Saturday, July 23, 2005

Review: Crash

I don't have much that is novel or insightful to say about Crash, I don't think. But I do want to reiterate what I have heard and read from a few other folk: While not particularly radical, it is a sophisticated portrayal of diverse lived realities as structured by the white supremacist institutional, economic, and cultural forces that dominate North America. It is well worth watching. It is set in Los Angeles, which made it of particular interest to me given my recently completed period of residence there, but if you think the realities it shows are somehow unique to LA, you are deluded.

Watching it made me reflect on the ways in which political complexity in mass-consumed texts like movies translates into uncontrollable complexity in people's responses. For example, the lived experiences of most white people in North America are far removed from the lived experiences of people of colour; our lives tend to be sufficiently segregated that us white folks, however liberal our intentions, are generally pretty clueless about what it means to live a life shaped in part by the experience of racial oppression. Given that, and the tendency of white privilege to blind us to racism even when it is before our eyes, what will be the range of understandings in white audiences of portrayals of racism that are nuanced and complex rather than sledgehammeresque? I could imagine some folks selectively reading the film (i.e. just not seeing stuff that is right there in front of us) in ways which reinforce some stereotypes even while others are being challenged. I could imagine some people who are approaching it with a framework that understands racism as purely a phenomenon of individual prejudice taking the film as confirmation that "they" do it too, and totally missing the broader context of a system which privileges whiteness and disempowers people of colour setting the ground in which personal prejudice, as well as all sorts of systemic factors, shape peoples' lives. I could imagine other people approaching the film with a somewhat more sophisticated but still basically liberal framework for understanding racism -- one that still downplays or ignores the structural dimensions of oppression -- seeing the film itself as racist because it shows hard truths about the ways that racism impacts communities, which can only be properly understood as being about more than individual or group "failings" when that more systemic piece of analysis is included. I'm sure there are plenty of ways in which I have reacted to specific content of the film that just plain doesn't get some aspect of how racism was at play.

Moreover, we don't get much opportunity to deal with complex media narratives about anything in our culture, so we don't have much practice thinking outside of simplistic things like the division between "good guys" and "bad guys." As media consumers we are seldom expected to seek explanations for why characters are the way they are that are larger than the individuals. How does that shape the public reaction to movies like this one, where everything is written with a consciousness of how we are all slotted into particular patterns of oppression and privilege by society's institutions, which then shapes the range we have available to us for exercising individual agency?

In saying all of this, I'm not rejecting complexity or criticizing the film. In fact, I wish much more of our media embraced complexity and an awareness of how power and privilege shapes all of our lives. But complexity is, by definition, complex.

What the film lacks is portrayal or substantive discussion of collective resistance to white supremacy. I think one of the young African American men mentions the Black Panthers once, and that's about it. On the one hand, this shouldn't be surprising since this is a Hollywood movie and it is being made in a time where liberation movements in North America do not have the same visibility and momentum that they did when names like Huey Newton and Angela Davis were bringing if not fear then at least unease to the hearts of powerful white men. The backlash has been long and sustained and the many and important struggles still being waged by communites of colour in North America are often more fragmented and, by necessity, defensive. But the fact is, collective forms of struggle always have and always will exist in oppressed communities, whether they are visible to those of us outside of them or not, and it is disappointing that a film that shows such awareness of the impact on individuals of the structural nature of racial (and, to a lesser extent, class and gender) oppression has nothing to offer about attempts to change those structures.

Anyway, I would definitely recommend seeing this film. Then I would recommend making a point of discussing it afterwards with whoever else you can find who has seen it. Often the most important aspect of cultural interventions into political issues of this sort is the sparking of discussion -- the destabilization of existing assumptions in the audience, however partial that might be, creates an opening for changes in consciousness, however limited that might be. It encourages people, including those who would not normally think about such things, to explore the issues raised and, perhaps, raise our consciousness a little bit. In fact, a friend of mine who has done anti-racism trainings for years mentioned that she is trying to come up with ways to use bits and pieces of the film in future trainings for exactly that reason.

So go see it!


v said...

In the same manner you guys on The Left reject profits, I reject "white guilt". I admit I didn't read your article in it's entirety but having randomly selected a "progressive" blogger to read this evening I am disappointed you are still using this deprecated term and stopped reading when I saw it.

Speaking of Paul Martin, why do you support the corrupt Martin-Layton coalition? Does it not demean you and detract from your dignity?

Scott said...

Well, I'm glad you reject "white guilt"...I do too. Guilt tends to get in the way of actually getting things done and working to oppose racism. You don't seem to have read the article very carefully, because I did not use the phrase "white guilt" at all. Perhaps you are thinking about the phrase "white privilege" -- i.e. recognizing that, in ways beyond individual control, whiteness confers advantages to those who possess it in North America, when compared to people of colour of similar class, gender, sexuality, ability, and so on. Feeling bad about that is counterproductive; recognizing it in your political practice and pushing for systemic change to get rid of it is not. To learn more about it, click on the link from the phrase "white privilege" in the original article.

Martin and Layton? I'm not sure why it would have anything to do with my dignity, as I'm not a member of either of those parties. I think the small reallocation from tax cuts back to services is a good thing, in that it makes a tiny dent in the ongoing neoliberal assault on and transformation of our state and our economy, and it will result in important human need being met slightly more effectively. But it is only one small step.

Scott said...

Sept. 24/06 -- I should add, because this review still gets hits on a semi-regular basis, that since I wrote this I have seen reviews by a number of people whose analyses I trust that are quite a bit more critical than I was in this piece of the film's failure to go far enough in showing the realities of structural white supremacy in North America today. Those pieces have shifted my thinking about the film since I wrote this. I would encourage you to seek out reviews written from such critical anti-racist perspectives.

Anonymous said...

hi, just a note to say thanks for your insightful ideas about the character sayid in lost and the representations and racial issues expressed through the characters in crash! I am currently revising for my a-level media studies and this has helped me loads! cheers.