Reading Crash: Writing Awareness Narratives

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Crash is one of those movies that inhabits you for days after viewing. The movie wouldn’t let go of Janice Wolff, wouldn’t stop playing in her mind. So she figured out how to use it in the classroom.

Janice M. Wolff

Crash is one of those movies that inhabits you for days after viewing: I couldn’t stop hearing Anthony (Ludacris) lecturing his homie; I couldn’t stop visualizing Sgt. John Ryan (Matt Dillon) as he molested Christine (Thandie Newton); I couldn’t forget my gasp as the Iranian-American (Shaun Toub) fired the shot at Daniel (Michael Pena); I couldn’t refrain from hearing again the D.A.’s wife’s (Sandra Bullock) complaints about the possible gang affiliations of the locksmith who changed the locks on her doors; I couldn’t forget the Chinese man’s battered face after he was run over by a Lincoln Navigator. The movie wouldn’t let go of me, wouldn’t stop playing in my mind.

The night of the Academy Awards, Crash surprised filmmakers and viewers alike; it showed that smaller, low-budget films with intelligence and grit could win top awards. While the film was nominated in many categories, suffice it to say the film won Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Achievement in Editing, Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. Crash has been variously called “ensemble,” “vignette,” “multiple stories,” or possibly “a multi-strand drama.” Comparisons are made to Spike Lee’s explorations of racism and sexism, and to recent films such as Monster’s Ball, House of Sand and Fog, and 21 Grams. In a movie review for The New York Times, A. O. Scott attempts to categorize Crash, saying, “it belongs to a genre that has been flourishing in recent years--at least in the esteem of critics--but that still lacks a name” (“Bigotry at the Outer Side of Inner Angst”). The tableaux presented in Crash warrant some further scrutiny; analysis might just lead us to a name for that as yet unnamed genre.

The movie opens with what is known in sociological terms as a “micro-aggression,” the moment when a white woman grasps her purse a bit more tightly, when she re-anchors her shoulder strap more firmly, when she tightens her grasp in seeing a Black man who in her mind represents a threat. These moments happen on the street, in elevators, at shopping malls--such an action is decidedly racist, decidedly predictable, and decidedly problematic. Jean Cabot (Sandra Bullock) displays micro-aggressive behavior as she and her husband (Brendan Fraser), as they walk along a trendy L.A. street; in one shot, she grips her purse more tightly, and in another panel, Anthony (Ludacris) launches into a lecture on this kind of racism, saying in fact that they (he and his buddy, Peter, Larenz Tate) ought to be the ones who are frightened, being among all these white folks high on caffeine. He lectures and postures, and yet, moments later, the two are car-jacking the Cabots’ Lincoln Navigator. Irony upon irony takes place in this movie--no character is stable or wholly what the viewer expects. No one is fully racist; no one is fully free of racism; no one knows when racist tendencies will surface. Identities are not stable, nor predictable. In the not-quite-discernible police lights of the opening scene, viewers see through a lens darkly, and the work of the film is to restore clear vision.

In related scenes, panels, vignettes the viewer observes individuals of varying class, race, or gender as they try to problem solve job situations, domestic issues, medical snafus, traffic accidents—we see the Iranian Farhad (Shaun Toub) in the gun shop trying to buy a gun for protection. The gun shop clerk/owner assumes that the gentleman has no English, the daughter steps in to translate, and in the midst of the transaction, the shop keeper calls the Iranian man “Osama,” clear evidence that the film will present scenes of deliberate misunderstanding--people ready to act out and speak out their prejudice. Rosalind Carter has characterized the tendency toward stereotype in describing the appeal of Ronald Reagan: “he makes people completely comfortable with their deepest prejudices.” This movie makes us completely uncomfortable with our deepest prejudices. It describes and discusses the ways in which no one is exempt from racist sensibilities.

Ethnocentrism combined with language disdain lead to these moments of conflict--in one of the accidents in Crash one character mocks another, saying “I blaked too fast”--an example of insensitivity to a second language user’s difficulties with English. Language preference and dialect superiority are in evidence when the film maker, Cameron (Terrence Howard), hears a request from director Fred (Tony Danza) about an actor who is talking “too white.” Against his better judgment, he knuckles under and agrees to talk to the actor about his language which presumably needs to be more richly Black. It is agreed that Jamal needs to “color up” his language, a situation that all participants recognize is insulting in the way that it limits certain languages and privileges others.

In a recent issue of College English Jill Swiencicki expands on the idea of “Awareness narratives,” a strategy for writing ourselves into a new relation to racism. The concept of awareness narratives starts with the radical moment of perceiving one’s own racism. To explain this phenomenon, she presents the brief narrative by Julie Landman in her book, A White Teacher Talks about Race. In this narrative, Landman describes a childhood moment in which she was chanting the singsong selection rhyme, “Eeny meeny miney mo…” complete with the racist “catch a nigger by his toe.” The African-American housekeeper, Lillian is near enough to hear the rhyming song, and asks Landsman not to use the word because it hurts her feelings (339). The moment is etched into Landman’s mind, even carries sensory elements of touch, taste, smell. The adult Landman writes this moment, but takes it to another level, transcending white guilt, and arriving at a critical understanding of “race” and the new knowledge that “race” includes whiteness as well as blackness. Swiencicki opens her essay with two important epigraphs:

The recognition of ignorance, not just as a gap, but rather as a presence, a meaningful discursive field which one can prod, interrogate, and alter, marks one as eligible for at least provisional membership in the discourse community. --Harriet Malinowitz, Textual Orientations

The easiest exit [from our racist legacies] is through the finality of an unnuanced judgment of guilt or innocence, condemnation or reprieve--then slam the door and never open it again…. The more difficult task is to find the doors that shape events, experiences, and the stories we tell and to imagine passage back through them. --Lynn Worsham, “After Words”

The film Crash becomes for viewers and actors that “meaningful discursive field which one can prod, interrogate, and alter,” in the way that it charts the hurts, insults, tragic and comic moments in the narrative. It also opens those doors and invites the viewer to unpack those “events, experiences, and the stories we tell” so that we can examine others’ and our own participation in racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and so on.

Crash opens doors for the examination of language use, identity formation, easy stereotypes, and regulating tendencies, and demands that we find those doors rather than exits. When Sgt. Ryan (whose sergeant’s stripes are shown prominently many times) confronts the HMO representative on the phone, he mocks her name, “Shaniqua,” saying that he expected that to be her name. Sgt. Ryan’s role calls for him to be both villain and hero, both monster and minister. After having sexually assaulted Christine, after having mocked Shaniqua, when John Ryan comes upon the roll-over accident and finds Christine hanging upside down from her seatbelt while gasoline spills threatening to ignite, he rescues her even in the face of her revulsion. While the depth of his racism is all too apparent, his heroic act complicates our reading of his character and disallows the “easiest exit [from our racist legacies].” Viewers must work through the ambiguities, must process the absence of a “finality of an unnuanced judgment of guilt or innocence, condemnation or reprieve.” While he does and says shameful things, he treats his father with compassion and shares his shame over his father’s debilitating condition.

Policing and the legal system become emblematic of the regulation and control inherent in racism; the struggles within and among those enacting and enforcing police regulations are evident: the D.A. and his wife argue hotly about the locks; the D.A. himself struggles with how to spin the car-jacking, considers awarding a medal to an Iraqi-American, chagrinned that “I’m gonna pin a medal on a guy named Sadam!” Christine (Thandie Newton) and Cameron (Terrence Howard) argue as she begins to call to report the sexual assault by Sgt. Ryan. She wants a “husband who will not just stand there,” while his wife gets “finger-fucked.” Later in the film, when Cam’s vehicle is car-jacked by the hapless Anthony (Ludacris), he decides to take action and almost brings a hail of gunfire down on himself. Graham (Don Cheadle) and his Latina girlfriend have a fiery spat when he calls her Mexican, and she sets him straight: “My father’s from Puerto Rico, my mother’s from El Salvador…and neither of them are Mexico.” There is no easy exit from the damaging discourse of racism, and ignorance of people’s history, culture, geography, and language fuels the fire.

Confronting our personal and collective racism takes courage and willingness to admit to our individual ignorance of each other. In Crash, with the backdrop of symbols of Christian unity—Christmas wreaths in evidence in the courthouse, inflatable Santa and nativity scene on a garage door, at every turn Anthony (Ludacris) presumes to lecture about the evils of racism: when his friend proposes to take a bus when his car won’t start, Anthony lectures about the white conspiracy to humiliate Blacks by making them take public transportation. While Anthony confronts the cultural pervasiveness of racism, he ignores his own indiscretions. Anthony might be the voice of moral indignation, but his narrative juxtaposed to his actions complicate a simplistic read of his role in the story. Characters serve as unexpected saviors to others: the Iranian man, after having nearly killed the child, regards her as his “angel.” Graham delivers groceries to his ailing mother after finding her refrigerator empty; the D.A.’s wife, who has belittled and berated her domestic, Maria, takes a painful fall down the stairs, and in a tearful scene, admits that Maria is her “only friend.” Children, even grown children, adore their parents: Farhad’s daughter calls him “babajan,” a term of endearment; Sgt. Ryan cares deeply for his ailing father; Elizabeth (Karina Arroyave) idolizes her locksmith dad, called “an island of quiet decency in a sea of howling prejudice and hypocrisy” (Scott).

Called variously, “ensemble,” “vignette,” “multiple stories,” or possibly “tableaux,” the film may be a morality play for the 21st century. It functions as a framework for teaching against racism, for examining one’s own deep-seated prejudices, for rereading our personal and cultural awareness narratives. The movie is a lesson for our time, a series of moments that demonstrate our connectedness. The closing scenes suggest the cyclical nature of racism and imply that racism will continue. As we consider the characters who populate the film, we might ask ourselves who do we want to emulate? I don’t want to be the racist cop even if I treat my seriously ill father with compassion; I don’t want to be the wife of the district attorney even though she does recognize that her domestic help, Maria, is her best friend; I don’t want to be the D.A., who, after realizing his wife’s prejudice and meanness about the locksmith, continues to worry about the damage control needed for the car-jacking; I don’t want to be the young cop who after seeming to have some sensitivity to race matters, shoots a young Black man as he reaches into his pocket for a St. Christopher’s statue for the dashboard. The moment a character does something noble, he or she undercuts it with a racist remark or action; the moment a character does something despicable, he or she follows it with a loving or compassionate act. We learn that we all contain multitudes, that we all contain evil, as well as good, that we all have potential for good, that we “must love one another or die.” What we need to learn, however, is that movies such as Crash, as they present “awareness narratives,” as they present racism and the intricacies of racism, lead us to reexamine our own stories, our own narratives of awareness. We need to keep watching these movies, keep vigilant about racism, not relaxing into a “well, that was just a movie…those were just dramatic moments in other people’s lives…” sort of mindset. If we regard Crash as a series of awareness narratives, we can begin to reassess our own racist inclinations, the deeply embedded biases and hatreds that lie dormant for long stretches of time. Crash requires that we don’t allow ourselves any easy exit from racist acts; the easy opposition of racism or near-racism evaporates in this well-wrought film.

Janice M. Wolff is professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University, where she has taught since 1992. She focuses on teaching first year writing, upper division writing, gender studies and rhetorical theory, with an occasional literature class thrown in.

Copyright © 2006 by Janice M. Wolff. All rights reserved.

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