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Chicago Film Critics Crash While Ebert Burns

By Scott Smith in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 9, 2006 9:26PM

There were a few surprises this morning when the Chicago Film Critics announced the winners of their annual awards.

Past award slates from the CFC have been known for the occasional maverick choices and this year was no exception. Joan Allen, the pride of Rochelle, IL earned a Best Actress win for her performance in The Upside of Anger while Mickey Rourke was named Best Supporting Actor for Sin City, makeup be damned! Maria Bello’s decision to leave ER seven years ago is finally starting to pay off as she was named Best Supporting Actress for A History of Violence.

2006_01_crash.jpgThe CFC also made some hard-to-argue-with picks of Phillip Seymour Hoffman for Best Actor in Capote, Cache (Hidden) for Best Foreign Language film and Brokeback Mountain for Best Cinematography.

Then there’s the matter of their winner for Best Screenplay and Best Picture: Crash.

As nomination forms were sent out to Academy members last week, the backlash began as the film picked up several guild nominations for Best Picture and original screenplay. Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert addressed the controversy yesterday in an essay published on his site.

2006_01_ebert.jpgEbert is responding to a Movie Club article wherein L.A. Weekly critic Scott Foundas called the film “the worst movie of the year” and A.O. Scott of the New York Times described it as an “abomination” (which seems a little harsh in a world where the film version of The Dukes of Hazzard exists). He defends the film expertly while dispatching the movie’s haters like the word ninja that he is, even describing Foundas as “too cool for the room.”

Though Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum participated in the discussion, he didn’t share his thoughts on the film though he did manage to squeeze in the obligatory French New Wave reference. He discusses it in his top, 15 list for the year though and noted that Crash “certainly has its high points, but fresh insights into the nature and ramifications of racism aren't among them.”

In our experience, people seem to be having a problem with this film for one reason: it dares to say that some people are racist.

Consider this anecdote: After the film came out, Chicagoist was sitting in a local tavern discussing the film over drinks with a local media critic who’s a good friend of ours. During the discussion, it seemed as if each of us saw a different movie. She saw a movie with sloppy, unrealistic characterization and a simplistic message whereas we saw a film with archetypes that were used to further a story with a nuanced look at how racism undermines the social fabric in increasingly subtle ways.

As we agreed to disagree, Chicagoist asked one final question: “Do you know anyone who’s outwardly racist?” “No,” she replied. “That’s why it seems unrealistic to you,” we replied.

Now, we’re not suggesting that one vignette supports an entire sociological argument. Or even that the film is deserving of Best Picture of the year (though we do think it’s a dark horse candidate). But when an open discussion of race seems to be the last taboo in American culture, a film like Crash should be celebrated. And the invective against it says more about its critics’ view of the world than it does about the film.