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A Sociological Analysis of the Movie "Crash"

Justin Aptaker writes about philosophy, religious studies, sociology, spirituality, culture, psychology, history, and the future.


Crash, a 2005 film by director Paul Haggis, begins by saying, "It's the sense of touch . . .we miss . . . so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something." The use of the word "touch" suggests human connection. "Feel" conjures a sense of emotion. We want to be moved by one another; to feel our common human existence. Our search for this sort of human connection persists despite many peripheral issues which divide us, but it is the search itself, not the issues, which provides the movie's main theme. I will explore this theme from the perspective of sociology, by examining how the movie deals with race and gender issues.

Social Constructs vs. Inborn Characteristics

Race and gender are not physical attributes. They are social constructions. The movie portrays the district attorney of L.A. struggling to salvage his public image among black voters via finding an African American whom he can reward publicly. He considers a certain "black" firefighter who had recently performed his job heroically, but someone mentions that the firefighter is actually Iraqi. The D.A. responds, "He's Iraqi? Well, he looks black."

This scene illustrates clearly that racial categories are created and employed by people, although these categories often say little about a person's actual cultural or national heritage. In another scene, a detective refers to his lover as Mexican. She responds, "My father's from Puerto Rico, my mother's from El Salvador. Neither one of those is Mexico."

Traditional Gender Roles

Crash also beautifully illustrates how rigid gender roles can hinder connection between people. The traditionally male roles of "provider" and "protector" are especially examined. In one scene, a black film director named Cameron is pulled over by a racist police officer named John Ryan. Cameron's wife is with him, and soon begins antagonizing the officer and refusing to comply, even at Cameron's repeated request. So they are checked for weapons. When Cameron responds without aggression as John frisks his wife in a sexually suggestive way, she perceives him as failing to protect her.

She later accuses him of allowing her humiliation so the people he works with wouldn't "read about [him in the paper] . . . and realize that . . . he's actually black." In a scene at the film studio where Cameron directs, this does seem to be a fear of his, as he quietly agrees to make a scene more racially stereotypical. So perhaps fear of job loss did factor into his failure in his protector role.

However, if Cameron had become unemployed due to losing his public reputation, he'd eventually fail in his provider role. So he is torn between two equally demanding roles, and this role strain is precipitated by the racial discrimination he encounters. A rift results between him and his wife. She is hurt that he didn't protect her somehow. He is angry about her initial hostility towards the police officer, which he perceived as reckless. Then after her recklessness caused them trouble, she wounds his pride by making him feel inadequate. Their marriage seems in danger of falling apart.


Rethinking Gender Roles

Crash shows that we should reanalyze the distinctions between "male" traits, such as decisiveness and aggression, and "female" traits, like submissiveness, non-aggression, and intuition. The movie portrays a Persian American shop owner who buys a handgun to protect his wife and his daughter, Dorri. Dorri's intuition gives her a bad feeling about this. Since her father has a limited grasp of English, she purchases a box of ammunition labeled "Blanks" for the new gun.

After the family's shop is vandalized and destroyed, threatening his means of providing for his family, he pursues a locksmith whom he mistakenly holds responsible for the situation. He holds the locksmith at gun-point, demanding money for compensation. The locksmith's little girl, who is wearing an imaginary "impenetrable cloak" her father had given her, throws herself in front of the gun. The gun goes off, pointed at the girl, but she is unharmed. Tragedy has been averted because Dorri circumvented her father's wishes by getting blanks for ammunition.

Her behavior represents traits of action and decisiveness, rather than passivity or submission. However, her behavior also shows traits of intuition and non-aggression. This illustrates that people must utilize traits for their situational appropriateness, negating the very idea of gender appropriateness. This negation of gender is shown by the symbolic qualities which, in this scene, prevent the tragedy: non-penetration and impenetrability. Penetrating and being penetrated form the most basic symbolism of male and female roles. Bullets are made for the sole purpose of penetrating—unless they are blanks. That impenetrability is represented by an impenetrable cloak needs no further explanation.

Faith, Hope, and Love

Symbolically, the locksmith's little girl became the protector of both her father—she tells him, "I'll protect you"—and her father's assailant, who later says, "She came to protect me." This symbolism reveals more than just a reversal of gender roles. The girl's imaginary cloak is impenetrable, which indicates the best possible defense. The cloak represents faith, as it operates solely by the girl's belief in it. It also symbolizes hope, since her father could only hope that nothing would harm her in spite of her faith. Also, the men were protected by the girl's loving self-sacrifice: she threw her very self into the line of fire.

Since she "protected" both men, the symbolic mechanisms of her protective act represent forces that shield against both our ability to destroy others and our ability to be destroyed by others. Since her protection was symbolic, not physical, the mechanisms protect against psychological/spiritual damage, not physical harm. So faith, hope, and self-sacrifice must be present if we are to avoid the mutual damage of "crash-like" interactions, and instead find human connection.

It is possible to examine faith, hope, and self-sacrifice without resorting to a religious perspective. "Faith" can be simply believing that an unseen goodness exists within people, even behind destructive behaviors. Officer John Ryan's racism is intertwined with a deep capacity for compassion. His love for his sickly old father results in self-sacrificing efforts to help him, but his grief over his father's misfortunes misleads him to find a scapegoat to blame (black people). Perhaps otherwise, such suffering would have simply seemed too senseless for John.

"Hope" is a willingness to wait for our faith to be outwardly justified, that is, for the unseen goodness within people to manifest in their behavior. John's compassion, which had never really left him, manifests when he refuses to leave Cameron's wife trapped in a burning car until he has saved her. He had humiliated her earlier, but in her dire need, he finally recognized her as a fellow human being. And looking at John after he risked his life to save hers, Cameron's wife couldn't help but have the same recognition. Self-sacrifice made the way for their connection.

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Facing Our Shadow and Finding the Light

Cameron, tired of feeling spineless, almost dies when he violently threatens a group of police officers. This reckless action ends up doing more than soothing his wounded pride, however. He can no longer pass judgment on his wife for her capacity to behave recklessly but must forgive her, because he's discovered his own capacity to behave even more recklessly.

Additionally, the common trigger for both his and his wife's recklessness—they share the predicament of living as a racial minority—shows him that he and his wife are "in this together." They must act as comrades, not enemies. So any fault or evil that we notice in another is likely to lead us to our common ground, but only if we are willing to fully face the corresponding shadows within our own nature.

Facing the darkness within also puts us on guard against its potential for harm. In the film, a white police officer repeatedly takes a stand against racism. However, in one of the last scenes, he gives a black hitchhiker a ride while off-duty. While his passenger makes friendly conversation about country music and ice-skating, this strongly anti-racist police officer simply doesn't believe anything he says. He can't picture a hitchhiking black man being interested in those things. He misreads his passenger as being antagonistic. When the black man reaches into his pocket, the rookie officer feels threatened and quickly shoots him, killing him.

If even someone so genuinely appalled by racism can fail so tragically to connect with another person due to race differences, it is clear that everyone has at least some tendencies toward racial prejudice. The anti-racist policeman who killed the black hitchhiker might have acted differently if he had ever acknowledged and worked on the prejudice buried deeply in the shadow of his personality. But in accord with the eerily prophetic words of John Ryan, he had "no idea" who he really was.

So the dark side of human nature may either destroy us or lead us to mutual understanding and forgiveness of others. The dark side of life, similarly, may be either a cause for utter despair or the holy ground on which we hold all things common. Regardless of our social class or physical characteristics, we all suffer feelings of helplessness, loneliness, alienation, and fear. We all must endure pain, sadness, uncertainty, loss, and death. It is these things that we most loathe that form the soil where we might grow the human connections that we so desperately need. In this soil, beautiful connections can grow quickly between people who otherwise would spend a lifetime only crashing destructively into each other.

An example already given was John and Cameron's wife, who were enemies until he saw her visited by terror, pain, and imminent death, and felt the kinship that can only be felt by another being who shares the knowledge of those terrible things. And in the few seconds between the moment the gun goes off in the Persian American shop owner's hand and the moment the locksmith realizes his little girl is not hurt, the locksmith is transformed before the shop owner's eyes. Where he once saw just a "thing" that creates trouble, he now sees a reflection of himself. In those seconds, the helpless girl clutched by her father becomes his own daughter, Dorri.

The howls and sobs coming from the locksmith echo in the shop owner's very core, where he feels the gravity of such loss and grief. The locksmith, like him, fears nothing more than that harm or death should touch his daughter. Simultaneously, the shop owner sees his own potential for evil, a darkness so black that the sight of it makes his mind reel. Dazed, he stares at the loathsome thing in his hand, as if wondering how it got there. Seeing that the little girl is unharmed, he stumbles toward his car. Life will be wonderfully different.


Tracy on April 06, 2020:

I know its been like more than 5 years this movie was released but honestly speaking this is the best movie ever and thanks for providing us with deeper and understandable information.

I am currently film and tv production student, I want to became an EDITOR... THEE BEST FEMALE EDITOR. I also want to do the DOP.

Our boss gave us a task of watching 50 years back movies that won Oscar.. out 50 movies I found this one interesting and I love it because the writer left me with lots of question that I had to ask myself and go to Google.

Anyway I like how the writer played with my mind I mean like when i was watching the movie I felt like i know what going to happen in the end e.g "Graham will find who killed his brother and Cameron is going to end dead or in jail" unfortunately my predictions were wrong the writer just kept me on guessing which is a good thing.Like the background song damn they were matching with the scenes and I like the ending part with birdeye view shot its like everything was on point .

Lol I can go on and on about the movie and never finish. But otherwise this was thee best movie for me which won thee Oscar award...

fuhnzy on April 05, 2018:

awesome work mate

mckinzie on December 18, 2017:

does anyone know how long it took them to made the movie?

emily on February 08, 2017:

you very briefly touched on the racial tensions displayed throughout the movie, which was the main premise behind the movie

Lillie on December 08, 2016:


Regarding your analysis on the scene where Cameron and Christine are pulled over by the cops, I feel that you unjustly described the situation. Christine was not, as you say, "antagonizing" the officers. She was antagonized by the police and unjustly pulled over. Cameron and Christine are put into this situation because they are black, and they are being antagonized by the police. Also you say that Officer Ryan "frisks [Christine] in a sexually suggestive way." No. He molested her and he sexually assaults her. Please don't normalize his actions by not calling it what it is. You invalidate women's experiences in the process.

Harry F Banks on June 23, 2016:

Dorri did not know the gun shop owner sold her blanks. At that point she was more interested in leaving the shop, especially because of his sexual hints relative to size, etc., and getting to her father. She was just as much in the dark at purchasing the gun and bullets as her father was. I suggest you give the film another viewing.

lol on November 05, 2015:

Yes she did XD

honey on November 03, 2015:

Did this person openly admit to plagiarizing this???^

aneesh on October 14, 2014:

This is brilliant. I submitted this for my sociology assignment and got a B+ .

Nida on September 02, 2013:

Your analysis is beautiful. I hope one day I can write with as much confidence as you wrote here. Loved it. I got an A in my exam because of this. Thank you.

Vipin on April 08, 2013:

Nice review.

Erica on October 13, 2012:

Love your analysis (and the movie)! Dorri knew they were blanks and also knew her father couldn't read English on the box nor would he have knowledge of what a blank was if he could.

ryan on March 28, 2012:

thanks a lot for this valuable info, your the best god bless

Ashley on March 28, 2012:

Just my take, I think Dori knew they were blanks. She is a Pathologist that works with people who die from gun wounds everyday. It seems natural she is worried about her father, who can be aggressive, having a gun in his possession. When she sees the store was vandalized, the first thing she thought of was the gun because it's registered to her father. At the end when she's putting them in her purse, she glances over at her father as if she's trying to hide the box of ammo from him so that he doesn't see that they are actually blanks. It's a debatable topic, but given all the subtle hints it seems to me that she knew from the beginning.

Justin Aptaker (author) from United States on November 25, 2011:

Thank you, Jools!

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on November 25, 2011:

Excellent, interesting hub. Your level of analysis is admirable, it must have taken you a long time to get this all down on the page, well done. Crash is one of my favourite films and it is certainly a film which is meant to make you think - yes, entertaining but it has a stronger meanings and Haggis manages to make his points but also keep the story rattling along at a strong pace. Voted up.

CB on October 02, 2011:

Fantastic! Thanks so much! Really helped with a paper I am writing for class...

New 2011 Mom from Pennsylvania, USA on September 23, 2011:

Honestly this has helped me a lot with trying to analyze a movie in a sociological way for a class.

Justin Aptaker (author) from United States on January 25, 2011:

Thank you, Twilight Lawns! I'm glad you liked it. I'll have to look at that part where Dori buys the ammunition again. I wonder...

Twilight Lawns from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K. on January 25, 2011:

What a brilliant analysis. I just love the way you attacked this subject. 'Crash' is a movie I have seen many times. I bought it and watched it and then watched it again and again because it's an "Oh so that's what that's about" movie.

I can't say that I agree with your complete interpretation, but that has nothing to do with my complete admiration of your writing skills.

My only objection (if that is not too harsh a word) is that I feel that "Tragedy has been averted because Dorri circumvented her father's wishes by getting blanks for ammunition." I don't think it was a deliberate act one her behalf; there was a lot of anger and frustration in the gun shop at that time, and I think that she picked up the blanks now knowing what they were. He actually points to them on the shelf and superciliously says something like, "So these are the ones you want?"

My interpretation, I admit, but thank you again.

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