'Crash' smashes tolerant stereotypes

By James P. Pinkerton Published:

By James P. Pinkerton

Is Hollywood out of touch with the rest of the country? Do starlets have their plastic surgeons on speed dial? One is tempted to say that the only time Hollywooders are sure to be in touch is when theyre getting a hot-stone massage in Malibu.

George Clooney wants to make a virtue out of being out of touch, in the same way that Henry David Thoreau made a virtue out of marching to a different drummer. Accepting his Oscar for Syriana, Clooney set a defiant tone for the Academy Awards show:

We are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood, he declared, adding, Thats probably a good thing. And why is that? Because, he answered, We were the ones who talked about AIDS ... about civil rights. He praised this Academy, this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. And so, he concluded, he is proud to be out of touch.

But lets pursue this point about what Hollywood has been, and has not been, in touch with. For instance, how about other large-scale issues, such as communism and the Soviet threat? From the openly pro-Stalin Mission to Moscow (1943) to the scathingly antimilitary Dr. Strangelove (1964), Hollywood mostly mocked the Cold War. And director Oliver Stone lives in his own world of crazed conspiratorialism -- which hasnt stopped him from winning three Oscars.

What about the issue that Clooney emphasized -- race relations and civil rights? Here the picture is muddled. The most influential film of the Silent Era was undoubtedly D.W. Griffiths Birth of a Nation (1915), which admired the Ku Klux Klan. Even into the 1940s, Hollywood happily made money from such laughably stereotypical blacks Amos and Andy and the actor Stepin Fetchit, The Laziest Man in the World. Undeniably, Hollywood advanced civil rights in films -- The Defiant Ones (1958) and Guess Whos Coming to Dinner (1967). But in the 50s and 60s, during the heyday of liberalism, bleeding-heart moviemaking was a safe and popular career path for a studio executive.

When the political situation changed, starting in the 70s, so did Hollywood. Blaxploitation films -- Superfly (1972) and Mandingo (1975) -- were often made by blacks, and yet one might ask: Did they provide good role models for African-Americans? Did they make blacks look sympathetic?

But what about the big winner of Sunday night, Crash, which won best-picture and best-screenplay Oscars? Critics describe the film, focusing on life and crime in Los Angeles, as brutally honest; writer-director Paul Haggis dedicated his awards to those who stand up for peace, and justice, and against intolerance. Doesnt such a film pass the Clooney Test for being out of touch in a good, liberal way?

Maybe, but lets consider Crash, which begins with two black men walking through a white section of L.A., bemoaning racial profiling. Then they pull out guns and proceed with a carjack plan. Whos promoting stereotyping -- fictional white people, or Haggis? The director, by the way, has said that the inspiration for Crash came from his own experience as a carjacking victim.

Haggis, like many popular-culture makers, seems to have reached a strange but nonetheless widespread conclusion: that depicting ugly events is the same thing as promoting tolerance. Well, actually, no. Such honesty isnt necessarily cathartic; it can reinforce ugliness instead. Some will see Crash and want to join brotherhood crusades, while others will want to double-check their car locks.

Paraphrasing Bertolt Brecht, the German communist playwright, Haggis said on Sunday that art should not be a mirror, it should be a hammer. Well, keeping Clooney in mind, one could say that hammering is a great way to get in touch, but history shows that smashing things rarely makes them better.

Special to Newsday

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