's an Iranian shop owner, this film could very well have been made before 9/11. What does it mean to be a good "race" movie, period?

JC: To begin to answer that, we have to go back to the 80s. After the blaxploitation era, a particular kind of race movie really took off: stories that were essentially about blacks or people of color redeeming whites. Start with Spielberg and "The Color Purple" and move on to "Mississippi Burning," "Cry Freedom," "Driving Miss Daisy." "Grand Canyon" is the crowning point of this genre.

SC: It continues to now with "Monster's Ball."

JC: And let's please ignore most of Queen Latifah's recent work. At the end of the 80s, Spike Lee says that he wrote "Do The Right Thing" to confront exactly this kind of movie. In turn, "Do The Right Thing" opened up the door to Black films being financed by the major studios, a trend that accelerated after the Los Angeles riots in 1992.

The other thing that happened after the riots is that Hollywood naturalized race by actively casting non-white co-stars or supporting actors. Race but without the racism, or as Greg Tate would put it, "everything but the burden." These days, the subtext of most movies is that we're all working and shopping in this beautiful, multicultural America together. It's the suppression of racial conflict through easy images of pluralist capitalism.

So "Crash's" neo-realistic take on race--the slurs, the appropriation of hip-hop, the tensions that refer back to pre-Rodney King Los Angeles--can be received literally as the real deal.

Black and White and Everyone Else

SC: I thought "Crash" was so unrealistic. Matt Dillon's cop character Sgt. Ryan walks into that HMO office and says, "My father helped black people and you just have a job because of affirmative action and that's why I don't like you, you bitch. Now give me what I want." If people spoke like that it would be great, because then you would know exactly where people stood. But it's not like that, and that's what's so unrealistic. Most people don't even know how to talk about race like that.

JC: For Haggis, the "crash" is the metaphor that holds everything together. He seems to believe race is only discussed when we collide with each other, and friction starts. It's a very interesting concept that resonates post-riots, post 9/11. But there's very little character development in the movie, and even less insight into race.

SC: The entire notion that racism can be instigated by "crashes" and collisions is steeped in a certain perspective: if I don't crash into you, I'll never get to know you, because you don't live in my neighborhood, and I don't have any friends that are not of my race or class.

The whole idea that you don't have to think about race until you "crash" into it is not what most people have the luxury of doing. And that is what white privilege is. White privilege is not having to think about race. Which is why I think many people have the reaction they do of coming out of the movie and bawling, thinking they've learned something.

JC: Haggis seems to use his black characters, on the other hand, to elaborate his view of race. It's interesting that Don Cheadle's conflicted, melancholy Detective Graham Waters--who remains a mystery to the end, even to himself--is the one who is given the lines about crashing.

SC: Ludacris' character Anthony is the most ridiculous kind of black nationalist. He looks like a fool most of the time. Then it turns out he's a criminal, too. Radical thought has to be associated with petty criminality. It parallels how radical thought was criminalized in the American justice system during the Reagan era.

JC: During the 60s, Tom Wolfe portrayed black and Samoan activists in San Francisco and New York City as race hustlers and poverty pimps in "[Radical Chic and] Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers." Anthony is just an update of a kind of 60s white liberal take on radicals of color.

He is redeemed at the end of the movie, after taking a lesson from the Terence Howard's bourgeoisie, white-identifying black director Cameron, who sheds his Oreo aspirations by confronting the police harder than Anthony ever would. Anthony then goes on to free the Thai slave workers.

Haggis seems to be saying that the kind of nationalism and separatism Anthony is spouting is not the way forward. What's new in "Crash," if anything, is a recognition that assimilation into whiteness may not be the way to go either. But either way, non-whites need to get over their anger about racism, because they need whites.

SC: At the same time, I thought the white characters were the most realistic characters in the movie, and I probably wouldn't have had as many problems with this movie if it had been structured more like 1993's "Falling Down," where it was about whiteness under siege. If it was about white people being afraid, suspicious, angry, resentful, and confused by non-white people, then it would be very accurate. White people are afraid of non-white people, even if they can't vocalize or verbalize it.

JC: The characters that are not white or black are more thinly drawn. Shaun Toub's Iranian store owner Farhad -- whose doctor daughter Dorrie (Bahar Soomekh) sets up the only war reference when she is buying a gun from a racist white shopkeeper -- is simply another "bad Arab," if a powerless one. The Chicanos are the most redeemed, but they are magical-realist archetypes more than characters.

The two Asian characters Choi and Kim Lee are set up for a very cheap reversal. Asians are supposed to be the model minorities -- hard-working pursuers of the American Dream. Instead, this husband and wife are revealed to be human traffickers, bad drivers, and bottom-line materialists. (To show just how cheap the reversal is, the human trafficker gets paid with a personal check. What human trafficker gets paid with a personal check?) So the question is: what prejudice about Asians were we supposed to confront here? These are stereotypes on steroids.

The last image of an Asian person is of the newly freed Thai boy, looking like the classic "angel with a dirty face," only now he is staring into the store glowing with walls of DVDs. This is why they want to come to America, right? Because of the movies.

Crash of the Civilizations

SC: Many people have had an extremely visceral reaction to this film. Why does "Crash" move people so? Why has it received these glowing reviews? Why is it deemed so realistic, when it's not my reality, or the reality of anyone I know? It points out deep divides of how people approach issues of race.

Take David Denby who reviewed "Crash" in the New Yorker, and loved it. If you go back, he hated "Do the Right Thing," famously wrote that it was reactionary and terrible. But to me, a good movie about race would be one where white viewers walk out angry, confused, and frustrated, because for once, they would get a chance to look at the world from a non-white perspective. To make you feel what it's like to be angry, confused, and frustrated all the time is exactly what a movie about race should do, because that's what it feels like when you tell me that if I do this, this and this, I can get this. But, it's just not true .

JC: The main reversal of the movie is when Officer Ryan, who humiliates Cameron's light-skinned wife Christine (Thandie Newton), is forced to save her from a burning car. He learns that he can't blame his problems on blacks, or take it out on them. He needs them to save his father and himself.

SC: One of the central contradictions of the American narrative is between whiteness and diversity. Are we a white nation that has to claim Western culture as our own, or do we subscribe to a liberal narrative of diversity, where we are a melting pot, a nation of immigrants? The first option is Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" thesis, in which he asserts we must claim our white "western" heritage to maintain America's global power against threatening "Islamic" and "Sinic" (Chinese) culture. Huntington also says that Latinos pose the greatest threat to the nation from inside the nation's borders, because they pose a threat to "us" culturally. These theories guide much of U.S. foreign and domestic policy.

Now in "Crash," there is a desire to subvert the narrative of whiteness, to say, no we're not a white nation, we are a diverse nation. But it also shows us how diversity is so problematic. The story winds up the same old way -- telling us "we" can be diverse, but only if a certain racial hierarchy remains, where whiteness is always redeemed, and whiteness always will save you. African Americans have to be co-opted, to be included in the national "us" in order to consolidate the nation against these "threats" -- which are the Muslims, the Arabs, the Chinese, and the Latinos.

Race During Wartime

JC: In the 1980s, people were very hungry for images of people of color. That was what drove the radical multiculturalism movement and led to the success of artists like Spike Lee and Public Enemy. What we wanted at the time was to see a broad spectrum of representations of ourselves. But what's happened is that now movies for audiences of color financed by studios are largely comedies -- in fact, class aspirational comedies at that.

SC: Like "Barbershop."

JC: Or "Diary of A Mad Black Woman" or "Hitch." Nothing wrong with that, but it represents only a fraction of the kinds of representations people were hoping to see.

SC: No more "Boyz in the Hood."

JC: With a few exceptions -- "Rize," "Hustle & Flow," "Coach Carter" -- the street drama and the urban noir have migrated to cable TV and gangsta rap. Historical dramas are dead, except again for TV. The family drama is long gone -- "Lackawanna Blues" was on HBO. Don't hold your breath waiting for the next "To Sleep with Anger" to be greenlit. In that sense, a post-9/11 Hollywood race movie is an anomaly.

SC: Bringing it back to this post 9/11 moment, "Crash" is coming out during a time of war. Our nation is in "crisis," we have a "deeply divided nation," as the media keeps telling us. When "Grand Canyon," and one of the first white liberal Hollywood movies, "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," were released, the nation was at war. Times of crisis and war are when whites have the strongest desire for reconciliation with blacks, when blackness is most desired as part of a triumphant narrative of nation.

Don Cheadle's character is a type of black male protagonist who's very common these days: a proxy for the state, working against all the unruly elements of internal diversity and external threat. Think Denzel Washington in "The Siege," Will Smith in "Men In Black" and "Independence Day," Samuel L. Jackson in "Rules of Engagement," Morgan Freeman as the president in "Deep Impact." This is the type of narrative Hollywood needs to keep putting out there right now--the black man as the symbol for our nation, the guy who's going to provide order for not only the U.S., but for the world. And let's be real: this isn't happening in real life.

In the end, the film paints racism as a postmodern malaise where conflict happens because we don't touch each other except when we crash. That's bullshit. Racism is structural and institutional more than it is personal and sentimental.

JC: The pitch is go to see "Crash," then go home and ponder your prejudices. For some people it may do that. For a lot of people, though, it won't. It's the feel-good race hit movie of the summer.

Jeff Chang is the author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (St. Martins Press, February 2005), which today won a 2005 American Book Award !! AlterNet congratulates Jeff! Sylvia Chan is a Ph.D. candidate in Ethnic Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.