A Sociological Analysis of the Movie "Crash"
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. Dori'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 Ryan 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.
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 which 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 Ryan 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, Dori. The howls and sobs coming from the locksmith echo in the shop owners 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.
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© 2010 Justin Aptaker