directed by Paul Haggis
(Lions Gate, 2004)

Crash serves up 31 flavors of racism via interlocking vignettes recounting two days in the lives of very different complete strangers. I was a little leery of this film going in, partly because I don't particularly care for some of the cast members and partly because the prospects of making a serious film about racism without resorting to stereotypes or preaching to the audience seemed rather low.

I needn't have worried. Sure, Sandra Bullock annoyed the heck out of me every second she was on the screen, but the movie works -- powerfully and effectively. The secret would seem to be a complete disregard for political correctness. If you want to say something about racism, you can't dance around the issue, and thankfully the writer of this film knew that.

I won't go into much detail about the plot or the characters, except to say that a wide range of races and cultures are represented here -- and the racism that is portrayed on screen works both ways. Furthermore, the characters are by no means stereotypical and often do things you don't really expect them to do. There was a time or two when I said to myself that no one would ever come out and say what a particular character just said, but maybe I'm wrong about that. Those lines, though, show just how foolish and ugly racism is.

To some extent, we can at least see where a few characters are coming from, thanks to little references back to experiences they've had. I think the real strength of the story, though, is the level of nuance built into these vignettes. Consciously doing certain things in order not to appear racist, for purely personal reasons of self-interest, is no better than committing an overt act of prejudice, and this film brings that fact out rather effectively. It also reminds us that even the most hateful of men and women are still human beings with their own problems.

There are some pretty powerful moments spread throughout this film: the heroics of an otherwise hateful cop and the angelic little girl scenes, for example, give us moments of pure cinematic magic. Other moments surprise us, effectively denying us the ability to ever get truly comfortable with what we are seeing onscreen. Lives are changed, some for better, some for worse -- and the mixed signals at the end really just reinforce the points the story was trying to make. Are these temporary changes? Will life just go on as it always has, tainted by hate and mutual suspicion?

Any movie that leaves you asking such poignant questions has to be called a real success.

by Daniel Jolley
11 February 2006

"It's the sense of touch," Los Angeles police Det. Graham Waters (Don Cheadle) tells us before we even know what's happening. "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."

It's a fascinating hypothesis, and one that writer-director Paul Haggis goes to great lengths to demonstrate, if not prove, in his latest film, Crash.

Crash begins with a seemingly simple rear-ending. Waters and Ria (Jennifer Esposito) -- his partner in crime investigation, and sometimes in bed -- are struck from behind in their car by an Asian woman (Alex Rhee) while waiting at the edge of a crime scene. The collision quickly leads to a confrontation, as nearly everything in Crash does.

Indeed, if Crash demonstrates anything, it's that the melting pot this nation purports to be is about to boil over.

In the first few minutes we are introduced to a Persian shopkeeper (Shaun Taub) buying a .38 special from a gun merchant (Jack McGee) who calls him a terrorist, and worse, to his face, and kicks him out of his store -- but sells him the gun; two homies (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges as Anthony and Larenz Tate as Peter) on the lookout for a black Lincoln Navigator; a district attorney's wife (Sandra Bullock) who's so afraid of blacks she wants the locks a black locksmith (Michael Pena) is putting on her door replaced in the morning; a white cop (Matt Dillon) who decides to pull over a black Navigator even though its plates don't match those of the one that's been hijacked and the black man driving it (Terrence Howard) doesn't fit the description of the carjacker; a black police lieutenant (Keith David) who doesn't want to hear anything about bigoted cops, particularly ones he supervises, because it just might make him look bad; and a black detective (Cheadle) who can't talk to his drug-abusing mother (Beverly Todd) on the phone right now, he says, because he's "having sex with a white woman." And have I mentioned the Chinese connection?

All this make Crash a complex piece of work, especially since Haggis chooses not to work in traditional narrative style. Instead, he begins with the rear-ending, flashes back to the day before, gets involved in the lives of approximately half the people living in L.A. and then returns to the scene of the crime so Waters -- and a lot of other people -- can see just how much trouble their race-based ways of thinking are getting them into.

But rather than stack up a series of anecdotes, Haggis, who wrote the screenplay for and helped produce the Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby, weaves his series of anecdotes together so his characters cross each other's paths and their stories comment one upon the others'.

Take Anthony's lines when he and Peter walk out of a restaurant and see the district attorney and his wife walking down the street. "Look around! You couldn't find a whiter, safer or better lit part of this city," Anthony says. "But this white woman sees two black guys, who look like UCLA students, strolling down the sidewalk, and her reaction is blind fear. I mean, look at us! Are we dressed like gangbangers? Do we look threatening? No. Fact, if anybody should be scared, it's us: the only two black faces surrounded by a sea of over-caffeinated white people, patrolled by the trigger-happy LAPD."

Great dialogue, good point. But Anthony and Peter make the DA's wife's case a few seconds later -- when they steal the DA's car at gunpoint. And so on it goes into the L.A. night.

And the racial affronts aren't simply white-on-black or black-on-white: they're white-on-white, black-on-black, white-on-Persian (mistaken for Arab) and everyone-on-Asian, including Asian-on-Asian.

In Crash, Haggis goes far past our inability to communicate and touches on something deeper, darker: how people use their failure -- or unwillingness -- to communicate to further their own selfish ends.

Fortunately for the viewer, Haggis does offer some glimpses of hope -- some of his characters do eventually start to see the light. And there are moments of insightful humor as well, like chop-shop owner Lucien (Dato Bakhtadze) expounding on the Discovery Channel or Anthony's screed on rap, especially the use of the "N"-word: "It's just black people demeaning other black people, using that word over and over. You ever hear white people callin' each other 'honky' all the time? 'Hey, honky, how's work?' 'Not bad, cracker, we're diversifying!'"

Granted, Crash is a complicated film. You might want to have a scorecard handy for those moments when you forget just who's who and what they're doing in this scene. On the other hand, you don't want to miss it. Films this articulate, and this intelligent, don't come along very often.

by Miles O'Dometer
5 August 2006

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