Where crashes resound, it’s the silence that thunders the aching divide in the community of Los Angeles at night. What’s not said is as powerful as any of the racial diatribes which abound in the movie Crash. Each of the movie’s characters is steeped in the censures and taboos of their respective tribes, and we discovers how universal our need to believe in racial superiority runs with each new scenario we encounter. What results is a fascinating unveiling of society’s deepest racial bigotries. A “spiral of silence” forces wedges between people, building mountains of resentment that erupt in sudden storms of bigotry, hatred, and injustice. The silent yearning for connection is in stark contrast to the rage that is acted out, as the unspoken resentments are displaced onto the most convenient and least understood generic “other”.
As the film’s theme song, In the Deep (written by Kathleen Bird York) says, “Life keeps tumbling your heart in circles till you let go, till you shed your pride and you climb to heaven”, seeming to suggest that our “crashes” are designed to help us learn a new and different way of communicating. The movie Crash is a compilation of scenes in which people (us) try to achieve some sort of happiness, safety and connection, only to be faced with ever increasing obstacles that unveil their (our) ugliest and most dangerous prejudices.
I happen to be reading Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s book, Spiral of Silence, and there are remarkable insights into the causes of the prejudices as seen through her theories. Noelle-Neumann describes the spiral of silence as “the increasing pressure people feel to conceal their views when they think they are in the minority”. She describes our “fear of isolation” as the force that “sets the spiral of silence in motion”.
Many of the characters in the film Crash have found this “silence” to be the way for them to get ahead. For instance Don Chealdle’s character of Detective Graham is a black detective who has worked his way up through the ranks. Having overcome his family circumstances, his mother is a heroine addict and brother is a criminal, he takes care of them when he can, while protecting his image on the police force. He is a successful black man living in a white man’s world, not turning his back on his family, but reeling from his shame of where he comes from. One of the most powerful scenes takes place when the DA’s publicity man, Jake Flanagan, tries to get Detective Graham to compromise on a case involving a white cop killing a black cop. The black cop is involved in drug trafficking, and the white cop has a history of shooting black “criminals” under questionable circumstances. For political reasons the DA wants to find a black man of prominence to pin a medal on, in order to neutralize a potential public relations issue. Detective Graham is the man. At first Graham refuses, willing to forfeit the honor and rewards. But when Flanagan threatens him with his brother’s incarceration from past arrests and a currently open case, he finds it too much to withstand. The isolation from his family is too great to endure and he agrees to remain silent, take the medal and co-operate with the photo op scam, and go along with the DA’s story.
Another potent “spiral” moment occurs when Cameron, the film director, is confronted by the film’s producer who insists the black actor in the film is not “black enough”. The implications are clear: if the director (Camaeron) doesn’t re-shoot the scene to reflect the “white man’s” opinion of the “black man”, his job is on the line. The moment Cameron experiences flickers across his eyes, and although it lasts only a few seconds, we are clear of his silent hatred and resentment, which is followed quickly by his well rehearsed mask of agreement. Cameron silenced his feelings to continue to enjoy the approval of the white film world he had worked so hard to break into.
Even the white man’s dilemma’s are caught in this film. Officer Hansen (played by Ryan Phillippe) approaches his supervisor for a transfer because of the racist actions of his partner (Matt Dillon’s playing Officer Ryan). Hansen’s supervisor, a black man who’s endured racism, staying silent in order to work his way up to the rank of Lieutenant, receives Hansen offer to write a report citing the racial incident the Lieutenant and responds, “That’d be great. … Because I’m anxious to understand how an obvious bigot could’ve gone undetected in this department for years. Eleven of which he was under my personal supervision. Which doesn’t speak very highly of my managerial skills”. The “spiral of silence” creates waves that continue to have unintended repercussions in its complex and corrupt agreement.
Matt Dillon’s character, Officer Ryan, is a tragic example of how hatred and prejudice can be fostered through silence, even when the source itself is not prejudice. Ryan’s father had owned and operated a janitorial service employing all black workers. His company was eventually put out of business when he lost his city contracts to minority-owned companies that got preference in city contracts in a reverse racism legislation. Although Ryan’s father never blamed the black people, it is obvious that Ryan did. Ryan clearly inherited his father’s good heart, as was eventually played out by his heroic acts in a fiery car, saving a black woman he had previously assaulted during a traffic stop. But his displaced hatred so overpowered him at times that he acted out his aggression on unrelated people who represented the black community that he held responsible for his father’s pain. Because he never processed his resentment, it was displaced and erupted in episodes of anger with innocent people.
As painful as conflict can be, and as messy as honesty is, the price we pay for staying silent is worse. Crash screenwriters Robert Moresco and Paul Haggis write, “You brush past people… People bump into you… In L.A., nobody touches you… I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something”. So we continue living the spiral in an evolutionary quest to survive… until the next crash.