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Watch these DVDs – but Brokeback is the classic

APRIL 10, 2006 – Two of the best films of the last year are now available on DVD. Crash, directed by Paul Haggis and with an all-star cast including Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock and Matt Dillon – is a very fine exposé of the racism which permeates modern U.S. society. For viewers from racially profiled Toronto with its creeping economic apartheid, there is no question that its message resonates here as well.

The film won three Oscars, and mostly deservedly-so. But when viewed side by side with the really great DVD released this month – it’s pretty clear that one of its Oscars was ill-deserved. Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee, was not ignored. It too won three Oscars, for directing, writing and music. But, in this reviewer’s opinion, without question it should have won the Oscar for best picture.

This is not just a political question – although there are lots of politics involved. When Brokeback – with beautiful performances from Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist – set out to do the unthinkable, and take the macho image of the U.S. cowboy, keep the machismo, but add a loving same-sex relationship, it broke so many taboos, stepped on so many family values, that the Oscar was put out of reach.

There is a deep homophobia which permeates modern society, creating a mountain too high for Brokeback to climb to win the Oscars. Tony Curtis and several other Academy voters bad-mouthed the film without watching it. Curtis said he had no intention of watching the movie, apparently knowing clairvoyantly that it offered nothing “unique”.[1]

Gene Shalit – a 31-year veteran movie critic on NBC’s Today show – called Jack a “sexual predator” who “tracks Ennis down and coaxes him into sporadic trysts.”[2] I’m sure Shalit will be absolutely consistent, and denounce all the various James Bonds as sexual predators for “tracking women down and coaxing them into sporadic trysts.” An anti-gay group called the “American Family Association” has been lobbying Wal-Mart to pull the DVD from its shelves.[3] The Bahamas has outright banned the film.[4]

So there were political reasons why Brokeback could not win. And watching Crash – while it is an anti-racist film – it is an anti-racist film that can leave us feeling just a bit too comfortable.

Don Cheadle’s character opens the film, saying: “It’s the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.” So if we get some contact, maybe the racism will go away. But what this ignores is the deep, systemic, nature of the racism embedded in US and Canadian societies. Brokeback makes you feel the systemic nature of discrimination against gay men in our society.

In Crash, Matt Dillon plays the very, very racist cop. In a scene almost too unbearable to watch, he sexually harasses Christine, played perfectly by Thandie Newton, while her husband Cameron (Terrence Howard) is forced to look on in deep, searing humiliation. The everyday, brutal reality of racism and sexism is captured with bitter realism.

But the film succeeds in making us feel sympathy for this misogynist, racist cop. The film’s defenders will say that what is being done is contextualizing society’s racism, putting it in a class and human perspective. And to some extent that is true. But the message we are left with at the end of the film is not just about understanding. Dillon’s character is actually portrayed with more sympathy than any in the film – and in the racist 21st century – particularly in racist Los Angeles in the 21st century – particularly in the Los Angeles of the racist cops who beat Rodney King almost to death – this is just a little much.

There are also some artistic problems. Brokeback is breathtaking in its continuity, leading you gently into the lives of Ennis and Jack, and holding you until the bitter ending. Crash is at times beautifully done, but with so many coincidences that it at times feels contrived in the extreme.

Watch them both. They are quality films, tackling important subjects, with strong and believable performances. But 20 years from now, Brokeback will live in people’s DVD collections and in cinematic history – a historic breakthrough in terms of the portrayal of same-sex relationships in Hollywood. Crash will not have the same longevity.

© 2006 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.


[1] “Tony Curtis Blasts ‘Brokeback Mountain,’” Newsmax, February 7, 2006,

[2] “‘Brokeback’ Battle,” Chicago Tribune, January 8, 2006,

[3] “AFA Tries to Stop Wal-Mart from Selling Brokeback DVDs,” April 6, 2006,

[4] Arts ·, “Bahamas Bans ‘Brokeback,’” CBC, March 30, 2006,

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