Crash (2004) is an American movie produced by Paul Haggis with quite a famous cast, including Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Ludacris, Brendan Fraser, Thandie Newton, etc. Set in Los Angeles, the movie tries to portray the complex interrelationships between power and its intersectionality––race, gender and class. Having watched the movie in 2017, I have a lot of criticism, one of which is how it oversimplifies racial and immigration issues in the United States. Instead of straightforwardly denouncing racism and separating the victims from offenders, it chooses to follow a typical “white savior” concept and blurs the lines between overt racism and “slipped-up” prejudice; in other words: racists are not bad people, and for that reason they are easily forgiven and the burden again falls onto the shoulders of the oppressed.
Following the outdated and very Hollywood formula is quite an idealized, cheesy message of solidarity: we can overcome differences with love. We all know how the struggle for justice and freedom doesn’t work that way. Nevertheless, regarding the current political and social context of post-Charlottesville and Trump’s America, I will highlight and analyze some themes stemming from the movie as a relevant discussion topic for media consumers and creators.
“Crash”: Politics and Bodies
According to Larrain, “…there is little doubt that there is one political institution, the state, which has enormous weight in calculating national identity discourse” (p.36). The construction of identity, not only national but individual and grupal, revolves around and is directly affected by political discourse and power relations: how power is distributed, perceived and practiced among social groups based on class, race, gender, etc. In the movie “Crash” (2004), the police is portrayed as a tool of state who abuse power and perform racial profiling acts. One of the most unsettling scenes is when the white police officer Ryan stopped the car of the black couple Cameron and Christine and charged them for misconduct while driving. Ryan, formerly having a dispute over the phone with his father’s doctor, a black woman named Shaniqua, carried his racial biases and rage towards the black woman onto Cameron and his wife. Ryan not only unreasonably charged them for a private matter but also performed a degrading hand search on Christine’s body after she revolted against him to protect her husband.
As an agent of the state and the law, Ryan abused his power through racial profiling and harassment. However, this result of violence and hate stems from Ryan’s impotence because he could not make a doctor appointment for his sick dad even though he has state power. The power dynamics here is complexly intertwined with race and gender: Ryan is white and therefore he deems himself superior to the black doctor; nevertheless, reality betrays him because as the doctor, Shaniqua can decide whether or not to help Ryan’s dad. Ryan was angry because he became the powerless as a white man, and the only way for him to redeem his power is to abuse other powerless, in this case, another black woman, Christine.
By practicing his power through a vengeance scheme, Ryan drew boundaries between himself, the white supreme, and the black citizens who in his mind “refused to help him.” The marginalized in this case are Cameron and Christine, who initially did not even take seriously the pulling-over situation; the different ways they reacted to Ryan’s violent act convey a multifaceted idea of identity and power dynamics. Cameron and Christine have economic and social power: Cameron is a famous Hollywood director; the couple owns a black Navigator and a beautiful house; their appearance and properties demonstrate that they are the elite. However, class is conflictive with race as Cameron constantly tries to protect his socio-economic status by concealing his racial identity. His racial insecurity also includes the pride of a black man, which was expressed through his act of obedience towards Ryan to protect himself and his wife. Christine was deeply upset by the oppressor’s abuse, but more so by her husband’s silence while she was violated for standing up for him. As a black woman, her power status is inferior to Cameron; she was also the one to apologize to Cameron first. The gender politics plays an important factor in analyzing the characters’ reactions in this scene.
In Pedagogy of the oppressed, Paolo Freire stated: “The oppressor truly helps the oppressed only when he stops viewing them as an abstract category and sees them as unique persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived, and cheated. This requires an end to pious, individualistic gestures and risking an act of love.” This transformation can be observed through Cameron and Ryan. Later on, Ryan’s moral codes and biases were challenged when he decided to save Christine from a car accident. Seeing her being in a vulnerable situation yet still resisting him, he redeemed his humanity and decided to by all means save her life. Even though disappointingly, this scene still follows the white savior formula in Hollywood movie, it highlights a resolution to conflict: dialogue. Freire said: “To substitute monologue, slogans, and communiqués for dialogue is to attempt to liberate the oppressed with the instruments of domestication” (p.52). Dialogue fosters a sense of understanding and empathy, and thus switches focus from drawing differences to support. After hearing Ryan repeat: “I promise I won’t hurt you” and seeing him treat her like a human being, Christine started seeing his humanity as well. However, it is important to note that this does not mean that she forgave him, and the fact that Ryan followed his morality cannot justify for his racial biases and xenophobia.
In the case of Cameron, he was both the oppressed and the oppressor, since his internationalized racism prevented him from standing up for himself in front of white power. He started recognizing his identity through the love and criticism of his wife Christine. The transformation happened when he almost killed himself revolting against the white policemen. However, the pardoning action of the white policeman Hansen, Ryan’s old partner, reversed Cameron’s resolution of violence. In turn, Cameron helped recuperate the black robber Anthony’s conscience as well as stopped him from perpetuating the stereotyped and discriminated against image of the black identity. Even though these transformations might not immediately balance out the unequal power dynamics between the powerful and minority groups, they make individuals see each other more as humans and be more critical of injustices around them.
“Crash”: Society & Bodies
According to the concept of social identity, a sense of who an individual is based on their group membership and a sense of belonging to the social world. This idea of identity is interconnected with citizenship since an individual cannot feel included entirely in a social group without having proper rights as a citizen. The deprivation of rights and social hostility can accentuate the sense of otherness of an individual and slow down his process of assimilation. This is often observed through the case of immigrants. In the movie “Crash,” the Persian store owner Farhad struggled to settle his life and assimilate into the host country. Even though having his own business helps Farhad become more economically independent in the U.S., his family’s settlement is threatened by the hostility and discrimination from the community. When the store was raged by intruders who called the Persians “Arabs,” the insurance company refused to compensate because of his negligence. Farhad was deeply upset: “This store is everything we have.” “For new immigrant workers the process of ‘becoming white’ and ‘becoming American’ were connected at every turn” (Rothenberg, 36). Even though Farhad became a U.S. citizen and does speak English, people failed to recognize him as one. His citizenship does not equal rights and thus he continues to be discriminated against as the other. His immigration status made him inferior to the law and its agents, and thus he needed to create justice on his own by revenging the locksmith Daniel.
In the scene where Farhad came to Daniel’s house and threatened him with a gun, Farhad’s was filled with anger and a sense of powerless; he did not know how to save his store besides asking for the compensation from Daniel, who he considered the one responsible for his loss. Daniel, a Hispanic locksmith, is also a marginalized victim of the system and inferior to Farhad in terms of economic status. However, Farhad failed to see that because he put his concern and misfortune at the center of attention. When talking about the oppressed and the oppressor, Freire explained that for the oppressed, “Their ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors. This is their model of humanity. They are still identified with their oppressors’ values” (p.30). This explains why Farhad was unable to see Daniel’s vulnerability and his status as an in-group. When being stripped off his property and dignity, Farhad decided to solve the problem with violence, “an eye for an eye.” However, he could not foresee that Daniel’s daughter ran out to save him and became the victim of his shooting. The fact that the little girl was magically unharmed changed Farhad. Later when talking to his daughter, he referred to her as “an angel who was sent to save us.” The incident awakened his conscience and morality as well as transformed him to nonviolent. The act of resigning his gun, a tool of defense, conveys his new commitment to nonviolence and co-existing way of life.
The shooting incident between Farhad and Daniel creates a rupture not only in behavior but also in consciousness. Sitrin said in “Ruptures in Imagination” that “rupture is therefore not only a break in the sense of time and place, but a shift in people’s imaginations from which new social relationships emerge that can be autonomous from forms of institutional power” (p.49). Co-existence and nonviolence propose a community-based practice of power, which is the alternative future for all characters who gave up violence in the movie. The oppressed who are abused and not protected by the state do not have to rely on power released to them from high above or stolen from one another, but rather build their own together as a community. As Freire said, the only way for the oppressed to earn liberation is by throwing out their internal oppressors and choosing solidarity over alienation (p.33).
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, an Imprint of Bloomsbury, 2000. Print.
Larrain, Jorge. Identity and Modernity in Latin America. Cambridge: Polity, 2013. Print.
Rothenberg, Paula S. White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism. New York, NY: Worth, 2012. Print.
Sitrin, Marina. Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina. London: Zed, 2012. Print.