Column by Michael Kleen.
Exclusive to STR
On the surface, the Academy Award-winning film Crash (2004) purports to be an emotional portrayal of race and prejudice in America. Through a series of interwoven vignettes, the filmmakers portray characters of several different races and ethnic backgrounds as they interact over the course of two or three days on the streets of Los Angeles. At every point in the film, the main characters express prejudice in one form or another. Some are seemingly redeemed after dramatic moments, and others never change. The message of Crash is, perhaps, that everyone harbors some form of prejudice. However, social critics like Bell Hooks have maintained that Crash utterly fails in its attempts to discuss race or class, and instead actually confirms and reinforces typical Hollywood stereotypes.
If Crash was solely a film about race or class, Bell Hooks may have a point. When viewed through the lens of race, Crash is, of course, a cynical portrayal of race relations in which all Americans are trapped in a never-ending cycle of hatred, remorse, and self-loathing (aside from a few moments of catharsis). But Crash falls flat in its attempts to discuss those issues, partially because those issues are not what the film is really about. Looking a little deeper past issues of race or class, Crash is a film about power and force (the raw exercise of power). Race actually fades into the background.
For instance, in the second scene, a Persian man and his daughter walk into a gun store to buy a pistol and they begin to chat in Farsi. The store clerk, whose persona is reminiscent of Archie Bunker, mistakes the pair for Arabs, insults the man, and they argue. The store clerk instructs his security guard (who apparently has been standing off camera) to remove him. At this point, the store clerk has exercised force to remove a perceived threat. He could have thrown the man’s daughter out as well, but chose not to. He then bombards her with sexual innuendos as she attempts to complete the purchase.
In the closing actions, it is revealed that this scene is not about a prejudiced store clerk at all, but a store clerk who uses verbal battery and force to remove an obstacle to his sexual desire. Fed up, the young woman gives him an ultimatum: “Give me my money back or give me the gun.” Seeing his advances are going nowhere, the store clerk chooses to keep the money and gives her the gun. He may not have gotten what he really wanted, but he settled for the next best thing. Money trumps all.
In Crash, power is represented in its most basic form by handguns and leverage. A handgun, like leverage, is an expression of power: whoever holds the gun can compel others under threat of death or injury to submit to his or her will. “Why aren’t we scared?” one young carjacker asks another early on in the film. “Because we have guns.” The power of their handguns allows these two young men to relieve a man and his wife of their SUV. The man, it turns out, is a local district attorney, who, in that moment in time, is totally powerless because he is not surrounded by the institution that gives him authority. His wife and he are at the mercy of the gun.
Whoever commands obedience through leverage has a different kind of power, but it is still an expression of force. In Crash, power is exercised arbitrarily (unjustly) in order to gain advantage of, punish, or take revenge on others. One of the subplots in Crash involves a police officer named John Ryan who has been attempting to convince his father’s HMO to pay for an investigation into his father’s illness, which he suspects could be more serious than the HMO doctors maintain. He is stonewalled by Shaniqua Johnson, a manager at the HMO who acts as a gatekeeper for the insurance company. In this situation, Shaniqua holds power (through leverage) over Ryan. Shaniqua ultimately refuses to help Ryan because of his blatant prejudice against her and African Americans generally, explicitly telling him that she would have approved his claim if his father (a “nice man”) had come in instead. Shaniqua unjustly uses her power at the HMO to punish Ryan by hurting his father.
After his first argument with the intractable Shaniqua, Officer Ryan uses both his leverage as a cop (backed up by raw force in the form of his handgun) to grope and humiliate a wealthy African American couple, Cameron and Christine, who he stops on their way home from a party. In his capacity as a police officer, he wrongly uses the authority given to him by the city to act out his frustrations and his resentment while his partner stands by and watches. Cameron feels impotent to act and defend his wife first and foremost because of the power of the State behind the man, but secondly because of the implicit threat of violence represented by his gun. “They were cops, for God’s sake—they had guns,” he tries to explain to his wife after the incident.
The characters change roles throughout the film, at one time being the aggressor and at another time being the victim, but at all times displaying in the simplest terms how power and force are misused and abused in society. Crash may not have anything new to say about race, but it does effectively illustrate how social relations break down in the face of the unjust use of power. It is worth another look with that context in mind.