Crash (2005)

At the risk of exposing my lack of attention or inability to follow non-linear storylines, I have something to confess:  I know there’s a “crash” in this movie, maybe even multiple crashes (including metaphorical ones, oooooh), but damned if I can figure out who all was involved and what happened to them.  Because, okay – there’s the crash in the beginning with the black guy who turns out to be a detective, and it’s apparently a big one, but it’s also noteworthy that it’s nighttime.  Later on, though, we see the wife of the movie producer in a (different?) crash, but it’s daytime.  What gives?  It’s not like they called this movie “Crashes.”

Although I tend to struggle with large casts of characters, in theory I like the idea of stories with multiple threads that overlap and interweave, and on the surface, Crash is entertaining for that.  I’ve read that this film is generally considered to be overrated and undeserving of its Oscar win, so I was expecting a hot mess.  I don’t really find it to be a hot mess so much as a bit heavy-handed and ultimately kind of unsatisfying.

Pretty much every character in Crash is either reprehensible with a brief moment of redemption or generally okay/sympathetic until they do something terrible.  At best, we’re left with the uncomfortable sense that everyone is just moments away from spewing blatantly offensive insults toward people of different races from us.  While there may be some truth to that, it would be nice to see a movie that addresses racism in its subtler methods.  It’s easy to look at a character like Matt Dillon’s (I didn’t pick up the names while viewing the movie, and I’m certainly not going back to look them up now) and say, “Wow, what a racist; I am definitely a way better person than he is.”  Far harder is to look at the more insidious ways we are terrible to each other.

My favorite character was the locksmith, the young Latino guy who was accused of being a gang member.  He’s one of the few who came out of the movie looking pretty decent, and the scenes with his daughter were the only ones that inspired a genuine emotion in me besides discomfort.

I was also reminded of a lesser-known TV show that I think pre-dated this movie but used a similar conceit.  It was called Boomtown, a police procedural that took place in LA and featured the unusual trick of showing each week’s crime from the perspective of various characters.  When it worked well, it was a really clever method of storytelling, revealing surprising things about the lives of the detectives, uniformed cops, journalists, district attorney, and EMTs involved in cases.  There were also far fewer racial slurs and assholes, so there’s that.  Maybe I’ll just go back and rewatch it on DVD.

Crash:  better than advertised.  Because it was advertised to be utter crap.  It’s also worth pointing out that, among a swath of unrealistic circumstances in the movie (all these people keeping bumping into each other in such a massive city!), the most improbable:  a black guy gets pulled over by the cops in a suspected stolen vehicle and gets out of it without being shot by police or even arrested.  I don’t even think that’s supposed to be funny.

 

Theme:  crossing paths

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Probably an unprintable racial slur

 

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In the Heat of the Night (1967)

 

I’m not a poet by any stretch of the imagination, but I can’t resist saying the title of this film over and over. In the Heat of the Night. In the Heat of the Night. In the Heat of the Night. It has a great rhythm to it, and Wikipedia tells me that this particular arrangement of meter is called an anapest. To be fair, though, I think the title stands out to me more vividly because of the late 1980s TV show derived from the film, which used to air on USA in syndication.

Though I’ve probably seen Sidney Poitier in something before, I never before now appreciated his presence. He’s amazing in this role as Virgil Tibbs, exuding quiet confidence in the face of blatant racism. Poitier’s character – an expert homicide detective with the police force in Philadelphia – has clearly earned respect in his position, but at the same time, isn’t surprised by his reception, not even from the very first moment he’s arrested in a case less of mistaken identity than of blame-the-first-black-man-you-see.

It’s so easy to depict racism in the South – Southern-ness itself as a sort of shorthand for racist – and yet Northerners don’t seem to be as willing to face culpability for the legacy of slavery and oppression in this country. Not our problem, we think. Or maybe part of it is shock. Not in the big, dramatic explosions of violence against an uppity black man, because we could do such a thing. It’s the small moments of inhumanity that shock us, jokes and dismissals, because if we really think hard enough, look deeply enough into ourselves, we might see a reminder of something familiar, something we’ve done to diminish the humanity of someone who wasn’t white.

This film was released in 1967, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. In today’s Oscar climate, it’s hard to imagine such a bold decision as to award this movie Best Picture. I wonder how that came about, choosing this movie over the year’s other nominees, which included The Graduate and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. What was it that made the difference – that famous scene where a white suspect slaps Tibbs and, for the first time in cinematic history, the black man slaps back?

I really liked this film, which is especially notable considering I don’t fully understand the resolution of the crime. Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of crime-solver television and reading mystery novels (almost half of the last twenty novels I’ve read have been Agatha Christie’s). I’m always terrible at picking up on clues and figuring out who-dun-it, so I can’t say whether this film succeeds as a solvable mystery, but it does set the appropriate scene for a gritty crime drama with a more serious undercurrent. It makes sense that the pairing of Tibbs and Chief Gillespie inspired a television show, because they share an interesting dynamic and tension. It’s quite a stretch, though, that Tibbs would want to stick around a place like Sparta, Mississippi.

Virgil Tibbs has to be infallible among this group of mediocre small-town cops and backwoods hicks just to stay out of jail. Respect is even harder to come by, and it’s unclear whether he gets it from anyone by film’s end, except maybe the police chief. Strange how so many of the themes in a 50-year-old film ring just as true today.

 

Theme: Race Relations

First Time Watching? Yes

Final Verdict: I’ll call him Mister Tibbs