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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Rethinking Community through Crash

Rethinking Community through Crash

Anil Joseph Pinto

Dept of Media Studies, Christ College, Bangalore

(Paper presented at the National Seminar on Psychology and Cinema at Christ College, Bangalore on15 Feb 2007)

Crash winner of three academy awards for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing in 2005, has had interesting circulation among film buffs and social science classrooms both in the host country and many countries across the globe, including India. The film has attracted considerable discussion on the race issue as well the portrayal of race in the cinematic media in academic journals and film portals alike. This paper intends to look at some of those debates and tries to take the debate to another location - community - with an intension of opening up new questions for psychology within the limits of this paper and time.

Roger Ebert, one of most celebrated Chicago Sun-Times reviewer, gave four-star rating saying, “Crash tells interlocking stories of Whites, Blacks, Latinos, Koreans, Iranians, cops and criminals, the rich and the poor, the powerful and powerless, all defined in one way or another by racism … I believe anyone seeing it is likely to be moved to have a little more sympathy for people not like themselves” (2005). While Ebert is pleased with the film for the kind of ‘positive’ sensitivity that the film will build in the viewers, a host of scholars, especially Black, engaged with issues related to race and multiculturalism, have begged to differ trying to throw light on the way the film only goes to reinforce the existing Hollywood stereotypes of non-whites. David Holmes argues that “Crash complicates the moral facets of ethnic and racial biases while simplifying the material structures that cause and perpetuate these biases.” (2007:318). Joyce Irene Middleton agrees with him when he says, “I felt disappointed and frustrated by the film’s use of surface, sketchy characters; its failed attempt to challenge racial stereotypes, especially as most people of color (raced people) would recognize them; and its dominant pedagogical fallacy; that everybody’s a little bit prejudiced.” (2007:321). The absence of redemption for the Asian characters has also been foregrounded by quite a few critics. (Prendergast, 2007)

However, despite the significant issues of representation that these critics bring out, it is important to note the centrality that this visual text assumes to engage with the various sociological and political questions in the public domain. One important domain that I wish to open up is the concept of community this visual text allows to problematise.

Classical sociology has largely viewed communities as “closed collectivities or traditional groupings in which the questions of individual choice did not matter … [and where C]ommunities prioritized norms and value of the collectivity over the individual.” (Jodhka, 2001: 18). To these characteristics Nisbet (1967:5) adds “high degree of personal intimacy, emotional depth, moral commitment, social cohesion, and continuity in time.” Continuity, cohesion, boundedness and adherence to tradition are other features that are ascribed to a community. (Upadhaya: 2001:33).

A close look at these notions of community seems to be positing community as the other of individual. However, recent scholarship in cultural studies has shown that the historically community comes to be constructed as the other of capital and not as the other of the individual. These constructions throw up serious challenges for theorization when the community is no more out there or as constructed community makes a claim to capital.

Crash, with its narrative involving multiple racial groups and mixed racial characters coming together under one statist political entity, poses challenges to the narrative of community as closed collectivities beyond individual questions. The state itself functions through a complex assimilation of Blacks, Whites, Latinos who are constantly struggling to belong, not precisely knowing where – because of their positions or lineages. Hence, Graham Waters, does not really want to own up his race and is thrilled by having sex with a ‘white’ lady.

When the film begins it seems to be constructing itself as a community of Los Angeles – a fragmented one at that - as against other communities. The film opens with Waters’ voice over, “In LA nobody touches you, always behind metal and glass. I think we miss the touch so much that we crash into each other so that we can feel something.” However, most characters seem to completely ignore this imagination. Farhad will insist on his right to buy the gun by asserting his American citizenship. He says, “I am an American citizen.” He also does not own up the Arab identity as he is a Persian. Both Kim Lee, the Korean lady, and Shaniqua Johnson, the doctor’s secretary and the black lady who picks a fight over the last car crash, stress on their identity more on the linguistic lines, emphasizing their ability to “speak English” or “speak American.” The Korean will sell his fellow Asians not in anyway trying to own up the Asian as a community identity. Anthony and Peter will go out and rob the Blacks. Cameron does not wish to be identified with the Black community.

Thus the film takes us beyond the simple constructions of community to those of complex play of power and dominance. The constructions of community based on race, geographical location or common political entity now become categories difficult to work with or, to use Jean-Luc Nancy’s concept, they become “inoperative communities.”

Given this inadequacy of the concept of community, what happens to the disciplines in social sciences including psychology, for which community is one of the fundamental concepts around which huge body of knowledge and practice exists? Will it lead to a fundamental rethinking of these disciplines and their practices, especially Community Psychology?


Cheadle, Don et al (Producer), & Haggis, Paul. (Director). (2005) Crash. [Motion Picture] United States: Lions Gate Films, DEJ Productions, & Bob Yari Productions.

Ebert, Roger. “Crash” May 5, 2005 article?AID=/ 20050505/REVIEWS/50502001/1023

Holmes, David G. (2007) The Civil Rights Movement According to Crash: Complicating the Pedagogy of Integration. In College English 69 (4), 314-320.

Jodhka, Surinder S. (2001) Introduction. Surinder S Jodhka (Ed). In Community and Identities: Contemporary Discourses on Culture and Politics in India. New Delhi: Sage.

Middleton, Joyce Irene. (2007) Talking about Race and Whiteness in Crash. In College English 69 (4), 321- 334.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. (1991). The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press,

Nisbet, R. (1967). Sociological Traditions. London: Heinemann.

Prendergast, Catherine. (2007). Asians: The present Absence in Crash. In College English 69 (4), 347-348.

Upadhya, Carol. (2001). The Concept of Community in Indian Social Sciences: An Anthropological Perspectives. In Surinder S Jodhka (Ed), Community and Identities: Contemporary Discourses on Culture and Politics in India New Delhi: Sage.

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