Just in time before our final Abitur exam on March 23, Miguel Prieto-Valle from California, now working for the German-American Institute at Tübingen, came to our school on February 9 to talk about racism in the 2004 movie L.A. Crash. This is one of the two core topics in the upcoming English exam.
“Call me Miguel”, he tells us at the beginning. The ice was broken. When Miguel asks us whether we have seen the film “Crash”, everybody starts laughing. This is certainly a film we have watched more than once. We realize that there are two movie posters advertising for the film. One only shows white and black characters so that one has the impression the film is about blacks and whites, which thematically it is not. At the beginning we are asked to find good examples of ‘racism’ and ‘prejudice’. A very common example of prejudice for black people in the United States is apparently that ‘black people love water melon’ or that Asians ‘are very smart’. To find examples of racism is not so easy. After a while Miguel reveals to us his definition of racism. “For me, for racism there has to be someone in a position of power or authority who can make it worse for the other group.” He shows a photo from the 1950s where black people could only drink from one tap of water. After that, we turn to the term ‘prejudice’ again. We learn that the word ‘prejudice’ has the word ‘judgment’ in it. So prejudice is a quick judgment before you know the situation. For Miguel, to be prejudiced is a very human thing to be. “Why do five-year-olds even have prejudices?” he asks us. Evolutionarily it was important to be able to judge things quickly at times. “Is this a predator or is this prey? Must I run away? I don’t have all the information, but I make my choice anyway.” This is an essential theme in “Crash”: Everybody has prejudices. And another question is: Is everybody the same, are black people just as prejudiced as white people?
After this theoretical beginning, we turn to a painting by John Gast from 1872: American Progress. Everybody is familiar with this painting, showing European settlers moving westward with Columbia, the figure of justice, floating above the prairie. “We cannot talk about American history and what the United States is today without remembering that this was a story of occupation and genocide. It was not an empty country,” Miguel explains.
Then we look at a pie chart of the ‘Percentages of the US population by race’: 75.1 per cent are white, 12.3 per cent are black, 3.6 per cent are Asian. Miguel whose name and looks definitely reveal his Mexican genetics asks the group: “Where do I fit in?” We must agree that he is in the white group although Mexican-Americans, or Hispanics, are the largest minority group in the United States. He tells us that the largest part of him is actually Spanish.
Looking back at history again, Miguel asks us: “Guess who made up the concept of race?” Of course, it was the white people. Miguel explains that it could sometimes be an advantage to have 1/16 of native American blood in your veins when parts of the land were given back. On the other hand, it could be a great disadvantage to have 1/16 of black blood, as blacks were not eligible to own land.
Then Miguel turns to California’s history. “California is like the US, only smaller, only boiled down”, he explains. “California is the most populous state. Los Angeles is the biggest city in California and everything you can find in California, you can find in Los Angeles, an excellent representation of the diversity of the state.” In the 1950s California was not urban, but very rural. What was missing were the super highways that allowed people to travel long distances, much more freely and independently than before. It changed the American spirit, having your own car, getting wherever you want. These highways were intentionally built through undesirable places, ghettos, to cut off the black and brown neighborhoods from the parts where white people lived.
Finally, Miguel turns towards talking about the movie “Crash”. “When did the story take place? What evidence do we have from the film?” Thank God, somebody can correctly quote the gun shop owner calling Farhad ‘Osama’, making a reference to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. “Has anyone heard of Rodney King”? Miguel asks. Most students have probably never heard of him. In 1994 Rodney King was stopped and brutalized by four police officers for twenty minutes with the result that they fractured his skull. Of course, the cops were found to be completely innocent of any wrongdoings. After that, people in Los Angeles went really mad and started rioting, similarly to what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri, today, where Michael Brown was shot by a cop in August 2014. In the 1990s there was also a lot of tension and in-fighting between groups of different races, such as the Crips and the Bloods.
The next question is trickier: “Who is the main character of the movie?” Miguel asks. Some of us give some plausible answers: Graham Waters, Officer Ryan, Officer Hansen, but Miguel disagrees with all of us. For him, there is a single, most important character, the character is fear. This seems to us to be a very individual interpretation of the film, as a feeling such as fear cannot be a real character. However, Miguel gives examples that fear is always present in every character of the movie. First, we analyze the scene in the gun shop with Farhad, his daughter Dori and the gun shop owner, three characters that are not on the movie poster. Everybody knows the scene so well that the answers are easy. Farhad, a Persian immigrant only speaking Farsi, Dori, a smart young woman working at the L.A. morgue and a rather stupid gun shop owner. “There is a lot of sexism going on here,” Miguel says.
The next scene we look at is set in the Cabots’ house. Sandra Bullock is the only actress in this movie who was nominated for an Oscar, although her total speaking time is only about six and a half minutes in the whole movie. Undoubtedly, it is a powerful scene that marks the movie (“I want the locks changed”). Sandra is obviously very prejudiced in this scene. “But what makes it racist as opposed to just prejudiced?” Miguel asks, referring to his question from the beginning. For him, it is because Sandra, who is Jean Cabot in the film, is in a position of power. She can influence locksmith Daniel’s life, make him lose his job. So everybody would be pretty comfortable calling her racist. However, she doesn’t want to be racist. Miguel would even go further and say that, in her position, growing up as a white American with all her privilege and power, it is almost impossible not to be racist. Miguel admits that he sometimes feels just as scared as Jean when walking down a city boulevard at nighttime.
The third scene we examine in detail is with the black couple Cameron and Christine Thayer, again an example of how whiteness might interact with minorities. The questions are “What had happened to Officer Ryan right before this scene?” and “Why do the two cops, Officer Ryan and Officer Hansen, pull over the Thayers’ car although they know that they are not the thieves they were looking for?” One of us can give the answer: Ryan had a phone call with Shaniqua Johnson, a black health insurance worker, turning down Ryan’s request to have his father’s case re-examined. He is very upset about that. The second question is difficult. When Officer Ryan sees Christine and Cameron in the car, Christine in her white dress looks like a white woman. “A white woman giving a black man a blow job in a car – that pisses him off”, Miguel maintains. He continues to explain that this is one of the oldest reasons why black men are killed in the United States – Because we’re afraid that they are taking our women”. Christine is different to Jean Cabot as she cannot use her husband’s power. Cameron is submissive to such a point that he upsets his wife. That is why Ryan can virtually rape her when he inappropriately searches her and then goes beyond that. Officer Hansen is passive in this scene, but inserts himself in the second scene with Cameron later in the film and saves the day.
The last scene we have to analyze is also the scene shown on the second movie poster advertising for the film. It is different from the first scenes as we see tension between two different minorities, Daniel, who is Mexican, and Farhad, who is Iranian. “Farhad clearly sees the same Daniel Sandra Bullock sees”, Miguel says, “but if Farhad has the same attitude of Daniel, is he also the same racist?” Partly yes, as he finds someone more vulnerable than him, Lara, Daniel’s daughter. However, for Miguel’s perception, the impact is not the same. A white person can exert influence and change other people’s lives through his social power, but Farhad cannot use his status.
The last topic we are dealing with is the topic of a “colorblind society”. Colorblindness is a big issue in the United States. Conservative politicians would say “Why do black people always bring it back to race? I wasn’t even thinking he was black”, putting the blame on the blacks or Mexicans themselves. Being colorblind and just pretend we don’t see is really just ignorance, in Miguel’s view. Because people do perceive the differences as we all can see that Miguel is certainly not white like us. Statistics show that a colorblind ideology does not work. Young white Americans even think that they are discriminated against as much as black Americans, such as Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin, that there is ‘reverse racism’. The question of discrimination is obviously very subjective.
At the end of his talk Miguel wants us to think about the racial message of the movie. The film deals with very complex and difficult conversations of race, which does not happen very often and makes the film unique. What is also interesting is the question of who is the hero and who the villain and who can I identify with in this film. Every character turns out to be both, hero and villain. Officer Ryan is really a hate figure at the beginning, but in the final scene rescues Christine in a selfless act from her burning car. Jean Cabot is also widely disliked at the beginning, always yelling and insulting other people. In the end, she gives her Mexican house worker a hug and everyone sympathizes with her. A very interesting scene in terms of race is also the scene between Anthony and Peter at the beginning when Anthony complains about the waitress being biased against them, discriminating against them because they were black because she didn’t think they were going to tip. They wouldn’t tip and so they fit into the stereotype again.
Finally we are shown a cartoon showing an audience watching a sports match. The cartoon consists of two parts, one depicting the colorblind mentality with its supposed equality, the other one showing a society striving for equity, a more fair and just society. When you are just too small to look over the fence, it doesn’t help that you have the same footstool as everybody else. According to Miguel, it is more a white responsibility to challenge racism and actively fight against it.
Is the image of the United States in the film authentic or not? “We have to remember the United States is a huge place with a lot of diversity”, Miguel says. “You’re going to find everyone of the examples shown in real life.” However, especially blacks are still at a disadvantage with an average income that is half the money white people make. Everybody is equal in their potentials, but the game is not fair.
Miguel ends his talk by thanking us for our time and attention. But we should rather thank him for his captivating and highly interesting 90-minute review of our Abitur topic “Challenges and choices in an insecure world – the film Crash”.
Sylvia Floetemeyer (Südkurier) has taken photos from this event that you can find in our photo gallery.