Tuesday, 18 April 2006

Crash Course in Race Relations

Here is a much extended version of my earlier review of the film Crash. It was published on the blog of (now defunct) Design for Diversity.

Hollywood is often used as by-word for easy mindless mass entertainment devoid of any educational or intellectual value.

The selection of contenders for the 78th edition of the Academy Awards (aka the Oscars), earlier this year, however, put a strong case against such sweeping statement. From politics to homophobia, gender and identity issues to sexual harassment and misogyny or social responsibility, a wide range of unusually “serious” subjects were brought to the fore.

Crash, the winner for Best Film and Best Screenplay (and a raft of other awards around the world), itself focuses on race relations in Los Angeles but the irrational fears and reactions it portrays feel sometimes very close to home indeed.

Using a similar structure to Robert Altman's Short Cuts, where the lives of the characters intertwine over twenty-four hours, this sometimes distressing, sometimes funny film is a powerful tirade against stereotypes and prejudice. It is also a love song to humanity with all its idiosyncrasies and imperfections. Without being judgmental, the plot explores the complexities of people's motives and highlights the importance of seeing people as individuals with their own stories, qualities and defects rather than interchangeable members of a group to be despised for imagined deficiencies.

What becomes apparent as the film progresses is that behaviours of exclusion and aggression are often dictated by social conditioning rather than individual belief; all of this compounded by lack of rationality and perspective: an upper-class white woman will be scared of meeting two young black men in the street at night because so many of them seem involved in crime; a white policeman will find himself authorised and empowered to vent his frustration on an innocent black couple; a robbed and long suffering immigrant shop-owner will seek revenge on the first person he things is responsible for his predicament simply because they could not understand each other.

Rather than generalising and tarring everyone with the same brush of racism, the director is careful to look at every aspect of the problem, from the resentment generated by Affirmative Action, to the easy and ill-thought justification for lack of prospects, social racism can represent for young black men, or simply the easy focal point for frustrations and anger the obvious difference of in skin colour can offer.

To coin a phrase, this is a reminder that things are not simply and conveniently black and white, and, even when a character is intent on doing good, he can find himself caught up in the acquired fears passed down from collective perceptions.

Despite its grimness and violence, however, and thankfully without falling into the usual trap of a simplistic happy ending, the film offers the possibility of redemption and some hope that things may improve, that people can learn from their mistakes and overcome the fears generated by their ignorance.

Most, if not all, the anti-discrimination laws required are now in place (in this country at least) and need, of course, to be enforced. Further than that, however, the film makes it clear that the struggle needs to be transferred to the individuals level in an effort to change mentalities and social attitudes.

Films like Crash and Brokeback Mountain, whose effect is already evident on the perception of homosexuality, are a proof, if needed, that politically minded films can be successful both critically and financially and that entertainment and engagement can walk hand in hand, making people stop and think and hopefully change their behaviour for the better.

USA, 2004, 113 min / 115 min (director's cut)
Directed and written by Paul Haggis
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Brendan Fraser, Ludacris, Ryan Phillippe

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