Last night, I saw XXX: State of the Union, in which Ice Cube takes Vin Diesel’s place as a criminal with attitude who is recruited almost against his will to become a secret agent (instead of replacing the girls in every movie, as the James Bond series did, this series replaces the agents themselves!). Then, this morning, I saw Crash (the new Paul Haggis film, not the old David Cronenberg one!). These two films have almost nothing in common. But they do both feature Nona Gaye in a small role. And they both make a big, big deal of the way people in various racial and cultural and ethnic communities harbour stereotypes about each other.
XXX: State of the Union may be the more offensive of the two films in this regard, if only because it panders to its core audience so thoroughly. On the one hand, it indulges in every fight-the-power cliche and cleavage-exposing mode of dress that one might expect of a hip-hop movie, which has the unfortunate effect of confirming its target audience’s baser appetites while allowing those outside the audience to continue condescending to that audience. In addition, the film encourages its target audience to harbour prejudicial attitudes of its own; Ice Cube disses his opponents as “hillbillies” and so forth while lumping together country music, the Ku Klux Klan, and similar attributes of “whiteness”. (I think he forgot to mention Nascar or hockey, but I could be wrong about that.)
In addition, there is a sense in which the film tries to have its cake and eat it too; on the one hand, our heroes get to attack the symbols and buildings that represent the American government — there are several shots in which we see the dome of the U.S. Capitol smoulder after being hit by a good guy’s tank — but on the other hand, they do all this to save the President (Peter Strauss, who I will forever associate with early-’80s mini-series like Masada and Kane & Abel) from a wildly implausible “revolution” cooked up by his Defense Secretary (Willem Dafoe in pay-the-bills mode). So, they’re being patriotic Americans, but in a way that essentially desecrates symbols of American patriotism.
Given that the film was directed by Die Another Day director Lee Tamahori, a New Zealander who is half-Maori and half-British, I can only wonder what he makes of the racial dimensions of American pop culture. Did he think he was making a social statement of some sort, or was he merely doing what the studio assured him the so-called “urban” audience would want?
And how, exactly, is this film supposed to plug into any sort of current political reality? Perhaps the evil Defense Secretary is meant to be a stand-in for Donald Rumsfeld — but this film’s President, who responds to an unprecedented attack on a top-secret American base by calling, bizarrely, for more diplomacy and political compromise, couldn’t possibly be a stand-in for George W. Bush. (Then again, the film’s President does talk about “compassion,” and is scorned for it by his Defense Secretary; does Rumsfeld similarly scorn Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”?) The film also plays on the idea that the powers that be tend to honour white people instead of black people, even as they steal their ideas from black people — yet what is someone like, say, Condoleezza Rice, if not black and politically powerful? For all the cutting-edge get-with-it attitude this film flaunts, its sense of political outrage seems rather outdated.
Contrast all this with Crash, which is yet another film about American racial politics made by an outsider born in Her Majesty’s Commonwealth. The outsider this time is Paul Haggis, the Canadian writer who spent years working on TV shows like Due South and Walker, Texas Ranger (which he co-created) before Clint Eastwood made a movie out of his script for Million Dollar Baby. Crash is Haggis’s second feature film as director (after 1993’s Red Hot, which he also co-wrote), and it piles on the ironies thick and fast as it tries way, way too hard to show how wrong our stereotypes can be.
That line about country music and the Ku Klux Klan in XXX? There is a very similar bit of dialogue in Crash. There are two black men who, the first time we see them, complain about the racist attitudes of black waitresses (who don’t expect black men to give them good tips) and white women (who cling to their husbands when they see black men on the sidewalk); no sooner have we been encouraged to think of the black men as “victims” in some sense, than they pull out guns and steal a white couple’s car; and as they drive away, one of the men begins inventing a mock “country song” about a Klansman lynching a black person. (But he’s not entirely opposed to “white” things; he does say he likes hockey.) Much later in the film, the man who sang that song hitches a ride with a white man, and the song on his car stereo happens to be a country song — and because we have already seen how decent this white man can be, we know that the stereotype is wrong.
Alas, more rugs are about to be pulled out from under us. But while I won’t give them away, I can safely say that nearly every stereotype — whether of victim or villain — that this film raises is eventually twisted around, as if Haggis was constantly trying to remind us, “Hey! People are more complicated than you think!”
We certainly are, we certainly are. But you know, I can’t say that two hours of watching random people talk about stereotypes as they coincidentally keep bumping into each other does all that much for me. If you changed all the racial topics to religious topics, I would probably still find the film a little dull. I find these sorts of issues more interesting when they lurk within a film’s subtext; I like being able to pull at them and unravel them and see where they go. When these sorts of issues are brought to the fore and spelled out within the text itself, it doesn’t work so well — especially when a film is so ambitious as to throw dozens of relatively minor characters at us and so diligently fair-minded as to try to show how complex all of them can be.
Any one of these movie’s subplots might have made an interesting story in its own right, if it had been fleshed out properly. Instead, it feels like Haggis is too busy tweaking the “types” and pushing our buttons that he didn’t really care that he hadn’t given himself much space to create actual characters. Whatever sympathy we feel for them is due entirely to the actors, and not to the script. (Why are Don Cheadle and Jennifer Esposito in bed together at one point? Simply so that she can get pissed off when he answers the phone and says he’s having sex with a “white woman,” and then she gets pissed off even more when he says he thought about calling her a “Mexican” instead, even though neither of her parents were from Mexico. As with them, so with every other character; the film shows zero interest in their relationship as people.)
Two moments did work for me, though — one, a scene between a Latino locksmith and his daughter, and the other, a scene involving a cop and an overturned car. These are moments where the truly human dimension of these characters really starts to push its way out of Haggis’s thematic contrivances. And these scenes both happen to make very effective use of music. They made me wish the rest of the film could have been like that; they made me wish the film had earned these scenes.