Crashing the Black Female Image
By Stephanie Mwandishi Gadlin
original article-August 23, 2006
While much ado is being made about Crash winning the Best Picture
award at the recent Oscars, Black women shouldn’t be so quick to
cheer a film that in the end winds up reinforcing many of Hollywood
stereotypes we have fought against over the last few decades.
It is well-documented that the female image in U.S. entertainment
culture routinely depicts Black women in the following ways
* As poorly educated, unmarried
* As sexually repressed or obsessive
* As routinely hostile to Black men and boys
* As tragically mulatto (light skin); racially confused
* As an over-religious mammy more concerned for the welfare of whites than her own children
* And, as overweight, comedic and/or obsessed with “finding a man.”
Upon further look Crash reinforces the notions about Black women as
emasculating, helpless, sexualized victims while at the same time
works to soften and then rationalize anti-Black, racist behavior of
the whites depicted in the film.
We are introduced to the first Black female character through the
light-skin, Brit-born actress Thandie Newton who is incidentally
performing a sex act on her director-husbandÂ [played by Terrence
Howard] as he drives home.
Following a questionable traffic stop, we are soon face-to-face with
an out-of-control Newton–whom we are constantly reminded is
intoxicated–who while pleading helplessly with her terrified husband
is sexually assaulted by a racist police officer, while his seemingly
non-racist partner stands ideally by. Her husband, the Black man,
cannot save her, and will not save her, least he wind up in jail or
dead. To the viewer we are left to wonder if he is a coward or a hero
who chooses his battles wisely.
Later, Newton launches into a tirade about her husband’s lack of
masculinity, lack of blackness and lack of courage. Howard does his
best to defend himself, but unwilling or unable to go toe to toe with
his wife’s fervor, winds up internalizing his rage. “Its all your
fault,” he reminds her over and over again. The wife screams, shouts
and threatens to report the officer, played by Matt Dillon, to his
higher ups in the police department, but doesn’t.
Howard’s character, along with one portrayed by veteran actor Keith
David, represent Black men who would rather sacrifice their self
dignity than their careers. Neither of them are willing to take on
the white power structure for the sake of pursued justice. They are
neither noble or honorable. They are empowered, powerless victims who
understand ‘their place’ in a society dominated by white men.
We last encounter an emotionally impacted Newton upside down in her
car during a traffic accident. With life-staking momentsÂ ticking
away, to her horror, she comes face to face with her would-be hero,
the same white cop who just hours before sexually assaulted her. In
this twisted paradox, a noble, yet ‘they made me racist” Dillon
rescues Newton and she collapses thankful, grateful, tragic, into his
strong and masculine arms. She stares almost lovingly into his eyes
as she is ushered away from the crash–perhaps thankful that she
didn’t report him to his superiors after all. And so are we.
Though it is subtly implied, we never see Newton’s character
reconcile with her own husband. Instead, we are left breathing sighs
of thanks that this white man, could put away his racist leanings to
do his job. After all, we have since found out that Dillon’s
character is only a racist because his ailing father was forced out
of a job and better health benefits because of affirmative action. We
empathize with him as we see Shaniqua, the African American HMO
official, unapologetically deny his claim.
Dillon’s character’s racism is a byproduct of society’s cruel turn of
events that place Black people in positions of authority.Â His
mental illness isn’t to blame, its “Shaniqua” fault. Its all of those
Blacks who put good white folk out of their jobs, because of
affirmative action, who make him behave this way. We see Dillon’s
character tortured by his father’s condition as he help’s his dad on
and off the toilet. We should empathize with him, not pity him, and
further understand that his racism is not of his own making.
The third Black woman (played by Beverly Todd) is not suprisingly
depicted in the film is a drug-addicted, incoherent mother of a
indifferent police detective, played by Don Cheadle, and a likeable
thief, portrayed by Larenz Tate. We are introduced to her through her
environment, a garbage strewn apartment. She sits near comatose on
her balcony wondering when her youngest son will come home.
There is no back story about this family for us to empathize with. We
do not know if this woman is married or widowed. We don’t know what
drove her to drug addiction. We do not know if her sons are the
product of one union or two, one-night stands. This mother’s wounds
are self-inflicted and so her problems all stem from her own poor
choices. There is no explanation or excuses, she is what she is–
a “crack head,” single mother, battling her addiction alone. She has
no food in the refrigerator because put the groceries in her arm or
her pipe. Her passive, brown eyes tell us its not her fault, but the
verdict is still out.
A fourth Black woman, portrayed by Nona Gaye, might as well have been
invisible. Her character had no point, no focus, no direction and no
purpose–unless of course it was to illustrate how professional Black
women will stand by their (WHITE) men no matter what–even if it
means exploiting, entrapping and disrespecting her own Black men.
Crash tells us that mother actually loves the criminal son (Tate)
more than the one who has seemingly taken a route of responsibility,
education and career advancement (Cheadle). We do not understand why
this tragic mother would embrace her two-strikes, car-jacking son
over her more responsible one. Is this a subliminal suggestion that
Black mothers or people, in general, are more accepting of criminal
behaviors? We never find out why.
Throughout the film we are reminded that Crash’s white characters are
flawed and racist only because society drives them to be this way
(affirmative action, reverse discrimination, rampant crime, etc.);
while the Black characters seemingly suffer because of internal
wounds (drug addiction, poor choices, criminal behavior, etc.)–not
institutional racism. The only one who speaks for them and attempts
to explain why these characters engage in antisocial behavior is
another white man, a public relations hack hired by the District
Attorney. Even his explanation of poor schools, lack of opportunity,
and police misconduct is dismissed as being nothing more than
Black people suffer because of self-inflicted wounds–remember. White
institutional racism is just a misunderstanding, remember.
When Tate’s character and the one portrayed by Atlanta-based rapper
Ludacris, attempts to justify their poor life choices, the audience
is left laughing at their self-examination. These two are comedic
relief. It is funny that one of these men find conspiracies in white
society. It is funny that they choose to only rob white people. It is
amusing that they seem remotely intelligent. It is funny when
(Ludacris) comes across another victim and it turns out to be a Black
man (Howard). We laugh when he is disarmed, chastised and then given
his weapon back.
None of these Black people in the film are really all that redeemed–
despite Crash’s poor attempt to show some sense of morality. Dillon’s
character, however, is immediately redeemed by his heroic act; the
suburbanite (Sandra Bullock) finds herself redeemed by recognizing
the humanity and friendship of her Latino housekeeper; and a
supposedly non racist cop (Ryan Phillip) who winds up killing one of
the carjackers, is excused all together because it appears almost
justified. All of the whites in Crash are really good people who are
just victims of circumstance.
The Blacks, Latinos, Asians and Middle Eastern people depicted in
Crash are all guilty of their poor choices, society’s stereotypes,
cross-cultural miscommunication and their own cowardice. We shake our
head at the Asian human trafficker but not at European who seeks to
buy slaves. Complete with American flags waving in the background,
our patriotism is subtly reinforced throughout the sequence of events
featuring the Latino locksmith and the Persian storeowner.
I must admit that I raised these questions after initially giving the
film great reviews. This is a good movie. It is the best example of
propaganda film in some time. Crash does what all good Hollywood
films should do, it evoked emotion, thought, and reflection. It
entertained. It forces us to transfer real human emotion to contrived
and a set unrealistic events in order to authenticate its hidden
We passively accept the racist reinforcement of Crash while at the
same time believe we are rejecting it.
Given the backdrop of Crash’s Academy Award win on the same night
this same the group also awarded Three 6 Mafia’s “Its Hard Out Here
for a Pimp,” as song of the year, I had to take another look.Â How
could “the Academy” reject Howard’s performance in one of the
most ‘thought provoking’ films of the year; yet, nominate him for his
portrayal of a pimp suffering from a midlife crisis?
Had I been duped into believing that an industry that has so rife
with depicting Black people as more criminal, more violent, more
ignorant than we are could suddenly change its stripes? Had I been
pacified by the Oscars given to Halle Berry, Denzel Washington,
Morgan Freeman and Jamie Foxx?
People responded to Crash,Â and rightly so–it pushes psychological
buttons. Its vivid imagery makes you ignore the generalities and
tricks you into thinking you are rejecting basic stereotypes rather
than reinforcing them.
I know people will read this and take me to task. “This was a good
movie,” someone will shout.Â “This was an excellent film,” others
will say. “You have too much time on your hands,” another might
retort. “It was only a movie.”
For those comments and others I am reminded of the African
proverb: “beware of the naked man who offers you his shirt.”
Thank you for reading my words,
Stephanie in the City of Wind
Here’s a Compelling Response to this article:
I’m directing this one at my namesake Ms. Gadlin…albeit a bit late because you all can be pretty prolific with your daily posts and it’s taken me a minute to catch up. 🙂
Stephanie, I do thank you for your insights on the film and you have given me some food for thought on how the project can be perceived by others whose views may differ slightly from my own. I loved the film and still do, though I am now prompted to rent it and watch it again more critically after reading your post.
I had the pleasure of seeing “Crash” a week before its official release at the Denver Pan African Film Festival. One of the reasons I may view some of your points differently is because I had the added benefit of seeing the film with executive producer Don Cheadle in the audience, who conducted a Q&A session afterwards. “White Hollywood” was not viewing this film as a propaganda machine. As a matter of fact, it was only through the involvement of Cheadle, fresh off of his Oscar nom for “Hotel Rwanda,” that the film ever made it to the big screen. Because of the inflammatory nature of the stereotypes depicted in the film and the various subject matter, it was exceedingly difficult for them to get the film made at all. Every one of those actors worked for Union scale, rather than their usual potential paydays, because they believed in the ideas set forth in that script. It was an ensemble piece in every sense of the word.
What I appreciated about the film is that no one was “let off of the hook” when it came to their beliefs and actions. One could certainly argue, as you have, that Terrence Howard’s character was not redeemed in the end. But to me, that was necessary and the point. Many of the people (of all races) who take a righteous road in Hollywood do not work often or again, period. Doesn’t make it right, but it’s reality. [Think about all of the drama that the Dixie Chicks have gone through from criticizing GWB] Like the film’s carjackers, we can all probably sing sad songs about intelligent hoodlums we’ve known and loved, brothers who could hold down a “real job” but don’t, for any number of reasons…and then wind up in jail or dead. Likeable, loveable men who did what they felt they had to do, for better or worse. Redemption is truly in the eye of the beholder.
But the essence of the message in “Crash” was cause and effect. We make choices every day to say and do certain things based on our experiences and circumstances. And we should be mindful that not everyone sees and reacts in the way that we would to these same stimuli. Ultimately, we are ALL responsible for the choices we make and the ripple effect that they create in our lives and those around us. Though I may not agree with how certain things played out in the film, I do appreciate that I was presented with a film that made me think and feel in the first place, unlike much of the product that is put out by others in the industry. No offense…but I’ll take CRASH over THE COOKOUT and SOUL PLANE every single time.