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Crash and Identity

Updated on May 7, 2012

The 2005 movie Crash was produced on a limited budget and was not projected to be the blockbuster award winning film of the year. Themes of identity are rife in the film, as is the blatant hypocrisy of what it means to be human. The racial and ethnic tensions brought to light in this film are worthy of more than just a passing glimpse. This movie is a sociological and psychological study of the human mind when stuck in a limited view of others and visually addresses how people treat each other as they would not want to be treated. Themes of the acceptance of others despite diverse differences and alternative viewpoints as also addressed. “Crash” has been likened to a cinematic bomb that “depicts the themes of fluidity and identity through the anxieties, fears, and frustrations of people” haunted by everyday living (Nunley, 337). This film, although criticized for not addressing the issues fairly by some critics, embodies a whole wealth of identities discussed in our coursework over the semester.

Benshoff and Griffin’s book: America on Film, chronicles the stereotypes inherent in Hollywood films and many of the stereotypical depictions are clearly elucidated in this movie. The characters in “Crash” can be identified throughout this book in nearly every chapter, from racial hatred, to the treatment of women, and how stereotypes are used in cinema. Benshoff and Griffin’s book examines the film in Case Study 9 identifies several characters in the film depicted as either saviors or saints. While there might be an interpretation that would support the claim of the authors, there is so much more to this movie than what is characterized by these gentlemen in the textbook.

What makes this movie so worthy of study? Crash represents present day America and its citizenry and the ever present underlying racial strife we all face. American of differing descent, differing class, colors and religions are all depicted in this film. And if this were not enough for us to wrap our minds around, we are also faced with those who are racist, but do not know it, or do not accept it, or others who play the race card and become intentionally what they say they are not. “Crash tapped into a social reservoir that recognizes how race and ethnicity continue to scaffold and structure space, politics, passions and life responsibilities” (Nunley, 337).

In this analysis, there are also others who we do not necessarily stereotype, but who we can identify as being like someone we know. For instance, Don Cheadle’s mother is so metaphorically blind, that she does not see her son brings her groceries and cares for her, while she is praising her younger son for being such a saint. The young man is off jacking cars and doing other illegal things, while Don is an upstanding member of the police department. Irony is evident in the entire scene, which is but one of many with this type of scenario. Crash works as a film because it succeeds in evoking tolerance through multiple storylines, shot selection and visual motifs, such as the use of snow and stop signs as metaphoric visual imagery. It also works because it deals with prejudice and race in a global sense, not just choosing one ethnicity or social group as its target.

Paul Haggis directs this film in socially realistic style. This means that the “film conveys a commonsense understanding of everyday reality as most people experience it” (Nichols 177). Conveying the truth in this movie also means conveying the sense of hypocrisy we all suffer with and how most of the time we will not change it. Among the tenets of social realism are the organization of time and place, which is done effectively in this movie, as well as the recognizable personalities and actions that make it appear real to us, despite our feelings about those realities. We see the sort of people found in this movie every day, in our bosses, neighbors, news show clips and public offices. We judge them from an exterior view as well, and are reluctant to look any deeper because to look, we might see a part of ourselves that we do not like. Nichols reminds us that this is more like an “imaginary” community in that it is uneasy and incompatible many times, in its amalgam of class, race, religious affiliation and cultural grouping (184).

The movie devalues the human condition in every way and makes it evident that we care nothing for the “other” in this cruel world, only ourselves. We take pleasure in mocking others, as in the scene when Shaniqua is on the phone with Matt Dillion’s sexist and racist cop. He has already molested Thandie Newton while he stops her husband at a traffic stop, and he also rids himself of his partner by making him uncomfortable in being his partner and then is made a mockery of by his Sergeant who deems him to have trouble with excess “gas”. In this film, no one is immune from being stereotyped and criticized, no one.

Despite the realism, there is a narrative structure that is deliberately artificial in that many of the characters meet each other more than once in the film, which is unlikely in such a sprawling metropolitan area such as Los Angeles. Because of this, we seem to see two sides to some of the characters, and the psychological complexity of such a feature makes us question our own hypocrisy. As mentioned, the racist policeman appears to be a rather nasty man who works hard to embarrass the husband of a lovely black woman by molesting her in front of him at a traffic stop. Later, he comes to her rescue a hero when he saves her from under a burning car. One is not sure just which man he truly is, or is he like the rest of us, so complex that we are often hypocritical depending on the time of the day?

How does the dominant community fare in this piece of realist cinema? While offering the viewer a glimpse into the significant questions it brings into the film, it shows how lives unravel from split decisions made with no foresight or understanding of the issues at hand. This film shows the dis—ease of man lies not in his or her bodies, but in his or her minds. There is a cancer that grows when hatred is the key component in life and this movie drives that home vividly through parallel editing. The convergence of storylines adds to the drama this film conveys and offers not only one, but a dozen competing hypocritical storylines, which clearly shows that the world is full of people who live their lives by this mandate. We see more evidence of divided loyalties and vested interests that lead to conflicted actions and proof of degraded upbringings as well. One may think our racist cop grew cynical on the police beat until we meet his father who is a bigot who gave way to another bigot. The son is not really even aware of his horrific personality until he ends up saving a woman he molested earlier. She is so traumatized from the previous molestation, she seems to want to die rather than have him touch her in any way ever again.

Another character in the film is a Latino man who moves his family out of a dangerous community in Los Angeles so they can live in safety. This man is a locksmith who sports several tattoos and appears to be a kind of gang-banger sort of person. At least that is what white District Attorney’s wife Sandra Bullock thinks by looking at him. She pays these types of people to work for her, but one can sense she does not trust any of them, until at one point her maid find her with a twisted ankle and helps her up from the floor. The Hispanic man is almost not so lucky. If the Persian shop-owners daughter did not load the gun he is carrying with blanks, both he and his little daughter would be lying dead on the sidewalk.

Characterizations and stereotypes

Characters and stereotypes show us all that: “You think you know who you are. You have no idea.” (Crash). The truth is we all do not have any idea of how we are perceived by others most of the time, or influenced by others with whom we interact. With the cornucopia of characters and situations presented in this film, we are also asked to view our identities and the possible flaws in our own character. Watching this film for the first time stirred feelings of discomfort and annoyance, viewing it multiple times makes us realize we sometimes are those very people, reacting instead of being proactive, losing our tempers when we should be kind and understanding. The following are characterizations in the film that allow us to utilize the information we have discussed in our coursework over these past four months.

Ethnic Identities

Whites: Whiteness in America is depicted in this film right from the start. The first scene we see the white district attorney and his wife walking to their car while noticing two young black men walking nearby. The first thing the wife does is tell her husband and they step up quicker. The irony is the black men are laughing about their stereotype and realize the white people are uncomfortable. Within minutes they carjack the white people, thereby bringing to life the stereotype depicted on the screen. Hypocrisy? You bet, only irony is the real, and from that point on, we are not quite sure what is going to happen next. Every white man in the movie appears to be an official, a bigot, or a hero. We may have to cut through the veneer of their roles, but whiteness wins, especially in the savior rescue scene.

Blacks and Latinos: Blacks are diversified in this film, some are upscale, while others are low class and working class characters. There does not seem to be a definitive pigeonholing to their characters, although each are compilations of type. Cheadle’s family is all of them rolled into one. This happens in families when one brother makes good and the other doesn’t, but the mother loves the shady one as he is her “boy”. The social worker Shaniqua is obviously tired of the same old nasty treatment by others in her office. She is hardened and stands her ground, a tough broad, for awhile. Cheadle sleeps with a Latina woman whom he tells his mother is “white”. She is not too happy with being characterized that way in the film. Other Latinos are the locksmith and his family, a cute little girl who believes in an invisible cape and her father’s love. Benhoff and Griffin note that many “Latinos have been treated as radicalized stereotypes while others… seems to assimilate into whiteness”(145). It is clear the Latinos in the film assimilate, but not into the whiteness of which Benshoff and Griffin write, more as tolerated in a world full of different ethnicities. The black characters do not appear to be exploited as they have been in past films, but the characters are shown to be less than sterling members of the community, with the exception of Don Cheadle’s character.

Asians: Asians are portrayed as being greedy and/or good ways to make money for being let in the country illegally. The two black men hit the “Chinaman” a slur on the Asian they run over and almost leave for dead. We feel bad for him until we learn he is housing illegal aliens in the back of his dirty truck and is only in it for the money. Some reviews of this movie bring to light the idea that everyone in the film is somehow redeemed except the Koreans. One reviewer on a multicultural identity site was incensed by the way “the Korean characters are stereotyped and unredeemed at the end. They are not portrayed with any complexity at all. Every other character come full circle, gaining some measure of redemption, except for the Asian couple.” Since popular culture and its depictions matter to all of us, it seems clear that those invested in the identities depicted in films, and makes us confront the power of the visual medium of film by its use of rhetorical design and social message. As the film plays a part in the associations we make with different cultural groups, the way the Koreans are depicted stirs up the representations Asians have had to endure throughout the history of film, particularly for the Asian viewers. “Crash is not only entertainment; it is a part of a larger cultural discourse that tells our stories, augments our conceptions of identities, and reifies stereotypes” (Moshin and Jackson 219). It is clear the Asian diaspora is still spreading its “seeds” in the United States and people are quick to judge all Asians as either Chinese or Japanese.

Middle Easterners: A Persian man makes a mockery out of others to take him to be an Arab and is incensed that people keep breaking into his shop. His daughter negotiates a gun for him to use and some bullets that turn out to be blanks. These people are angry and are the victims of anger due to their treatment after 9/11 and the lumping of their ethnic background with other Middle Eastern countries. The concept of “othering” is evident in this characterization. “Othering refers to the way a dominant culture ascribes an undesirable trait (one shared by all humans) onto one specific group of people” (Benshoff and Griffin 54). Because of the acts of terrorism many citizens of Arabic descent are described and considered to be “terrorists” as well as odd in society. This othering is evident in the depiction of the Persian family in the film.

Women: Women seem to be the adjuncts in a man’s world. Either they are dismissed, treated as property, or ignored as the DA’s wife would assert. Although we do not see much of Sandra Bullock’s character in the film, we know her to be an upper class snob, who is not too comfortable with being surrounded by lower class people. The Persian shop-owner’s wife is not a very important part of the movie, nor is his daughter, who is only available it would seem, to translate and not very well I might add. All the women appear to be dominated by the men in their lives eve4n though they believe they are strong individuals. The Puerto Rican Cop is the most interesting to note, as she is a figure of authority and her response to being called a “Mexican” or “White” by her black colleague shows that the men believe they can get away with the kind of treatment women were known to defend in the 1970’s.

Sandra Bullock’s treatment of her maid was a hard scene to watch as it epitomized the class differences and the way those who are wealthy treat those who are poor. Her epiphany comes when she falls and hurts herself and the only person willing to assist her is this maid who she deems is her “only friend”. One would like to think that these ladies now share tea and cucumber sandwiches once a week, but the movie does not really go beyond the initial awakening, so we are not sure if the compliment and treatment was more than lip service, especially since Bullock’s character was not a very kind and compassionate one in the beginning. Do people really change? We never find out.

Men: We have an interesting compilation of men from all races who attempt to persuade us of their compassion in a very limited way. The Latino locksmith is the most likeable of all of the men as he loves his daughter very much and appears to take his job as a father seriously. To look at him with all his tattoos, one might think, as the DA’s wife did, that he was a gang member, but he is a true man with a heart. Trying to explain to the Persian man that the lock he is fixing needs more than he can repair, we see an honest businessman who works hard and does not appear to scam his customer. We know the DA’s wife is not sold on him, and once again, as we saw at the beginning of the film, he is not identifiable with the stereotype employed by many Latino characters in film. The Persian is characterized as an angry man with a vendetta that he takes seriously, and we see in the slow motion shooting scene another side to this man, who had used anger inappropriately. Ryan Phillipe’s character, the non-racist cop suffers at the hands of his black supervisor who fears to use his new found authority to break anyone. His actions in making his subordinate claim he wants to ride alone due to a flatulence problem shows the inability of management due to stereotyping as well. The Asian man’s actions with the refugees makes us take the focus off the nasty way the two black men treated him and made him into a villain who is never redeemed in the movie. Many would say the Asian is left holding the bad as the bad guy again. The other man who is a product of his upbringing appears to be the father of Matt Damon. This man reminds me of the character in the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman”. The father is an old man whose days have passed him by and he is not able to do the things that give him pleasure. So, he relies on his son to be the object of his attention, but in the very worst kind of way. This attention merely makes the son angrier and his demeanor impacts others, as mentioned in the beginning of the paper.

Children: The only significant child in the movie is the locksmith’s daughter. She is the “innocent” in the movie, the one in which we hold the most hope out for to become the new generation of American. Because her daddy tells her about the invisible cloak that protects her when she is frightened, we see the archetypal end of innocence that follows indoctrination into the myth. Her ebullience and insistence on her daddy wearing the cloak makes her run to his side to protect him, as he protected her. She is not aware that danger lurks right in her front yard and we are not expecting her to be alive after the firing of the gun. We wonder how it is possible that innocence is not lost this time, just wounded by fear and our hope for the future is kept intact.

Clearly, Crash is a movie that others need to watch and discuss. The themes of identity, hypocrisy and stereotyping inherent in America are as prevalent today as they were in the 1950’s. We like to think these ugly things have been eradicated from our world, but the truth is that we probably will always have these issues which will be depicted in our films, even though we all agree that the ugliness of the depictions are unconscionable. Hollywood films need to begin to turn the corner on these stereotypes and work unflinchingly to change the perceptions and portrayals in cinema, much like the independent films made by filmmakers with vision and courage. If we can change the focus of American films from entertainment only to more ideological films we might turn the corner on the biases inherent in the industry. Film is meant to be entertainment, but this industry continues to focus on cultural messages that do not serve to create “true art” and holds its place more in the lower art of our culture (Benshoff and Griffin 13).

The statement that “stereotypes in film create erroneous perceptions about individuals” (7) while true in most cases, has been challenged by such films as Crash and others like it that look deeply into the class conflicts we face today in America. We can only hope those with this kind of vision create these types of film for the next generation of film viewers, as we are continually adding more and ethnicities, races and types to our melting pot here in America.

Works Cited

Benshoff, Harry A. Sean Griffin. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality in the Movies. Blackwell Publishing, United Kingdom: 2009.

Crash. Film Director: Paul Haggis. Bob Yari Productions: 2005. USA. Starring: Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, et al.

Moshin, Jamie and Ronald Jackson II. “Inscribing Racial Bodies and Relieving Responsibility” Critical Rhetorics of Race. NY University Press, NY: 2011.

Nichols, Bill. Engaging Cinema. W.W. Norton Publishers, NY: 2010.

Nunley, Vorris L. College English. Vol 69, #4, March 2007. Accessed online via JSTOR. Date of access: 4-12-2012 pp.335-346.


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