Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Racial Stereotyping As Seen in Crash

Written by johnleemk on 5:20:11 pm Apr 18, 2007.
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Continuing my trend of reviewing only 2004 movies, I watched Crash a night ago. This movie is unique in that it was officially released in 2004, released on a large scale in 2005, and entered into awards shows in 2006, meaning that it was named the best movie of 2005 by Roger Ebert and won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2006.

Before discussing the movie, there may be slight spoilers ahead. Those who do not want any foreknowledge of what goes on in the movie, and would prefer to see it before reading this review, may want to stop now. No major plot twists will be revealed, but some developments in the plot will be mentioned.

In 2004, Malaysia had Sepet, a landmark and bold movie on race relations. America's Sepet was Crash, a movie set in Los Angeles on the theme of racial stereotyping and paradoxes in society.

The movie's main relevance is of course to the United States. Portions of the film may discuss themes that are not necessarily true outside that country; indeed, some of the film's fiercest criticisms have been that it doesn't even accurately portray race relations in America itself.

However, although the incidents in the movie are not literally true — I don't think a single African-American carjacker in the world is capable of launching into an intellectual dialogue about why his race is being kept down — the spirit behind them is generally relevant to all of mankind.

The movie, for example, addresses ethnic stereotyping, which I think any culture has trouble dealing with. How far are these stereotypes true, and should they be relied on? This seemingly simple question does not have any clear answer; if you think otherwise, Crash is definitely a movie you ought to watch.

But, of course, this is not the movie's only theme. Affirmative action is not very subtly attacked when one character hisses that an African-American woman took a job that half-a-dozen more qualified white people could have filled. Yet, later in the movie, we are also not so subtly told by another character, pondering a spinjob, whether it is better for a rogue black policeman to go down as another "coked-up" druggie, or as a positive role model for the black community that already has too many drug addict role models.

The movie, of course, is not subtle in its criticism. This is one frequent complaint raised by many reviewers, but I personally find it holds little water. How more subtle could the filmmakers have been when touching on such a sensitive issue? And at the very least, I did not feel that I had been hit over the head with a sledgehammer bearing the message that "racism is bad" or "all you need is love" — I know that I was after conscious reflection, but I did not feel that I was in my gut.

What Crash makes up for in its lack of subtlety is in its abundance of nuances. Some people have criticised the movie as downplaying the still existent problems of white racism, but it's difficult to see how this is so when not a single white character can be described as a hero (or villain). The white characters with the least negative traits are depicted as opportunists, taking advantage of society's revulsion against apparent prejudice.

Indeed, the movie is exceedingly ambiguous about its characters, refraining from painting any single one as a hero or villain. All of them grapple with very difficult moral choices, and often you feel that there is no right choice for them.

The film's twists, and its ending, have been criticised for being contrived. To a certain extent, this is true, but all stories are contrived. The only question is whether the portrayal successfully masks this contrived nature, and I think Crash has succeeded in doing so.

Through immersion in the scene, and in its emotions, the audience often misses the contrivance. (Although I think there is one exception, which I will not mention since it could be construed as an important twist.)

In 2006, many people were upset when Brokeback Mountain, the odds-on favourite to win the Oscar for Best Picture, lost to Crash. I have not seen Brokeback, so I can't comment on it, but I have to say I would find it very difficult to top.

The acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert predicted that Crash would win, naming it the best movie of 2005, because he felt it was truly powerful in its depiction of the human problem with racism, and how skin colours our perceptions of each other. I have to agree with him (with the added caveat, again, that I cannot compare it with Brokeback Mountain).

Crash successfully confronts our problem with racial stereotypes and racism, and the need to counter them. How far should we go? Is it worth taking a moral and principled stand, at the cost of one's career and reputation, which in turn may actually harm your ethnic community because you have been serving as a role model for it? Simply to see these questions so powerfully posed is enough to merit 10 stars out of 10 for Crash in my book.


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