Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Bigotry up, close and personal

The one scene in Crash that will stay with you is the one most of you have seen in the run-up to the Oscars. A distraught woman is being rescued by a hassled police officer from a crisis situation (perhaps a bomb blast).

Watch the movie and the details begin to emerge. The woman is black, the police officer white. There hasn't been a bomb blast. She is being rescued from an accident site.

But that's not it. Just seconds before, Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon) passed through a momentary existential crisis as Christine (Thandie Newton in a wow performance) refused to accept help from him. He had molested her the previous night, as her affluent husband (Terrence Howard) watched in silent humiliation, all on account of their being black.

Christine shrieks and rages and is nearly prepared to be killed by the approaching fire than be saved by her molester. The scene must be watched for Dillon's restrained acting and the contradictions besetting his character. He asks her politely to allow him to lower her skirt so he may release her seat-belt. This from a man who had his hands all over her just the last night.

In fact, there is that extra effort on his part…an urgency to rescue Christine at any cost, to cover up his guilt for an act that he ostensibly commits every now and then, not for sexual gratification, but as a means to humiliate a community, affirmative action for who, cost his father his job.

Crash juggles several such narratives with race and religion providing the backdrop. The setting is urban - LA, and the American melting pot comes alive in its varied hues and shades, as also in its ignorance and biases.

In a scene, an educated police officer calls his partner Mexican. Since they are having a heated argument, she does not let this pass ordinarily, and snaps back saying, "My father is from Puerto Rico, my mother is from El Salvador. Neither of those is Mexico."

Crash offers you a striking, if somewhat hurried, study in contrasts. A racist harridan realizes she is being a bitch to her Latina maid. A tolerant white police officer kills an innocent man because he fit a stereotypical black image. A little girl's selfless act transforms a man for life.

Now for the BIG comparison. Crash is a far more relevant film in today's troubled post-9/11 times. In its realism, it mirrors the qualities of a docu-drama. Having said that, it does not affect you as gutturally as Brokeback Mountain.

These people are leading their lives by facing up to and crushing suspicions and biases from one day to the next. Racism is captured in its humdrum nearness. It isn't something that afflicts loony gangs like the Ku Klux Klan or chest-thumping third world types alone. You and I are its victims as much.

But it is precisely this contemporaneity that suppresses lyricism. At the end of the day, racism does not quite hurt as much as lost love.

Salman Rushdie
Personal accounts of racism
Republicanism backfires in France

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