I’ve run across a lot of criticism of the film Crash lately, so I decided to watch it.

When I got to the end, last night, I couldn’t help but wonder what all the fuss was about. Not just the fuss about the racism, but general fuss. It’s a movie about racial tensions in LA. Well, what else will a movie in LA be about?

Okay, that’s snide, but really, I don’t know that I think the movie warranted that much attention. And then there’s the anti-Asian angle. Angry Asian Man isn’t the only person who thinks that Asians got the short end of the stick in the movie. Maybe it’s arguable: the stereotype of Asians as bad drivers comes up, and it turns out that one of the Asians in the film is a human-trafficker. Of course, a large number of characters come off leaving a bad taste in my mouth: the black car-thieves, the Persian gun-toting shop-owner, the (white!) Russian guy who offers one of the car-thieves money for a truckload of Southeast Asian illegal immigrants, the power-via-racial-politics-obsessed DA and his bitchy wife… just about every character shows some deep, disturbing flaw which helps explain just how screwed up race can be in America.

It brings to mind Lost, about which plenty of Koreans went up in arms because, surrounded by all kinds of shady characters — obvious refugees from the law, con men, and so on — the one Korean male character turned out to be a little too rough and grouchy, and then turned out to be a gangster. I’ve written before about the sexism inherent in that original backlash against the show, in which so many took offense at a nasty Korean male characterwhile ignoring the fact that in the female Korean character Sun was one of the very few unquestionably nice, good-hearted, decent people on the island.

Yes, the Korean man in Crash was a slave trafficker, or so I think. (It’s remotely possible he was paid to help transport those people secretly, but I really doubt it, especially the way he said, “Cash that check right away.”) But the only Russian (I think it was) character I saw was also eager and knew enough to get into the human slave trade in America, so what does that tell you? Isn’t the modern slave trade and the historical one explicitly linked by the way the black carjacker lets the slaves go in Chinatown?

And it’s not like all the other characters are wonderful either. The only Persian man I saw was not only a jerk but an idiot, and attacked a man with a gun instead of trying to understand what the man was telling him. The white people depicted in the film, almost every one of them, turned out to be frightening racists at least half of the time, sometimes more. It seemed to me there was very little to be truly sympathetic towards in any character except maybe Don Cheadle’s family story, and of course the carjacker towards the end.

It seems to me another case of Lost, where a person of one color feels identity with the character of the same color, and complains quickly, and misses the fact that, no, wait, they’re all jerks. And this, too, feels like an extension of the problem of race in America as the film is supposed to depict. When people take offense at what the feel is their depiction on the big screen, it’s always interesting. White people tend not to do this so much, and I do understand that that’s part of what it means to be a member of the “dominant majority” or whatever you call it. And while I agree it’d be really nice to see, say, more blacks in intelligent speaking roles, more Asians who aren’t gangsters, and more depictions of Middle-Eastern characters with, oh, say, and ounce of sympathy, I also think that this kind of thing isn’t going to change just because people complain about it.

Complaining is understandable, but after a while, it comes off as whining instead of as criticism. What Asian Americans need is a generation of people who care about this stuff so much that they start writing and directing films. They can’t depend on whites to reform themselves, because, hey, frankly, dominant majorities don’t tend to do that kind of thing willingly as a group. I know tons of students in Korea who are concerned about the discrimination that Koreans of mixed-race suffer under here, but it’s not going to change on the social level until those mixed-race people rise up and demand respect for themselves. I’m not saying something as stupid as, “Get yourselves a Spike Lee”, but rather, maybe, “Find a way to make self-representation possible.” There’s no avenue for self-expression only if you buy into the idea that the only movies in the world are Hollywood movies. It’s the scramble toward American middle classdom that makes it seem so.

And by the way, blanks can be very destructive at close range. I watched Derren Brown’s Russian Roulette recently, and it’s demonstrated in that program what a blank can do at close range. It certainly could kill a person. I think that little girl would still be dead even if it was blanks that the gun was loaded with.

UPDATE: By the way, I think I’ve realized, after reading some more about the issues of race in media, what the issue is for me: it’s that in general, nonwhites are pretty generally portrayed in pretty skewed ways. And I agree, this is definitely a change that white content producers ought to contribute to, but, you see, they’re TV execs, and that means they’re mostly quite bloody stupid and how can you expect more from them? TV is sh*t, TV is sh*t, repeat it to yourself. Hollywood is mostly sh*t too. It’s made to be comfortable and accessible to the local majority to they can be lulled into the proper kind of trance that will make them more receptive to suggestions by various companies who pay for access to the public’s brains. Remind yourself of that when you get annoyed, when it pisses you off. It’s all just a vehicle for advertising. Finding something that’s more valuable will make a big difference in the long run.

The big key to changing the schlocky mainstream, though, if it actually is imperative to do so, is finding an avenue in if you’re a creator who happens to be a member of one or other skewed minority; if you’re a creator, you will be contributing to the solution more than just being a sullen, resentful consumer. In other words, I would encourage someone like Angry Asian Man to spend his time writing a movie script or novel-to-be-adapted-to-film, instead of spending the energy (and money, and time) on a film industry that isn’t even serving his personal needs. Nobody ever said Hollywood was going to do so. Make it do so, or get into something else. The changes that are coming to media even now, but especially in the next twenty or so years, will mean he’ll be able to do an incredible number of things without Hollywood, which means it’s time to get started on figuring out how to use the tools and how to tell stories that are compelling and worthwhile.

6 thoughts on “Crash

  1. I was underwhelmed by Crash as a movie. Sure, it had Important Things to Say, but as an overall moviegoing experience it left me empty. However, I did enjoy several of the performances.

    The Oscars are what they are, but there were better movies that didn’t get nominated. Crash shouldn’t have even been on that list.

  2. I have a feeling many of the best movies made in a given year never even get close to that list, since, after all, the Oscars are a kind of promotional advertisement, more than anything else.

  3. though i agree with most of what you say here (and i appreciate you clearly acknowledging your voice as that of the “dominant culture”)…i have to take issue with your statement, “What Asian Americans need is a generation of people who care about this stuff so much that they start writing and directing films.”

    if only it were so straightforward as for that to “just happen.” i think America needs to care enough to PAY to watch Asian American plays and movies…until that happens, there will be very few opportunities for AA writers and directors.

    complaining, in my opinion, is a sign of helplessness. hopefully, yes, there will be more empowerment and a LOT less complaining/whining.

  4. c(h)ristine,

    In retrospect, I find it amusing that I qualified myself as the voice of the dominant culture when, you know, in my daily life, I’m definitely in the racial minority which, although generally privileged in comparison with other racial minorities here, still gets the quite pathetic end of the stick in Korean films when depicted at all.

    The difference is that I just don’t care more than it takes to laugh and dismiss the dominant film industry here. But then, I wasn’t born here as a minority, and I agree a non-Korean person born and raised here and continually excluded might have more issues with it. As well, there are other film industries and media available to me, so maybe that’s another reason I don’t care how whites are depicted in Korean film (and, of course TV, but that’s easier, since I don’t even have a tv set in my home).

    (EDIT: But it’s still worth noting that the depiction of whites in Korean media is, with a few exceptions, downright terrible. The stereotypes I occasionally encounter in my daily life — that white men have bigger penises than Koreans, are more sexually depraved than Koreans and are predators on young, “innocent” Korean women, can’t learn to speak Korean even badly, and have disdain for the nation as a whole — are, if not supported directly by recent films, certainly are very rarely met with opposing depictions. Not every white character is an assh*le, but if there are many white characters at all, one of them will generally be the assh*le, meaning the biggest assh*le in the film. I’m thinking of films like Please Teach Me English and Welcome to Dongmakgol, both of which actually depicted most of their white characters passably well, or at least with some sympathy; but the big jerk in each was, yes, a white guy. Which is quite something, considering how few nasty people there were in a film like Please Teach Me English. In Welcome to Dongmakgol, it seemed pretty clear to me that the American commander was a psychotic bastard bent on killing killing killing — which I can only read as a kind of self-conscious psychological transference of anxieties about Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s hand in the longstanding and continued separation of North and South Korea to an American scapegoat.

    Of course, as a white male, I am in general more privileged than, say, the African-Americans or Southeast-Asians in Korea, and the characters of their type who get the short end of the stick in Korea movies or, say, Korean News programs, or, indeed, in employment in Korea.

    Still, I think anyone with disdain for TV will also care less about how “their people” are depicted on it… not because it “just doesn’t matter” in that white-liberal sense, but because, hell, the majority of popular entertainment is crap made by idiots.)

    I agree that this change is so not straightforward as to be able to just happen. All kinds of dire needs are quite certainly easier said than done. Getting Bush out of office last time was direly needed, but didn’t happen. Educational reforms in Korea are so badly needed it’s not funny, but it’s not likely to hapen soon. Still, it’s worth examining how and why that might be the case specifically, and how it *could* happen.

    I think if Asian-American writers and playwrights go about things the right way, they can do a lot, without even requiring that audiences change much. For one thing, they could, as you suggest, work their way into the system and then start making changes from within. It’s a possible strategy. Spike Lee somehow got into the mainstream and has done a lot. While Ling was a bit of a cheesy character at first in Ally McBeal, she developed some real depth and personality as time went on. These are small but important changes, which open the door to more changes.

    But going into (and depending on) the mainstream, it seems to me, is self-limiting. You always have to make something that the white majority can relate to on some level. Now, that’s not so hard to do, actually, given some of what he’s popular. The difference, though, is that mainsream (white) America has a specific and particular relationship with black America through its own history which makes that terrain somehow deeply fascinating and potentially riveting for whites as well as blacks.

    But regardless of the interment of Japanese during World War II, or hostility between American Japan, Vietnam, and North Korea in the last century, white Americans seem to me not to have anything near as much ambivalence and, shall I say, guilt, mixed into their collective unconscious in regard to Asian-Americans. So it’s going to be hard to do something that’s all about race relations from an Asian-American artist’s point of view that will capture the wider audience. It may be that this is why I found myself completely uninterested in a book like Chang Rae Lee’s first novel when I encountered it years before coming to Korea — his protagonist’s race just didn’t matter to me so very much in itself. (Or maybe I just didn’t like his writing style.)

    The experience of a Korean-American, or a Chinese-American, or a Japanese-American, it just doesn’t seem to fascinate white Americans so much unless they have some specific reason for being interested, such as a friend or lover of Asian descent, or some other preexistent fascination with Asia or this or that Asian culture. So pushing that side of things too hard, and relying upon it specifically to fuel interest in the narrative, is just going to bore audiences.

    I should be clear: Asian-American artists can go ahead and try to use race and race-relations in their art as much as they like, but I suspect this approach is bound to fail in terms of getting mainstream attention.

    There are certainly films in which this is fascinating and necessary as a focus, but those films won’t be Hollywood films and likely won’t be NBC tv-series. That’s life. That doesn’t mean people should give up. Independent films are getting more and more recognition and frankly, have in the last decade been doing things much smarter and more interesting that Hollywood has ever done. Viewers of independent films are also usually viewers of international films, and are likelier to be interested in difference for interest’s sake, and open to narratives focused on Asian-Americans (just as they are interested in narratives of other minority groups of all kinds).

    But if Asian-Americans are hoping to change the mainstream, they’ll need to work on writing, and performing, in roles where things like race, however important they might be to the artists themselves, take a slight backseat to narrative, to characterization, and so on. For example, Asians as part of larger casts of mixed race (like, say, the cast of Lost are interesting to the mainstream. Even the caricature there is one that is often softened by deepened characterization, and frankly, that TV series and the two Asian actors on it are making a pretty profound impact on the receptivity of Americans to Asian-American (or Asian) actors. (Same goes for Sandra Oh and even Lucy Liu, cheesy as some of what she does can be. The cheesiness is actually kind of a boon, since it signals she’s come to the mainstream.)

    I might be talking out my back end, I don’t know. Perhaps there are loads of Asian-American scriptwriters and actors out there trying to make their break, and never getting a chance. But I do think that from some of the work I’ve read, it’s so ASIANASIANASIAN that it’s going to be hard to get more than a small niche. The complaints that they’re not in the mainstream are well, hard to respond to because, well, in general the appeal is going to be mostly limited. This, of course, should be expected. Things that focus on Asian-American identity are just not going to grab non-Asian-Americans as much, and most Americans aren’t going to want to pay for for this kind of entertainent, unless, of course, something else helps to ease their interest along (such as soccer did in the British film Bend It Like Beckham).

    I still think there’s a lot of good potential in intelligent TV drama, if that’s not an oxymoron.

    But more important, I think it’s important that kids (a) get encouraged to be creative and aren’t discouraged to work in creative fields, and (b) that kids are raised in the present to look beyond media when developing their identities, and are gven opportunity to explore some avenues a lot more beneficial. Someone who views pop media with a certain degree of amused disdain also finds it much harder to be hurt when one’s group is misrepresented by it.

    What a LONG comment, and I’m not sure I’m being wholly straightforward here. Ah well. You have me thinking, though.

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