Sunday, January 3, 2016


SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

At one point in this film, a character, in response to a question, says, “It’s complicated.” That remark sums up the characters’ attitudes and personalities in this Oscar winning movie. People tend to dislike things being complicated. They prefer the simple, easy way out when dealing with others. That is why prejudicial thinking is easy to give into; when one can quickly place those encountered into categories sorted by preconceived criteria, no more work is necessary, and a feeling of relief is felt.

Don Cheadle’s Detective Graham Waters announces the reason for the title of the film in a voice over right at the start. He says that in other places, people experience touching, sometimes by only brushing past a person and bumping into each other. But, in a big city like Los Angeles, “nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other. Just so we can feel something.” People in this film do collide with each other, sometimes literally in car accidents, but many times they interact in aggressive and violent ways when responding to their fear and anger about what is happening in the world, because their prejudices have kept them from really understanding those around them and connecting emotionally with others. The audience, almost in a Hitchcockian way, are made complicit in the workings of bigotry. At first glance the audience makes assumptions about the people presented based on our nature to expeditiously sum up others on a superficial assessment, and then the story undermines those assumptions.

We see Jean Cabot (Sandra Bullock) walking with her husband, Rick (Brendan Fraser), and she leans against him, in a fearful way when she sees two Africa American males walking near them. One of the black men, Anthony (Ludacris) notes her action and comments to his pal, Peter (Larenz Tate), that they are in the whitest part of town, and they could be two college students, yet Jean’s reaction is “blind fear.” He attributes her response to bigotry. He says they are the only two black faces on the block guarded by the LA police, who are trigger happy. He asks Peter, how come they’re not the ones who should be afraid. Peter says, “Because we have guns.” And they proceed to carjack the Cabot’s Lincoln Navigator. Jean’s bigoted reaction and Anthony’s keen observations automatically make the audience think that Jean is a bad person and the black guys are the victims. Then the tables are turned, and, we realize that although her reaction came out of prejudice, nevertheless, there are some black males who commit crimes. Anthony goes through the film justifying his criminal actions against white people based on bigotry against African Americans. He is bigoted in his own way, making generalizations about how black women treat black men, and thinking Peter can’t possibly like hockey and country music because he is black. His prejudice warps his reasoning when he says that the windows on public transportation are large so as to embarrass those less fortunate who are riding by exposing them to the richer members of society. When he hijacks a different Lincoln Navigator, this time driven by a black male, Cameron Thayer (Terence Howard), he hesitates, because of the color of his skin. After an encounter with the police which is defused, Cameron criticizes Anthony by saying “You embarrass me. You embarrass yourself.” These words indict Anthony’s way of thinking, and the violent actions which flow from it. In a way, Cameron is condemning everyone in the audience who gives into prejudicial thinking. But, the film shows, again, that individuals are complicated. Anthony soon after comes across Asians held captive in a van who were brought into the country illegally, probably to be used as slave labor. Instead of selling them for profit, he frees them, and in a sense liberates himself from his narrow-minded anger, by doing a humanitarian act.

Let’s get back to Bullock’s Jean. She eventually admits that she is angry all of the time. She rants at her husband and the Latino house help, assuming that the Hispanic male changing her house locks after the carjacking will sell the keys to the house to one of his gangbanger friends. (We later see that this man, Daniel (Michael Peña), is a caring father and husband, looking to protect his family in his own way. He can’t afford a rich person’s security system, so he gives his daughter a pretend invisible bulletproof cape after a shot was fired through their previous home.) Toward the end of the movie, Jean understands that she has nobody in her “white” world on whom to rely. When she falls down the stairs and injures her leg, the only one who cares for her immediately is her Latino housekeeper, Maria (Yomi Perry), whom she hugs and calls her best friend. Again, we see a character who is not simply a bigot, but someone who has different facets to her personality, and one who is capable of change.

Another character who the audience quickly sums up as a bigot and worthy of scorn is the policeman John Ryan (Matt Dillon). His father is ill and the officer is angry and frustrated after unsuccessfully dealing with an African American woman on the phone in an attempt to get health care for his dad. He takes out his anger on other African Americans when he stops Cameron while driving in his car. The latter’s wife, Christine (Thandie Newton), was seen by Ryan performing oral sex on her husband while he is driving. The officer sexually gropes Christine on the pretense of frisking her, thus humiliating Cameron in the process. However, when he goes to confront the health care representative, Shaniqua Johnson (Loretta Devine), we see two sides of Ryan. He apologizes for his previous phone encounter, and pleads that she help him out, because even if he is basically a jerk, his father deserves better. We see here a Ryan who can be contrite and who cares about his father. He says he needs a different physician under his father’s HMO, because he considers the current one to be incompetent. When Johnson refuses, his anger returns him to his bigoted thinking, as he says that his father had a business who hired many black employees whom he cared for very much, but he went out of business after his contract was lost based on affirmative action. Later, his humanity is again shown as he heroically rescues Catherine from the wreckage of her burning vehicle just as it is about to explode following her crashing the car. She at first recoils at seeing him again, but during this scene, they are just two people, relinquishing their prejudices, seeking and receiving help as fellow human beings.

Ryan’s partner, Tom Hansen (Ryan Phillippe) is new to the force and is appalled by his fellow officer’s molestation and harassment of the Thayers. He asks for a reassignment. When he encounters the angry Cameron later, who feels that he has had enough of knuckling under to white people in power, in a confrontation with police following the attempted hijacking of Cameron’s SUV, Hansen prevents the situation from becoming violent. We believe Hansen is a “good guy” who is trying in his own way to fight bigotry. But, he too is a complex character, with flaws, like the rest of the human race. While off duty he picks up the hitchhiking Peter. As they talk, Hansen believes Peter is mocking him about his attitudes toward black people when Peter says he likes the country western music on the radio. Hansen buys into the same prejudice that Anthony annunciated earlier about African Americans. He tells Peter to get out of the car. Peter starts laughing about something he observes and attempts to take something out of his pocket. Hansen assumes the worst, thinking it is a gun, and shoots and kills Peter. What Peter was reaching for was a St. Christopher’s statuette. This is truly ironic, because St. Christopher is the patron saint of travelers. Obviously, his blessings do not work in this film, based on all of the car accidents that occur. Also, there is irony in the fact that Peter was reaching for something that linked the two men, since Hansen also has a St. Christopher’s icon in his car, but which in actuality tears the two apart, bringing suspicion and the resulting violence. The not-so-good guy Hansen then covers up his crime, pushing Peter’s body out onto an isolated road, and taking his car to a remote location, and then burning it in a scene which evokes that of a car crash. Earlier, after Ryan confronts Hansen following the latter’s request for a reassignment, he says to Hansen, “You think you know who you are. You have no idea.” He was talking about himself, but he was also providing the audience with a foreboding, as we eventually see that Hansen is not who we or he thinks he is.

At the beginning of the movie we see Cheadle’s Detective Waters with his girlfriend, a Latino police detective named Ria (Jennifer Esposito), following a car accident in which they have been rear-ended. The other driver is Asian, and the two women, in their anger, try to explain who is at fault by drawing on racial stereotyping to justify their arguments. These minorities, thus, are shown to be just as capable of narrow-minded thinking in certain threatening situations as are Caucasians. (We also view this observation when the Middle Eastern shop owner, himself a victim of racial profiling when a gun seller wrongfully labels him an Arab, thinks the Latino locksmith is cheating him.) Waters is also susceptible to this way of thinking when he is criticized later by Ria by calling her a Mexican. She corrects him, saying that her parents were from Puerto Rico and El Salvador. Angry at the criticism, Waters says how come all these diverse civilizations park their cars on their lawns. Here he refuses to make the effort to acknowledge the cultural differences between a variety of backgrounds.

Waters’ investigation into a case shows how the use of political correctness can sometimes obscure the truth by fostering narrow-minded thinking in its own way.  Waters and Ria find out that two men were killed in a shootout, both of the victims being policemen. One, an undercover white racist cop named Conklin, has killed black men in the past. The other policeman, named Lewis, is black. Again, we first think that the white cop is the only wrongdoer. But, it turns out that Lewis has $300,000 hidden inside a fake spare tire in a Mercedes. Lewis was obviously involved in an illegal activity. Flanagan (William Fichtner), who is District Attorney Rick Cabot’s campaign manager, wants Waters to quash the possible corruption of Lewis, and place the total blame of the shooting on the white Conklin. He says that is what Cabot wants, because the candidate wants the black vote, and doesn’t desire to be seen as someone accusing a black cop of wrongdoing, especially following an incident where he was shot by a white racist policeman. Flanagan persuades Waters to go along by promising to drop criminal charges against Waters’ brother (who turns out to be Anthony’s partner, Peter). The same type of covering up happens when Hansen’s boss doesn’t want to rock the boat by disciplining Ryan, since he is a black Captain who doesn’t want to jeopardize his career by appearing to be calling white cops, with good records otherwise, bigots. In both these cases political correctness in its own way can facilitate the urge to fit people easily into preconceived ways of thinking at the expense of accuracy.

Toward the end of the movie, the story again targets the audience’s expected assumptions. Earlier in the story, the SUV with Anthony and Peter in it, strikes an Asian man next to a white van. Not wanting to get into trouble, the two partners drag the man from under the car and speed off. We automatically conclude, based on a surface observation, that the Asian man is an innocent victim. However, when we see the Asian male later in the hospital, he tells his visiting wife to quickly cash a check. The white van is the one Anthony later acquires containing the Asians he subsequently frees. So, the victim turns out to be a criminal dealing in illegal alien slave labor.

The movie ends with an automobile accident, just as it began with one. The various stories of the narrative, which “crash” into each other, show that no matter the race or ethnic background of people, they will exhibit decent and harmful behavior at various times. Trying to reduce humans into stereotypes, although easy, doesn’t work, because we are complicated. The film ends with snow falling on everyone, illustrating that despite our surface differences, we share the same planet, and to live together, we must make the effort to reach out and understand each other.

The next movie will be Bonnie and Clyde.

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