“We’re always behind this metal and glass. It’s the sense of touch. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.” -Taken from the opening scene of Crash
In the United States today, there are few subjects that raise more fear, hate, anger, confusion, disgust and also intrigue than race, ethnicity, and class. At times, racial issues are made explicit, such as the court cases of O.J. Simpson and Rodney King, in which some wondered whether race and ethnicity were more important factors — in the public’s eye — than the actual evidence presented in court. More recently, Hurricane Katrina exposed again the great divide of race and class that continues to plague our country.
Whether subtle or blatant, racial dynamics remain complicated. Crash, the 2005 winner of the Academy Award for “best motion picture of the year,” provocatively raises issues of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic dynamics, and urban social contexts. Few films since Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing have tackled the hard core issues of race and ethnicity and class as directly and insightfully as Crash.
Our attempt here is to help youth workers understand and bring some sort of initial meaning to this film with all of its complicated variables. This dialogue is very much needed within the youth ministry community. Whether your ministry is suburban or urban, God’s call to holistic ministry and breaking down barriers means that the issues of race and ethnicity cannot be ignored. Whether or not you have seen the film, hopefully this analysis of its themes will help you as you move forward in discussions about race, class and culture.
The Film’s Background
Crash was written and directed by Paul Haggis. [[For a detailed description of seeing and understanding film from a Christian’s perspective, see Robert Johnston’s Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), pp.125-150.]] Paul Haggis is the screenwriter and producer of such films as Million Dollar Baby and Flags of our Fathers. Haggis is also responsible for writing many of the episodes of Different Strokes and LA Law. Over time his work has tended to deal with difficult issues, and raise our collective level of consciousness. [[For a more detailed look at Paul Haggis and the film Crash, see www.imdb.com,The Internet Movie Data Base.]]
Haggis wrote the screenplay for Crash in two weeks—a marvel for anyone. Haggis was influenced by the deep-seated issues of race, gender, and ethnicity that are seen every day in a city like Los Angeles. Haggis was passionate about this film and took several leads from director and writer Spike Lee. [[After Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee was highly criticized by critics and other film makers who claimed that Blacks would riot and that the film had no place in our society. However, when Paul Haggis, who is White, does a similar film, he is awarded and told he is a “genius” for his work. While Haggis did struggle to initially find funding for the film because of its content, and of course, 1989 was a different time than 2006, it is interesting to note the different responses to the two talented directors.]]
Haggis uses various visual effects and subtle sub-plots to communicate his themes:
1. Lighting: The film opens with a dark and gloomy feel that has the audience wondering what is happening. More importantly, the film was set in December, a time when the sun sets early and darkness falls around 5 pm.
2. Music Score: The music is a mixture of Middle Eastern, Indian, and Trance music styles. That is done on purpose and evokes different feelings within all of us. The music coupled with slow pans and overhead shots creates a very memorable scene in which Matt Dillon (Sgt. Jack Ryan) comes to the help of Thandie Newton (Christine Thayer) who he had previously sexually assaulted.
3. The Decentralizing of the Race Villain: In many films that deal with race and ethnicity, the common “villain” is the White person, and the “victim” is the Black person. Crash decentralizes this common battle and puts all on a relatively equal playing field as both the villain and the victim. This is also seen in other films such as What’s Cooking (2000) and Do The Right Thing (1989).
4. The Use of a Messianic Figure: Many films today portray a Messianic figure – someone who may give her or his life for another character. The Messianic figure within Crash is depicted in several characters within the film. We see it in Matt Dillon’s character (as much as we don’t want to) as he saves a life with little regard for his own, and takes care of his father as best as he can. We also see it in Don Cheadle’s character as he attempts to take care of his mother and brother even though they are not accepting of his help. In addition, we also see the Messianic figure in the character of Michael Peña as he takes care of his daughter.
5. Snow: Even if you don’t live around the Southern California area, you probably know that snow in Los Angeles is rare. Still, Haggis has the characters, and thus the audience, deal with snow. The unexpected snow is a symbol of hope and redemption. The first time the audience thinks it’s snowing, and thus there will be some relief from the intensity of the film, it actually turns out to be ash from a fire. Yet as the film ends and it actually does snow, the audience experiences a cleansing of sorts, as if something new can begin amidst the tension and angst that has been experienced.
6. Los Angeles Culture: Los Angeles culture is unique. It is one of the most diverse cities in the world as people from all walks of life live together in one city. Yet in the midst of this diversity there is still a great amount of segregation. We live in the same city but in different worlds. Don Cheadle’s opening monologue sums up Los Angeles culture in a nutshell: “We’re always behind this metal and glass. It’s the sense of touch. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.”
7. Linguistic tone: With the exception of three scenes, Ludacris’ character does not raise his voice. He keeps a steady lecturing tone, implying that he may in fact be lecturing himself. As you watch Crash, notice how the different tones provoke different emotions within the different characters.
8. Women’s roles: Notice the power of Nona Gaye’s (Rick Cabot’s Assistant) role as a silent Black woman. She seems to know what is right and wrong, she knows that she has to act on it, but she also knows that if she does, she may lose her job. In contrast, Sandra Bullock is the stereotypical suburban homemaker and her only friend is the Latin housekeeper. [[For an even deeper example of this and the role of White privilege and power, see the film Spanglish.]] Moreover, the Latin housekeeper is an older woman; notice how her role plays out in the film and how she is treated by Sandra Bullock’s character.
The following is a dialogue between Dan Hodge, Ph.D. graduate from Fuller’s School of Intercultural Studies, and Dr. Jude Tiersma Watson, Associate Professor of Urban Mission at Fuller. Jude is also the Team Director for InnerCHANGE L.A. Here they exchange their ideas on the themes of Crash. We’ve included this dialogue in order to provide a variety of perspectives on the themes evoked in Crash.
Dan: What did you think the last time you saw a group of young Black men walking toward you? What is your first thought when you see a Latino male with a tattoo around his neck? What do you think of when you see someone who appears to be from the Middle East? Blind fear is everywhere. Most of us are not aware that we even have these fear-centered stereotypes that overtake our souls with negative thoughts, images, and feelings about different ethnicities.
Jude: Stereotypes and misunderstanding can flow in various directions too. I took some girls from our neighborhood to wealthy San Marino, and as we drove down the quiet, dark, empty street, they yelled, “Lock the doors, this is a scary neighborhood.”
Some years ago, a man from Victory Outreach spoke at Fuller Seminary. His nickname in his old life in the Mexican Mafia was “assassin”, and he looked it still. He looked at the audience of educated seminarians and admitted, “I’m as scared of you as you are of me. Your education is very intimidating to me.” He helped me see that we fear what is unknown to us.
Dan: Crash takes us on a collision ride with these fears. As the film opens, we see Larenz Tate (Peter Waters) and Ludacris (Anthony) walking out of a coffee shop. [[Ludacris is talking about the ails of being serviced by a Black woman. While the conversation may be funny, the potential tensions between Black men and Black women date back to slavery. For more background on the question: Do Black women tend to serve young Black men more poorly than the ways they serve other people?, see Bell Hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation, (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992), and Michael Dyson, The Michael Eric Dyson Reader, (New York NY: Basic Civitas, 2004).]] As they talk, we also see Sandra Bullock (Jean Cabot) and Brendan Frasier (District Attorney Rick Cabot) walking down the street. Our minds — possibly — begin to think, “Man, this young White couple is probably afraid of these two Black men!” Just as the audience is starting to feel a bit guilty for operating on that stereotype, the film shows that initial response is actually justified as the two young black men car jack the Cabots. Sandra Bullock makes a poignant point: what do you do if you feel threatened from a group of people coming at you, and those people happen to be from a different ethnicity? Are you considered a racist for crossing the street? Are you being racist when you try to protect your family?
The role of power plays a large part of blind fear as well. Power can corrupt, and we see this depicted in Crash. What does the young police officer do when confronted with racism in his partner and yet he finds his captain unreceptive to his complaint? As seen in the film, the fear of power often keeps people silent, in check, in lower social positions, and at status quo levels.
The Paradox of…
Dan: When love and hate crash, or when the profane and the sacred collide, we have what I call the paradox of amour and disdain. [[This is a concept that I am currently researching. We live in a paradox in which the profane meets the sacred. We are left wondering, can God really be in anything that bad? How does God react to the profane? Does living a “righteous” life mean we’re free from sin? These are areas that are a part of this paradox and continue to force us to question, what do we do with all of this profanity at the foot of the Cross?]] An unsettled and irreconcilable state arises when we both love and hate someone at the same time. We feel both the joy and hope of seeing the other and the pain and hurt that this other person brings.
We see this paradox clearly in the film Crash. Thandie Newton’s and Matt Dillon’s characters collide in this paradox midway through the film. Early in the film, we come to hate Matt Dillon’s character as he so obviously takes advantage of Newton’s character. Yet 45 minutes later, he is pulling her from a burning auto and she is left in the paradox - thanking him while she is still perplexed with her disgust towards him.
This paradox comes once again when we see Matt Dillon’s dad. His dad’s illness fills us with compassion for Dillon’s character, but we are still left with the fact that he is a lousy cop one day and a hero the next. What do we do with the fact that Dillon’s character loves his dad and only wants the best for him, but is constantly frustrated that his dad cannot get the help that is needed because of the “system” of health insurance? This is further complicated because Dillon’s dad is a White older male — a population that is clearly being discriminated against in an attempt to make better the “wrongs” done to Blacks in society. This paradox of the displaced White male is another of the movie’s paradoxes.
Jude: The film lets us sit there in that uncomfortable place. Like issues of race and class, nothing is simple in Crash, and Crash takes us well beyond the historical black/white issues of race. Crash also demonstrates something the scriptures tell us — that the opposite of love is not only hate but fear. “Perfect love casts out fear.” We tend to focus on difference and fear, rather than the radical love of Jesus.
What Then Shall we Do?
Let’s begin to discuss some implications relevant to our ministries:
1. The Christ within the Mess of Life
Dan: This brings us back to the paradox of amour and disdain. Within the Bible, there are several characters that God blessed, even though they had nearly fatal flaws. Examples include Jacob, David, Nebuchadnezzar, the disciples, and even Paul. In Colossians 1:16, 17 (among other passages) we see that ALL THINGS were created by God and ALL THINGS are from Him. [[See also Colossians 1:20; Revelation 21:5; I Corinthians 6; I Corinthians 8:6; & Genesis 25.]] If this is so, then we, as missionally-minded Christians, must engage with that which makes us uncomfortable: the profane! Within the “mess,” Christ is there. Within the pain, Christ is there. Within the misery, Christ is there. Within the racism, Christ is there. God is still on the throne. And in the midst of it all, Christ is right there with us. Christ is about being with us in all the mess of our life, including race issues.
Jude: In my work with youth, this is one of the most important things I can help them understand. So many kids come from really tough situations, and this is what they need to know. Jesus is Emmanuel, God With Us, all the time, not just when things are looking pretty.
2. Be Not Afraid
Dan: It’s time for all of us to ask hard questions, like, “What are my racist tendencies? Where do those come from? Am I truly willing to change? Why or why not?” These are serious questions, but as we stand in Christ and move forward with Him, things can begin to change.
Jude: For those of us who are white and middle-class, we need to recognize the role of white privilege. We often don’t even know that it exists, because we’ve always known it. But if we are to work with youth who are of different ethnicities, we need to know how our experience of white privilege colors our experience in this world. I’ve learned a lot about this being married to my husband, John, who is African-American. A few years ago, we were driving in our dented, older-model Nissan, and got pulled over for speeding. As we were stopped, I leaned over to open our glove compartment and take out our registration. John yelled at me to stop and not move. He saw my confusion and explained, “They might think you are reaching for a gun.” Where I grew up, such thoughts were completely outside my experience. The incident was brought home one week later as we were in Downtown LA, where a man had just been killed by the police. He had been pulled over, and reached down under his seat. Thinking he may have a gun, the police shot him, only to find out later that there was no gun in the car. And yes, he was African American. These two incidents left me feeling very uncomfortable – would I have been shot if the person in that car had been me? And what do I do with that?
3. Relationships & Communication
Dan: Communication sounds simple, right? Well, if we are truly doing “intercultural communication,” then it won’t be. There will be some tough spots and some areas that we might not know how to deal with. When this happens, we also need to check our intent vs. impact levels. Our intentions often mean very little in comparison with the impact they have on another person. This is where a relationship and good communication comes in: remember, the meaning of the word is not within the word itself, it is within the person. [[For example, pick a word like “tight,” and have students in your group write down what they think this means. You will be surprised at what they come back with. Language is subjective to the culture it is being used in; a word that is a curse word in one culture may be used to describe something completely different in another culture.]] True relationships are about experiencing the perspective of “the other”. [[Concept taken from Martin Buber. See Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Scribner, 1970, orig. 1937).]]
Jude: Yes, we need to take the time to really hear and experience the other. It seems so simple yet Tom Skinner used to say that before he would talk to anyone about race, they needed to spend 1000 hours hanging out together. By listening and spending time with youth, not only in our space (our church or community center) but also in their space, we can begin to see the world from another perspective. The Native Americans have a saying not to judge anyone until you have walked a mile in his/her moccasins.
- If you have access to it, and have the time, see the documentary film The Color of Fear before or after you see Crash. Then take a moment or two to reflect on racism in the United States, your own life, your family’s life, and in the relationships around you. A side note: if you think that Crash is heavy, The Color of Fear is 20 tons heavier; proceed with caution and be ready to dialogue with others. If you are working with younger youth, and think Crash or The Color of Fear may not be appropriate, the film Grand Canyon and What’s Cookin communicate many of the same themes.
- See Crash, and then see it again. What did you see differently the second time that you missed the first time? What stood out? Why? Which character best represents you — who do you most identify with? Take some time for discussion with some friends — preferably some folks of different ethnicities.
- Where did you see the Messianic figure throughout the film? Which character did you think you had figured out? Why? Where did you think Ryan Phillippe’s character was going to end up? A hero? What did you think of his interactions with Larenz Tate at the end of the film?
- What steps can you take that will begin or continue to break down the barriers that divide us as a society, and in the church? As you think about these steps, keep in mind that dealing with the stereotypes of race and class are not something we do only once. These are deep-seated themes in society, and dealing with them is more like an onion – we peel one layer, only to find another layer. I (Jude) have been dealing with this for many years, and still have more layers to go. We do not need to feel guilty about this.
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