The inevitability of performativity: An analysis of Crash

Paul Haggis’ 2004 Crash is a film that focuses on stereotyping, cause and effect, and racial tensions. When looked at closely, the film goes beyond the surface of these things and raises important questions. Are we living for ourselves or everybody else? Are we in control of our own lives and will we ever be? Do we in control of our own identity? Crash has more to do with the way we affect each other, more than it has to do with anything else. It is based off of the performativity of race, gender, and status in the typical frame of society. Whether Haggis intended it to or not, it comments on the detrimental effects of performativity on the functionality of life and the fact that we have to constantly perform ourselves. It does this by featuring characters who either choose to play into their given stereotypes or rise above them. The scene involving Cameron (Terrance Howard), Christine (Thandie Newton), and the two police officers who pulled them over (Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillippe) is a perfect example of how this theory comes into play.

A major theme in the film is existence and the way it works. According to this film we do not exist because of who we think we are, but instead exist based on what people see us as. All we are is society’s definition of us. The film portrays many different lives that are all, in the end, intertwined, which is made possible by everybody playing their roles in society. It features the performances of the intimidating thugs, the successful black man, the sassy black woman, the ignorant foreigner, the white politician trying not to look racist, the politician’s racist wife, the overworked Hispanic father, the white man abusing the coloured woman, the white man saving the coloured woman, etc. Like our everyday lives, all the people in this society had to play a certain role in their lives in order to push the plot of the film forward.  These performances play on the fact that playing our role is crucial to the existence of both ourselves and others. In order for us to push the plots of our lives forward we do not necessarily acquire a role at that moment, but instead we exude the role that we were naturally assigned by society. Not only did these characters behave in their roles but they looked their roles. From the start of the film the audience is able to differentiate the class and expected behaviors of all these characters. We are automatically exposed to character based on the bagginess of their pants, the straightness of a woman’s hair, and the amount of brown a person has in their skin; and from the start they are expected to behave according to their outward appearance (skin tone, choice of clothing, and status).

In the “Wandering Hands” scene Cameron and Christine, an upper class presenting African American couple (the successful black man and the sassy black woman) are pulled over by two white policemen after one of the officers sees Christine performing “fellatio” on her Cameron. Once the couple is out of the car Cameron is roughly slammed into the vehicle. Role number 1: It is often the role of the white police officer to mistreat the black man. Role number 1 1/2: it is often the role of the black man to be violently treated by the white police officer. This scene ends with Dillon’s character sexually assaulting the Christine while Cameron is unable to act because it was not his role, which is later discussed in an argument with Christine where he says: “I mean, sooner or later, you gotta find out what it’s really like to be black.” Role number 2: While it is often the role of a man to be violently assaulted, it is the role of the woman to be sexually assaulted. We know this role comes from the common knowledge that men feel the need to show their dominance physically with men, sexually with woman, and authoritatively over all. In this three-minute scene, the roles of gender is summed up and played out by these three characters. The white man is in control while the black man is being put in his place, and when the woman tries to step out of her role, her husband (her protector) quickly hushes her, urging her to keep quiet and accept the role that society has given to them; he as a black man and her as a woman. Dillon’s character would not have known who he were meant to abuse if he could not correctly identify these people based on their societal roles.

The movie contains many moments of questionable social norms and constructs where it is questioned why these things are happening and why no one is doing anything about it. Yes, the movie shows us that the way we choose to see people and the roles that we automatically expect them to assume are often incorrect and that we are responsible for so many other people’s lives than we are aware of, but it is not pro-active, it does not give us a way to stabilize or change these given identity formations. In the previously mentioned scene Phillippe’s character stood back and watched in horror yet did nothing during or proceeding the incident. This is an example of how, despite the instability and fractal wrongness of these roles that we are made to play, people still play them based on the fact that it is what they are used to.

It can be disputed whether the Phillippe’s character stood back and did nothing because he was too afraid to stand up against the other officer or if it were because in a way he felt that what was happening may have been correct. Although he later asked to be placed with a different partner, he still did nothing while he saw it happen. When he went to his (black) Captain to ask for a new partner he was told to say he had a bad case of flatulence instead of reporting his partner. In a direct quote from the script his Captain responded to him saying “I understand your need for privacy. Just like you probably understand how hard a black man has to work to get to, say, where I am, in a racist fucking organization like the LAPD. And how easily that can all be taken away…you can put your career and mine on the line in pursuit of a just cause or you can admit to having an embarrassing problem of a personal nature”. Here is an example of a black man that stepped out of his expected role, and also an example of a man who knows that the fact that he stepped out of his role is risky. The Captain stepped out of his role to be a leader, but he knew there was a limit to how far he could go.

In another scene preceding the wandering hands incident Christine mentions that as her husband she expected him to have protected her and he responds with “What did you want me to do? Get us both shot?” This is an example of how people are forced to chose between who they think they are and who they are, as perceived by other people. Judith Butler, an American philosopher and gender theorist, explains performativity as “a compulsory repetition of prior and subjectivating norms, ones which cannot be thrown off at will, but which work, animate, and constrain the gendered subject” (Butler 23). So he was naturally placed into the role of a black man, being dominated by a white authoritative figure, and had to choose between protecting his wife and surviving. Throughout the rest of the film it is evident that Cameron is naturally an outspoken character. He was a successful and considerably wealthy TV director, but at that moment he had to misconstrue his identity and fit into his obedient slave boy role in order for he and his Christine to survive. The situation at hand constrained him and forced him into playing the roll that he is most expected to play. Although he stepped out of his initial expected role, just like the Captain, he was forced right back into it because of the way society has chosen to subjectify it’s members.

Although the film is often seen as racist and mislead, rightfully so, it brings up questions on the way society has shaped the way we act and react to certain types of people. It brings up the fact that there is no free will, no living for yourself, and for the most part no identity. It brings up the possibility that we are only real to the extent to which we perform. Everything we do is for everyone else to either see us in the way that we want them to or according to what they believe we should do. This film shows us that we do not anything for ourselves alone and that we are constantly putting on a performance, whether we choose to abide by or go against the social norms.




Work Cited

Butler, Judith. “Critically Queer.” The Routledge Queer Studies Reader. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013. 18-31. Print.

Crash. Dir. Paul Haggis. Lions Gate Entertainment, 2004. Film.







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