Us and Them

Daring to tackle the troublesome issue of race

Magazine Issue
July/August 2005
Us and Them

As we know, Hollywood doesn’t specialize in tackling subjects in which the good guys and bad guys can’t be easily identified. So the theme of racism has been a troublesome one for the movies, and something to be generally avoided. But, even worse, when it has been addressed, the resulting films have usually been melodramas in which the racists are inhuman villains and their victims are innocent saints.

Back in the ’50s and ’60s, saintly and presumably celibate Sidney Poitier, always too good to be true, made a series of such films, like Blackboard Jungle, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, where he was so unthreatening, he was the ideal husband for Tracy and Hepburn’s daughter. Usually an ugly actor, like trollish Rod Steiger, played the snarling, racist monster. At times, a stunning white saint, like Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962 or cherubic Claude Jarman, Jr., in Intruder in the Dust in 1949, would stand up to the mob. The underlying message of such films is a lot like racism itself: other people are racist, not us. The films identify a class of people (i.e., dirty, snarling Cro-Magnans) who don’t look like you and me, and thus don’t deserve to be understood and respected like us upstanding nonracists do.

Now a great new film, Crash, suggests that maybe racism isn’t so much a matter of individual evil or psychopathology as of what happens when the world feels threatening and we need to distinguish Our Team from Their Team. At such times, we search desperately for markers that tell us who’s going to help us and who might hurt us.

Crash, written and directed by Paul Haggis, who did the screenplay for Million Dollar Baby, is a rondelet, thickly populated, richly felt, and far too short. It explores a day and a half in the paranoid lives of a dozen or so multicultural denizens of modern L.A., opening with a fender-bender involving African American police detective Don Cheadle and his Latina lover, Jennifer Esposito. She promptly gets into a racial name-calling match with an Asian American woman, while the civilized Cheadle looks on sadly and philosophizes, as if above such primitive behavior. Yet in just a few minutes, he calls Esposito a Mexican, and she angrily explains her Latin American origins, reminding him all Latinas aren’t alike.

While others in the movie are trying to share the planet without violent encounters, a pair of African American hoodlums is looking for a fight. Sour-faced Chris “Ludacris” Bridges attributes the poor service in the greasy spoon where he’s eating to racism and the servers’ assumption that blacks don’t tip. His sweet-faced sidekick and most loyal critic, Larenz Tate, points out that: one, the waitress is black; two, the service is lousy for the white patrons, too; and three, the two of them don’t, in fact, tip.

A few moments later, the pair carjack an upscale white couple at gunpoint, choosing them as victims because “rich bitch” wife Sandra Bullock grabs her husband, Brendan Fraser, by the arm when she sees two black men approaching. After the traumatic event, Fraser, who’s the L.A. District Attorney, pouts over how to protect his career from suspicions of racism and/or softness on crime, while an indignant Bullock goes into battle with her husband, demanding he declare racial war in her honor. She continues the battle with the blacks and Hispanics who work for her, and even with the gentle but tattooed Latino locksmith, Michael Pena, who’s come to change all her locks.

We then go home with Pena, who tries to relieve the fears of his 5-year-old daughter. Pena returns to work and explains to an irate, panicky Iranian client that he needs a new door as well as a new lock to keep his Arab-hating neighbors from trashing his store.  Instead the terrified Iranian buys a gun he doesn’t know how to use.

The movie soon cuts to white, racist cop Matt Dillon, who stops and torments an upscale black couple–TV producer Terrence Dashon Howard (so secure in his lifelong privilege that he can’t imagine racism being aimed at him) and his glamorous but drunk wife, Thandie Newton. When Newton mouths off to Dillon, he casually feels her up. Later she beats up on her husband for not fighting back against the cops. The newly alienated Howard suddenly discovers what it feels like to be black in a racist time and place.

Soon the gentler, not-so-racist characters in the film, like Howard, like Tate, like Dillon’s novice and appalled partner, Ryan Phillippe, also begin to get caught up in the contagion of fear, outrage, and stereotyping that’s at the core of racism, and find themselves reacting in all kinds of startling ways. At the same time–and this is the wallop of the film–the raging racists, like Dillon, have unexpected moments of kindness and even heroism. In an incredibly intense scene, Dillon risks his life to save a black woman from a burning car.

While Bridges has the scariest role and Dillon the meatiest, as the two racist extremes, it’s the sad-eyed Cheadle with whom we identify as he tries to make sense out of the lives of those busy protecting themselves from one another. As he tells Esposito, “We’re always behind this metal and glass. It’s the sense of touch. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other, so we can feel something.”

An actor of impressive range but not really commanding presence, Cheadle has mostly worked in support of more charismatic actors, and it takes a little time and attention for him to draw us in to his soulful sense of decency. We watch him here, as in Hotel Rwanda, feeling what we think we’d feel, but we’re not at all sure we could do what he tries to do to, in the belief that if one person does the right thing, others will follow.

We may be more likely to identify with ever-complaining Sandra Bullock, petrified of another racial attack, who observes “I’m angry all the time and I don’t know why.” But when she distractedly falls down the stairs and is unable to get any of her busy, preoccupied friends to take her to the E.R., she collapses on the Hispanic housekeeper she’d previously abused, and finally feels safe and free of rage.

Crash is intense and packed with moments of people who say things, do things, and feel things we don’t often see in movies. The film’s many coincidences may seem naive and artificial, but they work on the audience to intensify our connectedness and sense of the domino effect of even the most casual, unconscious racism (on whatever side of every racial, cultural, and ethnic divide). Everyone is afraid, horribly distrustful, and on the verge of rage. The film made me think of the bumper sticker: “Help! The paranoids are after us!”

Vividly photographed in real rooms and neighborhoods, Crash uses electronic music to distance us from the action and adventure, and to underscore the sadness of what it portrays. Each of the seven or more semiseparate stories leads to an epiphany, and I found myself crying through much of the last half hour as various characters learned things, and others found in themselves things they wouldn’t have imagined. Director Haggis succeeds in making it hard for us to stereotype any of the racists as villains or sanctify their victims as saints. We see that we, too, could even switch roles in the next inning.

Post-Crash, I’ve sought solutions to the infectiousness of anger at the objectified, unknown stranger, and unexpectedly found one in Kevin Costner’s performance in The Upside of Anger. The film tells of an upscale Michigan housewife, played by tightly wound Joan Allen, whose husband disappears, throwing her into a nonstop, vodka-soaked rage.

She rages at the nearest man, neighbor Kevin Costner, a gone-to-seed baseball has-been, spending his declining years sucking on a beer bottle, autographing baseballs, and talking on the radio. He tries to pay hazy, beer-soaked court to the angry lady, but gets verbal darts and emotional cannonballs in response. Still he lounges lazily on Allen’s patio, in her den, and finally her bathroom and bedroom.

Allen, with a pretty little face atop her long bony body, has always been a repository of moral grounding and good sense. In Ethan Frome, The Ice Storm, Nixon, The Contender, and The Crucible, she played good women of minimal personal needs and overriding dignity. Here, for once, she’s angry–angry in the way everyone in Crash is angry.

But of all people for her to blast as a symbol of treacherous husbands, Costner would seem the least likely, especially when he’s playing his specialty: a failing athlete (baseball player in Field of Dreams, For Love of the Game, and Bull Durham, and golfer in Tin Cup). His lazy masculinity and self-acceptance isn’t classically heroic, but it’s an inspiration to us tenser, more timid souls.

Costner doesn’t even seem to know that other men are afraid of angry women–women who’ve been attack-trained by the two-timers who went before. Perhaps his secret is that he has little to lose, whether the lady accepts him or rejects him, since he knows who he is either way. After all, as a baseball player, everything he’s ever done is in the statistics books. But the magic of the courtship is that he can see the passion behind the anger, and the wound behind the hurt, and the capacity for life behind the obsession.

I don’t know if Costner’s loose-limbed approach would relieve the tension in L.A. But somehow he has such a fully developed emotional immune system that he doesn’t “catch” Allen’s anger. It takes fear to make you vulnerable to impersonal, racial, or gender-based anger. He seems to think that if she (or anyone else) gets to know him personally, she won’t confuse him with whatever class of people she fears; and if she knows him, she’ll like him just fine.

Of course, if we get to know one another personally, we may or may not like one another just fine. But when our contacts are personal, at least they don’t tend to trigger the deep fear of the unknown and the apparently different that underlies racism. We may even discover that the better we get to know one another, the less difference there really is between you and me, us and them.

Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.