If you liked the movie Crash, you should read this essay, Talking Trash: A Dialogue about Crash by bell hooks and Gilda L. Sheppard available in full on www.allaboutbell.com
I've cut and pasted some highlights below. Let me know what you think.
Bell Hooks: James Baldwin was fond of saying that “sentimentality is the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion. It is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel.”
Many people see Crash as a film which invokes deep pathos and feelings. Actually, it is a sentimental and melodramatic film in the classic mode of Hollywood .
Gilda : Having the police officer Ryan as the only character in Crash whom the audience is allowed to view as dynamic is not at all discussed as a charged issue in the film. What is commonly stated is that “there are no heroes” This notion persist even when the audience is given an understanding of the reasons for Ryan’s actions as human frailties of frustration and anger. We are constantly reminded in several scenes of his compassion for his ailing father. This compassion is carefully juxtapositioned with the “contradiction” of his actions of sexual violations, and his final and sudden triumph as the rescuer of the same black woman he sexually violated. No other character in Crash is constructed with such dynamism.
In fact Ryan is presented as a compassionate son of an ailing father who suffers from a urinary tract infection. This is represented several times in the film through scenes of Ryan assisting his father as he embraces his father in the bathroom, on the toilet no less. Ah, the penis factor as a symbol of manhood, this time, the fallen man. We learn that Ryan’s father owned a janitorial business and hired black men at “decent wages”; however, Ryan states that his father lost contracts to minority contractors. This is what happens when you do liberal acts. You lose even your career and “manhood,” and you will be exposed for all to see. This context becomes a scaffold in the film for the anti-affirmative action lines that are supported through an unscrupulous black police chief who consciously backs down when told about the actions of a racist police officer on his team. The black police officer actually states that he will not put his career “on the line” for “integrity” or “pursuit of justice.” This scene levels the system of racism to an individual compliance from members of the oppressed group. In another scene, the subtext is clearly that affirmative action policies allow for unqualified hires, particularly based on race. The scene is ushered in by a black woman manager at a bureaucratic HMO who, with a name none other than Shiniqua, cannot or will not assist Ryan.
What is to be noted is that this scene is the Ryan character’s introduction to the audience. Ryan is introduced as he talks with Shiniqua, played by Loretta Devine. Perhaps director Paul Haggis received his cue from Bill Cosby giving the character a name like Shinqua as a code for ignorance. The facial antics of Shiniqua were choreographed to make buffoonery of so called black expressions recalling the caricatures found in minstrelsy, thus providing a platform for the Ryan character to throw insults and express little surprise in his inability to receive help for his father from Shiniqua, who by default of her name is of little surprise to him black and most certainly ignorant and unqualified to assist him.
Immediately after this encounter with one black woman, Ryan’s next action is to sexually violate another black woman during a bogus traffic stop of an upper middle class couple: Cameron, played by Terrence Howard, and the victim of violation, Christine, played by Thandie Newton. This bogus stop happens in spite of protest from Ryan’s police partner, Hansen. Hansen is introduced in several scenes in the film as a liberal white police officer who speaks up whenever he sees violations against black people. However, just like Ryan’s father who has an alleged life as “the friend of Negro people,” the liberal Hansen in the end commits the only killing in the film. And of course, as in the classical Hollywood form, it is of a black man. So if you are liberal you might lose your “manhood,” and you cannot be trusted because your innate fear of the other might cause you to suddenly kill. Having a black man among the first or as the only person to die in this film is another classic Hollywood film trait.
Ryan’s actions of rabid sexual violation during the bogus traffic stop appears to be a reaction, albeit gross, to his encounters with two black women:. First, his failed attempt to get assistance for his ailing father from Shiniqua, and secondly, Christine, who verbally protests his bogus stop and also comments that because of her light skin Ryan must have “thought he saw a white woman blowing a black man.” Once again the mouth of a black woman is the object of terrorism against her. Ryan, therefore, must punish and tame her, as her African American TV director husband Cameron, as well as Ryan’s partner police officer Hansen, who had initially protested the bogus traffic stop, both look on as powerless voyeurs. This public display of powerlessness allows them to be compliant in the face of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, yielding to the subtext that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, one can do even if he/she outnumbers the agents of white supremacy. Verbal or physical protest is impossible.
What is worth noting is the sexualized cinematic direction by director Paul Haggis of both the sexual violation of Christine and then, the next morning, of the melodramatic rescue of Ryan’s victim Christine from a car crash. The white pornographic gaze in the direction of these scenes is clearly represented.
This is no fast and furious violation. The director carefully staged it in a medium close up of Ryan’s slow and calculating violation of Christine, displaying his facial expression of pornographic pleasure as he stoops and the camera follows his hands as they slowly move under her dress displaying a slightly jerking movement to indicate that Ryan even penetrates her with his hand in his pornographic investigation of her body. The camera cuts to Christine’s face, reduced from confident protest to pain and shameful submission. The camera focuses on Ryan’s gaze as he in low tones speaks to Christine’s husband about breaking the law by performing lewd conduct of oral sex while driving. This reminds the viewer that the Thandie Newton character was introduced as not just a middle class woman driving home with her husband, but that we suddenly see her head as she rises from giving her husband head while driving. First impressions are lasting? After the couple is allowed to leave, Christine receives little or no comfort from her husband. He later chastises her for her mouth, as did Ryan with sexual violation. Her husband says with a bit of rage, “What was I to do? They had guns.” She turns her rage to her husband and decides not to even call in a complaint of the violation.
Soon after these scenes and suddenly in cinematic time, the next morning the sexual violator Ryan performs a similar act of sexualized invasion, only this time it is seen as a rescue, ala the great white hope, of the character Christine from a dramatic car crash. This second time Ryan encounters Christine she is screaming and vulnerable, pinned upside down in her car, barely breathing as he approaches her telling her to calm down when she screams at the sight of him recognizing him as her violator. She is once again vulnerable and helpless as Ryan says, “I am not going to hurt you,” taking time to pull her dress down as if to protect his property and posit it as purity, as if to say, “I am not going to violate you this time. However, I am still the one in control.” Yeah, I will save your pitiful ass because I am now transformed into the great white hope. Haggis again directs this rescue carefully as a sexualized scene only this time he tames her and she is finally compliant.
Ryan and Christine’s lips nearly brush each other as she screams. The camera angles place them in prone sexualized positions as he jerks her seat belt open to unleash her from the overturned car. What is interesting is that the same background music, a bit angelic and heavenly, is the score for both scenes of violation and rescue. Once rescued and dragged from the soon to explode car, the final action in these scenes has Christine walking away from the accident with assistance from police and medics, and she suddenly turns to gaze at her “rescuer.” This gaze is reminiscent of the scene from Monster’s Ball when Halle Berry turns and gazes at the Billy Bob Thornton character while he aggressively fucks her from behind. These are not interrogating gazes. They give the impression that both female characters are saying, “I am grateful to you, my benevolent dictator.” After this gaze the camera turns to Ryan kneeling on one knee looking at her as she is led away. His image overpowers the shot. Everything else is reduced to nothing, just his image larger than life. In this leap of faith “rescue” the audience is able to see an artifice of his psychological development in the narrative structure of the film.
bell hooks: The film is seductive to audiences at this historical moment, because many black people feel that our voices and images, our pain, our suffering caused by white supremacist exploitation and oppression is being ignored. Black viewers were moved by the fact that someone would take the time to portray the sense of violation we so often feel when confronting everyday racism. When the white cop stops the black couple a symbolic lynching occurs. There is castration. There is public shaming and emasculation of the black man, not only by the white cop but also by the black woman. These are the same old stereotypical images. And ultimately, black women are blamed for black degradation, for putting the black male down. The one black female who is “together” is totally allied with whiteness and white male power. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, the question was who will be raised to revere the black woman? Crash tells us no one will ever revere the black woman because the black woman is not worthy to be revered. Thandie Newton’s character as the biracial beauty epitomizes the female body that is the meeting place for black and white male desire, bringing another motif from slavery to the present day. She is the elegant leading lady, the lady of mutual desire, but she too is unworthy.