Perhaps this column will irritate some of my fellow fans of cinema. That is unfortunate, but, as my editors here at the Daily have often told me, just because saying something bothers someone doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be said.

Sarah Royce

A massive upset took place at last Sunday’s Academy Awards. I’m sure you’ve heard about it. No, no, I don’t mean “The Chronicles of Narnia” taking down “Cinderella Man” for “Best Achievement in Makeup” – I mean the other upset.

Though “Crash” had its fair share of champions, no one in his right mind (OK, no one except Roger Ebert) expected the controversial film to walk away with the best picture award over “Brokeback Mountain,” or any other nominee for that matter. Yet “Crash” did win, leaving its filmmakers just as stunned as clearly sloshed presenter Jack Nicholson.

First of all, let’s get this nonsense about “Crash” not being a worthy pick out of the way. Every nominee was a worthy pick, but there can be only one winner. This being true, “Brokeback Mountain,” “Munich” or any other nominee would have been a justifiable choice – just as “Crash” is.

I loved “Crash,” and I am the only writer I know who feels this way. I tried afterward to identify with what my “Brokeback”-loving friends must have been feeling. I guess I understand – it was probably a bit like I felt when “Shakespeare in Love” trumped “Saving Private Ryan” or when Bush v. Gore went to Bush.

But detractors of “Crash” have it all wrong: Years from now, we will look back at this pick as one of the most courageous in Oscar history, and for good reason. The win does not embody, as most critics have argued, the Academy’s failure to make a statement by giving the award to “Brokeback Mountain.” Instead it is a brash statement from the Academy that even in the face of the conflict in the Middle East, censorship and homosexuality, racism is still America’s most pressing issue.

Many among us are uncomfortable even admitting that racism still exists in our America. The fact that minorities face unfair odds in even the most mundane of daily dealings is easy to turn a blind eye to. Even many subjects of discrimination have learned to live with it, because those who speak up are seen as manipulating circumstances by playing the “race card.”

I suppose this is the reason so many people disliked “Crash.” It makes racist attitudes seem universal, perhaps implying that there are no good people in the world. Two black men grumble about always being stereotyped as hoodlums – before proceeding to carjack someone. They run over a Chinese guy, spit out every expletive in the Far-East book and then attempt to stuff his body into the back of a van – only to find it crammed with the now-revealed slave-trader’s cargo. There are prejudices against those of the Middle East, Latin America and, of course, white people. “Crash” is overwhelming in the sheer volume of prejudices it manages to churn out in its 113 minutes. But does this invalidate what it has to say?

The film challenges us to accept that racism is all around us and probably even within us. Those among us who claim to be open-minded should at least accept this as a possibility. Next, the film contends that our racial prejudices guide our everyday actions – unconsciously of course. This is harder to accept, if only because the film magnifies the nature and extent of these prejudices. Characters in “Crash” are willing to go as far as kill someone based on racism, something (I hope) none of us would do. The storylines, conflicts and outcomes are grossly exaggerated, but consider for a moment: To what effect?

Films can never be a straight-out representation of real life. If they were, the two gay cowboys would have had almost no chance of ever meeting. Life, in its most wonderful property, is completely random, embodying random spurts of unlikely moments, making them meaningful in ways we appreciate years later. In a two-hour film, this can never be accurately portrayed. (Anyone up for watching Truman Capote snore for two hours? He slept every night, after all . ) Films are always biased in that they only show the moments they want to show, and we usually have no problem with this.

“Crash” is contrived, overstated and blunt, to say the least. But is it so much so that the message is lost? The honest answer is no. By breaking down the big, scary real world into just the events surrounding the subjects of one random car crash, the film shows the many forms racism in America takes, though obviously never at once.

This selection by the Academy is not a cop-out; in many ways, going with “Brokeback” would have been the cop-out. “Brokeback” was clearly an easy choice for the largely liberal Academy, while racism has always been the most explosive issue in our society. Under fire, the Academy stood up and honored a deserving work too hot for most to handle. In the future, we will be thankful.

Syed can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

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