She's been Oprah's Beloved, and starred in Interview with the Vampire and Mission: Impossible II. In Crash, Thandie Newton plays Christine, wife of Terrence's Cameron. Thandie says she's had her own experience with racism during the movie casting process.
"I had a meeting for a film that I was going to do," Thandie explains. "It was a huge movie. And it was to discuss the character, because they were going to change elements of the character because I'm of color, and they needed to modify it so I would fit the role. ... The character [I was to play] had a degree from university. The studio executive said, 'I don't mean to be politically incorrect, but is it really feasible that this woman has a degree?' There was a silence in the room, and I just said, 'Well, I have a degree from Cambridge University.' And she said, 'Yeah, but you're different.' I left the room and decided I wasn't going to have anything to do with [that] movie."
But now, Thandie says she regrets having made that decision. "I was so wrong to do that. You, Oprah, taught me. You were on the cover of Vogue when we made Beloved, and you said that the people at Vogue had endless meetings about you being on the cover. And I was so ready to get hotheaded about it and say, 'That's disgusting. That's racist. Why is this such a big deal? Oprah should be on the cover.' But you said, 'No, no, no, no. They should have lots of meetings because it's a big deal for them and they might lose a readership and they have to really think it through.' But it didn't stop you from taking that place with pride. I didn't do that movie and I should have made the movie. I should have changed those people's opinions. I didn't because I felt like a victim. I think one of the worst things about racism...is that you feel like a victim."
One of Crash's most disturbing scenes occurs between Matt Dillon's character, Officer Ryan, and Thandie Newton's character, Christine. After Officer Ryan pulls over an African-American couple, he sexually assaults Christine while her husband is forced to watch powerlessly.
Thandie says that there was plenty of preparation for this scene. "I'd read the script and I just assumed [the assault] was just a suggestion, nothing more than that," she says. "I was so in denial about the horror of this. And when we had the discussion and I realized that this actually was going to go so much further—the horror of that just completely took my breath away."
Matt agrees that this was a particularly difficult scene to film and for him to watch. "In fact, at the premiere I kind of had to duck out during that," he says.
Though the racist Officer Ryan—played by Matt Dillon in a role that earned him an Oscar® nomination
—is one of the most despicable characters in the beginning of Crash
, the story does not offer the easiness of making him an outlandish villain. After sexually assaulting Christine, Officer Ryan goes home and has a tender moment with his father, and undergoes his own transformation later in the movie.
"That's what I liked about the script, and I thought it was pretty consistent throughout the script, not just with my character," Matt says. "With my character—who is this really hideous guy in the beginning—that it then explores the more personal nature of the guy's life. And you get a sense of where this bitterness and this hatred comes from. Not that it makes his behavior excusable, but ... it went a little deeper. To me it was a very accurate portrayal of certain segments, indisputably, of the LAPD. ... He's the guy who's scapegoating; he's living an unexamined existence. He's unable to recognize his own faults and his own bad thinking."
Paul Haggis cowrote and directed Crash. In 2004 he was nominated for an Oscar® for his adapted screenplay for Million Dollar Baby.
When he wrote the screenplay for Crash, Paul says he thought he would never get Hollywood to accept this difficult and frank exploration of race and racism. And, if it somehow managed to get made, he thought it would be largely ignored.
Now that it's been made and so positively received, what is Paul's reaction to the level of response?
"Shocked, stunned," he says. "When we were sitting in my living room and Don [Cheadle] said, 'I thought we'd be lucky to get it made. And then a few people would see it and get a little attention, maybe, and that would be it.' But, not like this. It's crazy!"
One of the inspirations for this movie came from Paul's own real life "Crash moment" 14 years ago.
"The jumping off point was in 1991. Two guys came up and put guns in our faces—myself and my then-wife—and said, 'We'll take the car.' And I said, 'Absolutely.' And gave it to them and they took off. Now, writers, we don't respond to instincts like human beings do. I couldn't stop thinking about these two kids over the years. So I responded with curiosity, and once a year I'd think about these two kids: Had they been best friends since they were young? Or did they just meet that evening? Did they think of themselves as criminals?
"So I was really curious about them and then 10 years later, after 9/11, I woke up at 2 in the morning thinking about them. And I got really angry. I didn't know why I was thinking about them and didn't want to think about them. But I started writing about them ... and from there I was always curious about how we affect strangers. [For instance,] we're driving down the street and you cut me off and I yell at you and you flip me the finger and I go right and you go left. What happens to you? I never see you again. So do you go home and you get in a fight with your husband or something because of what happened? Or do you stop and save someone's life and I never know about it. ... That intrigued me. I said, 'I'm going to keep following these characters as they careen into each other's lives.'"
Paul explains that Cameron, the African-American Hollywood executive played by Terrence Howard, was inspired by an interaction he'd witnessed. "I was in the studio lot and I was walking down towards two white producers who were talking to a black director. And as I got closer I realized they were telling him a joke, and it was a racist joke that the two white producers were telling to the black director to him as if to say, 'See, we're all the same now.' And before you get close enough to say, 'No, we aren't,' the punch line came. The director sort of half-smiled, slapped [the producer] on the shoulder and turned and walked away. And I said, 'What part of his soul did that man just eat to save his job?'
Professor Ray Winbush, an expert on race relations and the director of the Institute for Urban Affairs for Morgan State University, says we cannot escape the racist elements of our culture by ignoring them. "We're hinting at this, that the entire society encourages racism," he says. "It encourages us, we're a part of it. It's like a table from which everybody takes a piece of food. Some eat more, some eat less, but all of us are a product of a racist society. And we have images and stereotypes of each other regardless of race. I think we feel uncomfortable saying that some behavior is racist. Because that is a bad thing to say in this society. But I think until we start talking about it, until we start understanding that this is what we are products of, I don't think that we're going to get anyplace."
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