Now that Crash won, and We lost

Please click here for an abridged version of this article, published by New American Media.

(This was written long before Crash won the Oscars. I am so happy I was right. It was important for Crash to win, because the system looked from the privileged views needed to prevail over the experiences of the unheard immigrants, because thats the only way the system needs to justify its (in)justice…And for the rest of us, we all know what’s Oscars all about! )

“We made a choice to deal directly with race. We just kept digging at the truth and just did not care what it sounded like. We knew it was ugly. But if it’s truthful, if it’s real, if it’s right, if it serves the story we could do it. We just didn’t allow ourselves to be put off by its ugliness. Race is nothing if it’s not ugly, and no one is going to pay any attention to the storytelling if we try to get round that.”

–Bobby Moresco, Writer, “Crash” (In an interview from the DVD).

Crash is indeed ugly, feel some members of the immigrant families and I agree. Over last few months, I have been talking to people who watched the bootlegged versions before the DVD was out, to the administrators who are promoting diversity at workplace, to students who are assigned to write a paper after the campus screenings get done. Unequivocally, no movie in recent history has affected people like this one. Wondering if it was for better or worse, I juxtaposed my own perspectives to the narrative below.

The first clue came from a South Asian friend, and software engineer based in Virginia: “I think it tells us that we are all capable of our prejudices. But should we all profess them? Should we just laugh at bigotry and then forget conveniently?”

A good point for an unforgettable movie. If mainstream cinema educate and entertain at the same time, what did Crash have to say? What did it teach the immigrants about their shared histories of conflicts, and their unique backgrounds of confrontations? About their levels of assimilation, acculturation and adaptations? Regarding the identity crisis in a pluralistic society?

A scholar from the Middle East was apparently infuriated after screening of the movie was done at University of Maryland last week. “This movie misleads. There was considerable shock at the way Iranians were mistaken for Arabs. Why should the anti-Arab sentiments be flared up without any defense?”

Not only the affirmations of identities have become quintessential for the movie, but they have been achieved through replays of pigeonholes. There is a psychological numbing of the rebellious, and an uncanny triumph of the conformists. For example, Anthony is the rebel, the only potential revolutionary in the movie. He epitomizes the angry black youths, who are disenchanted by the existing system. The director even gets him to name the top Black Panthers to justify his sentiments. He talks issues around white supremacy. He talks about black stereotypes. Quite right.

But when it comes to life, what does he do throughout the movie? He steals cars. He abandons a “Chinaman” after running a stolen car over him. Quite paradoxical till this point in the movie, considering that he had been shown having a concern over how the poor are relegated to large windows of public buses for humiliation sake.

And then this same character who talks about Bobby Seale, Huey Newton and Fred Hampton becomes the fallen guy of Crash. A successful black television producer who makes every attempt to fit well within the system says Anthony that he “embarrasses” his own self. Not only has he been portrayed in a stereotyped manner to represent the young rebel who mends his ways for the better even while he talks about the Panthers, he focuses on all things abjectly wrong.

The moral of the story for Anthony is that it’s better to fit well within the framework than to protest. Not out of any defeat, but from realization that he had been plain wrong. To prove that point, the director has Anthony displaying his mended ways by freeing the Thai/Cambodian people and by enjoying a bus ride in the end.

First, Paul Haggis gets away with a gross portrayal of the ideals that Black Panthers stood for. He gets Anthony to cite the black radicals of the 70’s to justify his earlier vents. But omits the actual argument. The Panthers were not fighting to reclaim respect in a racist society. They were demanding a just society based first on economic emancipation. As Fred Hampton, one of Anthony’s heroes in this movie, said in 1968: “We never negated the fact that there was racism in America, but we said that the by-product, what comes off of capitalism, that happens to be racism. That capitalism comes first and next is racism. That when they brought slaves over here, it was to make money. So first the idea came that we want to make money, and then the slaves came in order to make that money. That means, through historical fact, racism had to come from capitalism. It had to be capitalism first and racism was a byproduct of that.”

The film gave away an impression that the Panthers must have been wrong somehow even without exploring the theme of capitalism. Nowhere in the movie, is any of the anger ever directed at capitalism. The intersection between socio-economic class and race has simply not been explored. Crash implied we just need more Anthonies, who will behave well and mend their ways and liberate the new tortured immigrants by offering them soups (and not fight the power that enslaved them in the first place).

Events are crucial to a process. So the crimes in the movie (consequently, the stolen car and damaged store) are important. But the understanding of process is even more necessary to contextualize the events. And the film leaves the audience guessing on the process (the root causes of racial tensions, the factors leading to everyday crime). We know that the store of the Persian business family gets ransacked. What we don’t know is why were they being perceived as Arabs. And why was it so wrong to be Arabs in America? Who sows the seeds of hatred and promotes the system. What was the law and order system doing to protect the small businessman’s store? If the district attorney addresses the press over his stolen car, why does the Iranian man not go challenge the police for negligence of security? Why instead he has to go shoot at a working class man? And then feel pacified at his failure to find an answer to the motives behind the crime that affected his entire lot.

The damaged store was portrayed as an act by minority groups who are infuriated by Arabs, not as a negligence of the security forces, nor as an act of terrorism by the power structure that fuels such suspicions. This is a deliberate underestimation of working class intelligence. Immigrants in the US do raise voices against the system every now and then. We just don’t get the message, because comfortable filmmakers continue projecting them as vulnerable, docile subjects incapable of raising class-consciousness.

Several attempts at making the movie comical has made it all the more pathetic. There is no macabre humor. There is just stereotypical mockery. Anthony argues that black waitresses don’t attend to black folks in restaurant much, because they assume there won’t be tips. His friend Peter then asks him “How much did you leave?” Anthony: “You expect me to pay for that service?” Peter roars into laughter along with the audience. Sure, now we are convinced.

Likewise, to push the issue of individual perceptions further, there are two white cops. Between them, one is a proclaimed racist (Officer Ryan, who has apparently spent 11 of his 17 years under a black officer). But he turns out to be the life-savior of the grateful black woman he once molested. And the cop who is aghast at his racism actually is the one to pull his trigger at an innocent black man out of suspicion. So what do we get in the end? Two human beings with “normal” prejudices. And both are “good cops”, by incidence or intent. It’s not the system of law and order that’s purposely biased against the minorities– the movie says– it’s just the individuals with different nuances, like any other.

Crash deals with issues, but addresses them through individuals alienated from the larger gamut of systematic circumstances. It deals with serious stereotypes, but normalizes them by ignoring the causes of disparities. In an attempt to portray the “real thing”, it overtly exaggerates the conventional (even a reformed Anthony says in the end with relief: “dopey fuckin chinamen”).

Indeed, part of the reason why different immigrant groups do not relate to their shared common history of struggles is because they have been portrayed as being antagonistic with each other to begin with. So the only element they need to show allegiance to then becomes the power structure that permits their existence as individual blocks. Rejoicing the diverse cultures make the task all the more difficult for the ethnic minorities to perceive their oneness. Prof. Vijay Prashad says in “Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting” (2001): “To respect the fetish of culture assumes that one wants to enshrine it in the museum of humankind rather than find within it the potential for liberation or for change.” He talks of the need of a “horizontal assimilation” among the immigrant groups. “Consider the rebel Africans, who fled the slave plantations in the Americas and took refuge among the Amerindians to create communities such as the Seminoles; the South Asian workers who jumped ship in eighteenth-century Salem, Massachusetts, to enter the black community; Frederick Douglass’ defense of Chinese “coolie” laborers in the nineteenth century; the interactions of the Black Panther Party with the Red Guard and the Brown Berets in the mid-twentieth century; and finally the multiethnic working-class gathering in the new century.”

If Prashad was finding links for liberation, then Paul Haggis, director of Crash, was finding the lineages amidst the same multiethnic working class of new century. And Haggis perfected the art of stereotyping the lineages of hopelessness in Crash.


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