Race is a dirty word in America.
We refuse to talk about it.
When we do, it is rarely an open dialogue, and it is almost never honest.
Paul Haggis’ motion picture Crash is a character study that tries to deal with the issue of race in America. Critics praised the film for its “brutally honest” depiction of race issues in America (Williams). In response to this acclaim, journalism professor Robert Jensen and documentary producer Robert Wosnitzer wrote an essay, entitled “Crash,” claiming that the movie minimizes the systemic causes of racism in the country. According to Jensen and Wosnitzer, the film is “white supremacists because it minimizes the reality of white supremacy” (Jensen and Wosnitzer). While the film’s main focus is the effects of racism on a personal level, Crash frequently addresses the systemic nature of racism in this country. Crash is an allegorical tale that uses archetypes to personify the various groups and institutions that promote white privilege in America.
The first words out of detective Graham Waters indicate that the characters of the story do not inhabit a real city. His opening monologue has the air of parable. After an automobile accident, he says “we’re always behind this metal and glass.” Frequently, people carefully guard their speech and attitudes, especially when race is involved. The physical crash in Crash represents the filmmaker’s attempt to remove those “metal and glass” filters and have the characters speak in open, honest, and unfiltered dialogue.
Jensen and Wosnitzer contend that Crash fails because it “directs attention away from a white-supremacist system and undermines white accountability for the maintenance of that system“ (Jensen and Wosnitzer). Throughout the film, various white power symbols are represented by characters in authoritative positions. District attorney Rick Cabot represents the political system that caters to non-whites for votes and public image opportunities. Jean Cabot symbolizes rich white privilege, which views all non-whites as subservient and a threat to its way of life. Television producer Fred typifies the entertainment industry, which continues to promote racial stereotypes for material gain. Officer John Ryan represents not just law enforcement, but the racial attitudes are ingrained in the law enforcement culture. Officer Tom Hansen, who is generally decent, ultimately gives into racial profiling. While the laws of the country are intended to be for all, we have created rules that intentionally judge people based on race. When viewed as an allegorical story, the white characters say a lot about white authority in America.
Many of the black characters of the film represent those who, while affected by racism, refuse to challenge the system. Detective Waters has a career in law enforcement. When confronted with the inherent racism of the system, he gives into what is best for the white authoritarian structure. His mother accuses him of abandoning his brother and his mother. He has been too busy pursuing a career. Rather than continuing the fight for civil rights and equality for all, Waters has become a member of the white authority structure. Cameron Thayer, a television director, is essentially a black man in “whiteface.” The white powers that be have continued to put a carrot in front of him, fame, and he has consistently given into their demands. When an officer sexually assaults his wife, he refuses to do anything about it because a report in the paper would upset his white employers. Lt. Dixon is a black police officer who readily acknowledges racism in the LAPD, yet he doesn’t want his position to be threatened. He has worked too hard to get where he is in the police department. Anthony, who touts various white supremacy conspiracy theories throughout the film, considers himself sort of a black Robin Hood. Since he only steals from white people, he feels he is fighting the system. He starts to realize that he is part of the problem as he sits on a bus. He may talk a lot, but he really isn’t any different than the minorities on the bus. When he steals a van full of Thai people who are being trafficked as slave, he realizes that he is becoming the very thing he has been criticizing throughout the film, an oppressor. Even Dorri, a second generation Iranian-American, has become more American, and therefore white, in order to be a successful doctor. The system of white supremacy, as discussed by Jensen and Wosnitzer, is clearly demonstrated in Crash. The message in Crash is clear, if a black person wants to be successful, they need to obey privileged white people.
Peter Waters spends most of the film as a sidekick for Anthony. However, he represents those who simply do not buy into the system. He and Anthony have very different views of what it means to be a black American. He constantly defies any stereotypes associated with black Americans. He likes country music, hockey, and is interested in Catholic theology, all symbols associated with white culture. Ultimately, he is killed for having an open attitude. The message sent by Crash is that the system will not tolerate the tolerant.
Guns play strongly in the film and represent power. Frequently, when a gun passes from person to person in the film, it represents the passing of power. When a white gun shop owner begrudgingly sells a handgun to an Iranian man, he sells the Iranian man blanks. Frequently, white politicians talk about the United States being a land of opportunity and equality for all. However, the system does not always deal fairly with everyone. Ultimately, just like blanks in a gun, the assertion of constitutional rights by immigrants is rendered impotent by policies like the Patriot Act and racial profiling. Anthony and Peter discuss their fear of being in white neighborhoods. Their fears are relaxed because they carry guns. When Anthony attempts to car jack Cameron’s automobile, they struggle with a gun. Cameron, who has been complacent and unwilling to assert his rights throughout the film is suddenly emboldened when he confronts the police. During the entire altercation, he has a gun in the back of his pants. When Cameron leaves Anthony on a street corner, he gives Anthony back his gun. He gives the power back to Anthony, who must now take responsibility for his future actions. Constitutional rights protect Americans and empower them, regardless of race. White authority views such power as a threat when put in what it considers the wrong hands.
Crash, the film, ends where it begins, with an auto accident. The final message of the movie is that, even if some of the characters changed their attitudes during that day, there will be others to take their place the next day. There will be another John Ryan to harass innocent citizens. There will be another black director so hungry for fame that he will do whatever he is asked by his producers. There will be another young black man stealing cars from white people. The film simply says that everyone is a racist and there’s nothing that can be done to improve the situation. “Crash,” the essay, contends that white America needs to be “forced” to accept the issue of white privilege in America (Jensen and Wosnitzer). Neither offer any practical solutions for the race issue in this country. The United States has made progress, but it has been slow. Laws have been passed to protect the rights of everyone in the country. However, well meaning laws cannot actually change racial attitudes in this country. Forcing opinions on others is a poor solution. People need to be given information and a variety of opinions on this vital issue. There needs to be an open dialogue where everyone, no matter their race, gender, or belief, has the opportunity to share in the discussion. If we can accomplish this, perhaps this country will be able to one day embrace its pluralism and grow stronger as a nation. Perhaps then, race will no longer be considered a dirty word.
© Paul Anthony George and The Reno Signal, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Paul Anthony George and The Reno Signal with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Originally written in 2009 for a class assignment.
Crash. Dir. Paul Haggis. Perf. Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle and Matt Dillon. Lionsgate, 2005.
Jensen, Robert and Wosnitzer, Robert. “Crash.” ZNet Daily Commentaries 21 Mar 2006. 18 June 2009 <http://www.zmag.org>.
Williams, Kam. “Movie Review: Crash.” Black News 2005. 24 June 2009 <http://www.blacknews.com>.