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As a part of daily life, we as human beings are faced with many situations. As soon as we are confronted with something, the frontal lobe of our brain makes an immediate judgment based on prior knowledge. Whether these judgments are “true” or “false,” our brain obtains this prior knowledge because of past experiences, teachings, and the environment we live in. No matter what judgments are made, humans have been influenced to make assumptions. While some assumptions may be minor, like if a certain candy bar is satisfying; other assumptions could detrimentally impact many lives and bring long-lasting consequences.
In the film Crash, Paul Haggis shows the harmful and negative effects that racial assumptions can lead to.
Racism and prejudice are demeaning assumptions and judgments made by people against other people that is rampant in the Western World. The film Crash, directed by Paul Haggis, literally and figuratively tells a story of a “crash” between ethnic groups, socio-economic classes, and even occupations in the city of Los Angeles.
Throughout this ultimately counter-hegemonic film, many dominant ideologies about race, ethnicity, and class are both reinforced and deconstructed. Haggis successfully presents a counter-narrative to dominant ideologies with his use of the film’s title, editing, symbolism, and characters. These rhetorical choices with the literary design and technical design make it possible for the film to address racism and prejudices in a brutally honest way. This film not only forces the viewers to confront one’s uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, but also challenges and ultimately overthrows the dominant ideologies of racial stereotyping that are present in our society.
According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, the word “crash” means an “an accidental or intentional occurrence or a violent collision.” This metaphor of the word crash is constantly seen throughout the film. At first, viewers begin to think that these “racial collisions” had only occurred by accident. However, this conscious choice made by Haggis, helps audience members begin to understand the corrupt influences stereotypes have in our society. As a result of these crashes, many stereotypes are deconstructed, and so are the ideologies that one has. In addition, since the film is titled ” Crash ” viewers already make an assumption that something violent will take place. Indeed, the viewers are correct. Even film critique of the New Yorker, Scott Denby, said “Haggis is pushing the word ‘crash’ beyond· literal: he means any kind of rough contact between folks from different ethnic groups.” Because of these “beyond literal” car crashes, audience members not only gasp at the stereotypes made. But also, begin to analyze not only their own lives, but also the degrading stereotypes that are present in our society.
For example, in the opening scene of the movie the metaphor of the word “crash” is illustrated when a literal car crash has just occurred. Following this collision, a confrontation between the drivers of the two cars develops. An argument between an Asian woman and a Hispanic woman arises; in which many racial slurs and ethnically-demeaning judgments are made based upon typical stereotypes. The racial comments made in the fight may be humorous to the viewers since no one was physically hurt. However, since audience members might laugh at this scene, proves that dominant ideologies regarding race and ethnicity are present in our society. Because of this opening scene, Haggis is able to simultaneously reinforce the ideology of ethnocentrism, while establishing the theme that “everyone is racist and prejudiced.”
Another way that Haggis is able to reinforce this metaphorical meaning of a “racist crash,” is by the use of editing. The editor of the film Crash, Hughes Winborne, had a challenge to “intertwine the lives of·unrelated character[s] from ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds over a thirty-six hour period” (Peters 2). Since the film Crash was released in 2004, just three years after 9/11, there were still many emotions of fear, anxiety, and racial tensions present throughout the United States. Furthermore, because the United States is not populated by just one ethnic group, Winborne had to capture all of these emotions from multiple ethnic perspectives. Winborne even said, “editing was tricky· we had around half-a-million feet of film.” However, regardless of the challenges he faced, Winborne was able to successfully create a fast cutting film between scenes. This fast cutting editing technique creates a literal car crash feeling for the audience members.
For example, in the intense scene between Cameron Thayer and the two carjackers, Anthony and Peter; fast editing is used in order to thrill audience members. As carjackers in this scene attempt to steal Thayer’s car, audience members are mixed with two types of shots. First, a few subjective shots are seen from the perspective of one carjacker and then are mixed into multiple objective shots that are from the perspective of the L.A. police. The tempo in this scene quickens as Winborne uses fast cutting between the police and Thayer as the car chase progresses. As Cameron drives into a cul-de-sac, the “nail biting” intensifies. This is possible not only because of the stupendous acting performance, but also the fast cuts between Officer Hanson and Thayer. The technical element of using quick paced over-the-shoulder shots, creates an action filled racial collision, in this non-action film.
Furthermore, the editing not only reinforces the metaphor to the films title, but also it reinforces the counter narrative. Because Crash does not follow a “classical Hollywood narrative,” with one or maybe two plot lines. As viewers watch, they begin to discover that there is more than just one perspective from a “white male actor.” Moreover, because the film’s story line is constructed through editing from a multi-racial perspective, the ideologies of racial stereotyping are challenged. For example, Daniel, the Latino locksmith is able to interact with many other characters throughout the film. When he changes the locks at the Cabot’s residence, he is accused of being a “typical” Latino man, a gang-banger. At first, viewers might agree with Jean’s ethnically-charged assumptions, because of the wardrobe Daniel is wearing. However, because of the editing, audience members get to see that Daniel does not live up to that stereotype. In contrast, despite of living in a neighborhood where gunshots are heard; Daniel is an incredible loving father and husband. In addition, editing is not the only technical element used to challenge the status quo.
In order for a counter narrative to be established, Haggis also uses literary design to communicate the counter-hegemonic message. The characters of the film are one of these central elements used by Haggis. Considering that many dominant ideologies of race and ethnicity are present throughout the film, many stereotypes are made and said by characters. Although, many of the characters live up to these stereotypes; the status quo is questioned. For example, the first white characters we meet are the stereotypical rich white male and female, Jean and Rick Cabot. These characters, played by Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser, are beautiful, confident, and obviously have a high social status. These elements help the viewers identify these characters and subconsciously label them with privilege. As the audience expects, Rick Cabot (Brendan Fraser) does have social power after all because he is an L.A. District Attorney. In this scene, Jean and Rick have just come from dinner and are walking back to their car. Jean grabs her husband after seeing two young “gang bangers.” These African American teens, played by Ludacris and Larenz Tate, see Jean’s action and discuss how she is a “typical racist white woman” for expressing fear in a “white neighborhood.” Yet ironically, these African-Americans are “typical” gang members, when they go onto steal the Cabot’s SUV, exemplifying Haggis’ narrative which both complicates racism while it tries to deconstruct it.
In this scene, Haggis demonstrates a white female’s racist behavior, by having Jean clutch her husband for security. However, Haggis goes onto suggest that her behavior was legitimate, when the African Americans actually do steal her car. Some might argue that in this scene Haggis does not establish a counter-narrative against white privilege, but does the complete opposite and reinforces that dominant ideology. But, even though that might be true, Haggis merely suggests to viewers that a counter-narrative could be present in our society. He does this by making viewers judge the reactions made by Jean. However, because Jean is ultimately robbed, viewers begin to question whether some stereotypes are valid are not.
Another prominent racial collision amongst characters of different ethnic groups is between Officer Ryan and Cameron and Christine Thayer. In this scene Officer Ryan, the character played by Matt Dillon, sexually assaults Thandie Newton right in front of her husband. As viewers watch, they are overwhelmed with emotions of anger, disgust, and distrust towards Matt Dillion’s character. Meanwhile viewers are also filled with emotions of outrage and confusion when Cameron Thayer, played by Terrence Howard, idly watches his own wife get sexually assaulted. Dillon’s disgusting actions in this scene not only reinforce the ideology that all white male cops are “slimy pricks;” but also it reinforces another truth that minorities in Western society are powerless, especially against repressive state authorities like the police. Haggis is able to achieve this by having Matt Dillion’s character dehumanize Christine Thayer. Ultimately, this reinforces that male Caucasians are more dominant than the African-American race.
Even though this scene reinforced many dominant ideologies, as the film progresses and character storylines unfold, Haggis is able to slowly deconstructs those ideologies previously reinforced and establishes a counter-narrative. For example, previously in the film it has been established that the white males have power and have no compassion at all. However, as the story unfolds, audience members discover that Officer Ryan is empathetic and merciful towards his own dying father. This literary device suggests to viewers that this dominant ideology of “Whiteness” may not be true after all. Ultimately, Haggis establishes a counter-narrative when Officer Ryan rescues the same woman he previously assaulted, Christine Thayer, from a burning car. This heroic action done by Officer Ryan leaves audience members astonished and puzzled. In spite of this Officer’s objectionable past, this event proves that not everyone is classified under a certain stereotype based upon one action.
Furthermore, Haggis is able to establish the counter-narrative that not all stereotypes are true, when Officer Hanson accidently kills a hitchhiker. Unlike the other scenes throughout the movie, this racial collision between the Officer and the hitchhiker does not occur by chance. However, this collision was intentional. In this scene Officer Hanson is driven by his admiring and caring attitude when he intentionally picks up a stranded hitchhiker, Peter. After the pick-up, they begin to drive into town. A conversation arises regarding a “religious statue” that located on Hanson’s car dash. As the conversation progresses as do tensions and racial assumptions. As Peter, innocently reaches in his pocket Hanson makes a racial judgment that he is pulling out a gun and shoots the man. As the gunshot was heard, Hanson and audience members are immediately shocked and filled with astonishment over what has just occurred. This scene is jaw dropping. Hanson’s “accidental” misfire shows to viewers that no one is exempt from racial stereotyping. Ironically, Peter was reaching for a “Christ-like” statue, one that not only signified peace, forgiveness, redemption, and love, but also signified equality between two ethnic groups. Furthermore, because Hanson burns the dead body, the counter-narrative is established. By this act, Haggis not only proves that not everyone lives up to certain stereotypes present in our society, but also that good-hearted people are capable of evil actions. After this scene, the status quo is no longer just being challenged but it is overruled.
“Grouping people according to their race, ethnicity, or nationality overlooks or undervalues the similarities and commonalties that exist between all human begins” (Griffin 48) In the film, Crash, racism and prejudice is not only addressed but questioned. Throughout the film many ethnic groups literally and figuratively crash into each other within a twenty-four hour period. In these “crashes” many dominant ideologies are reinforced and deconstructed. After seeing this movie, audience members have literally and figuratively seen the extensive whiplashes that racial stereotypes can have. Viewers are alarmed and appalled with respect to the frightening ideologies present in our society. After seeing the astonishing amount of debris that can come from an innocent racial judgment, viewers are compelled to question and reflect on their own lives and biases. Likewise, one can agree that everyone has good and bad inside of them, regardless of their ethnicity. Although people might live up to certain aspects of a typical racial stereotypes that does not mean that they are defined by that stereotype.
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