Monday, March 06, 2006

Crash Wins Best Picture: Re-examining Crash

As I reside overseas, I watch Oprah on MBC 4 (a Saudi based TV channel) whenever I get a chance. MBC shows the previous season’s Oprahs, so they are always a little behind. I happened to catch the episode in which Oprah featured the cast of the movie Crash. Crash deals with underlying racism and prejudice in American society, and she and the cast of the film discussed those issues. She also had regular people come and confess to prejudiced behavior. I think that Crash was a good movie because in our era of political correctness, racial issues get swept under the rug with an everything-is-fine smile. Still, I felt that the movie had a lot of painful-to-watch contrived dialogue. Crash dealt with the white/black issue well, and even threw in a positive Mexican American character for good measure. Positive Mexican American characters are a rarity in Hollywood, but this character had a lot of dialogue that would definitely fall into the contrived category. Personally I was very critical of the way that the Asian and Middle Eastern characters were portrayed. Though the black and white characters had a lot of depth, the Korean and Persian characters were practically cartoons. Due to grueling, decades long work by certain minority advocacy groups, it is rare though not impossible to find the same deeply offensive portrayals of former times. People from ethnic groups which have a long history of activism against negative media images, like Jewish and African American groups, are examples of this. However, as Asian and Middle Eastern Americans weren’t a significant population in North America until after the 1970s, these groups have a shorter history in the country and lack the power and organizational clout of groups who have a longer established history in the US. Therefore, it is rare to hear loud voices standing up to negative and stereotyped images of South and East Asians and Middle Easterners. Also, the broader public is less sensitive to stereotyped images of people from these groups and probably don’t even recognize them as problematic or offensive. In Crash, the main Iranian character was an overly emotional Middle Eastern man, a confused foreigner who acts on instinct and feelings rather than on logic. Anyone who has studied Orientalist portrayals of Middle Easterners will recognize this character right away, for he pops up in both news and entertainment media from time to time. He is the same Iranian man from The House of Sand and Fog, and the same angry, emotive Arab crying or beating his chest on the nightly news. The Korean characters were typical “inscrutable Asians.” One was involved in organized crime (human trafficking), hence he was the Asian gangster who shows up in primetime cop shows along with the greasy haired Colombian drug lord, the unscrupulous Jewish diamond dealer, the irrational Arab terrorist, or the swaggering black male gangsta---come on, you know you have seen these guys from Miami Vice to CSI. The woman was the Dragon Lady. She was a shrewd bitch packed in a miniature frame, but screaming in a loud, choppily accented voice. She is another cartoon from the Canon of Oriental Females of Hollywood, along with the sexy massage parlor prostitute or the Good Earth farmer’s dutiful wife. Anyway, the movie Crash got people talking about the race issue again, which is a good thing. But I just wish that the non-black and non-white roles had more depth because America is not just black and white. The Oprah episode wasn’t earth shattering, but I think having regular people come and confess their prejudices was constructive because it fosters self-examination. We all try our best to be tolerant and open-minded, but it is hard to get away from internalized racist ideas. I was raised in an environment in which open prejudice towards more visible minorities like African Americans or Jews or Latinos (Latinos are very visible in Texas, my home state, anyway) was not tolerated at all. Note the emphasis on open, because we really do have a long way to go. However, being a Muslim has made me scrutinize in depth the history of stereotyped images of Muslims and Arabs, as well as other less visible minorities. Just like everyone else, I grew up with childhood movies and bed time stories about Aladdin and Sheherezadeh, and pantalooned harem girl tales. I had heard of fat, oil-rich sheikhs. I had seen Not Without My Daughter, and the day time talk shows in which white women came on TV and talked about being abused by daft, backward Middle Easterners. At the time I was exposed to those things, I was a child and I was not a Muslim. So, I too was implicitly raised to be prejudiced against Muslims. ALL Americans and Westerners are exposed to these images and have been since the Reconquista and the Crusades, they just don’t recognize these images as racist or offensive and accept them as part of everyday life. That sounds like a very strange statement unless you show parallels between Orientalist portrayals of Muslims and older portrayals of say, blacks or Jews. A story about a tar baby is just as damaging as story about a fantasy harem slave girl. A Mammy Doll is just as bad as a Genie in a Bottle. The wide spread European myth of old that Jews used the blood of Christian children in their Passover rituals is just as offensive and damaging as today's myth that Muslims are naturally violent and bloodthirsty and long to kill "infidels" due to our religion. All of these images otherize and demonize. They separate the us and them, making the “them” exotic and sub-human. The “them” are easy to discriminate against and in worst case scenarios, easier to wipe off of the face of the earth if they are thought of in exotic and less than human terms. These ugly things should be stamped out of our culture if we truly believe in tolerance and equality as American ideals. Unfortunately, Crash wasn’t as kind to some minority characters as it was to others, though based on the apparent message of the movie, it should have been. I’d like to share this to the writers of Crash. Think they’ll ever stop by this blog??? :)

An earlier version of this review appeared at luckyfatima.


sume said...

"Personally I was very critical of the way that the Asian and Middle Eastern characters were portrayed."

You aren't the only one. I've read the same thing throughout blogosphere. And I was really looking forward to seeing that movie, just as I was with the Memoirs movie. Disappointed again! POO!

musicalchef said...

Yeah, i agree with the review, although it was a very powerful movie overall and i think it was a good start in opening dialogue on these subjects.

It had so much cursing, though; did they really need to curse THAT much in there?