Director : Paul Haggis
Screenplay : Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco (story by Paul Haggis)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Sandra Bullock (Jean), Don Cheadle (Graham), Matt Dillon (Officer Ryan), Jennifer Esposito (Ria), William Fichtner (Flanagan), Brendan Fraser (Rick), Terrence Howard (Cameron), Chris "Ludacris" Bridges (Anthony), Thandie Newton (Christine), Ryan Phillippe (Officer Hanson), Larenz Tate (Peter), Tony Danza (Fred), Keith David (Lt. Dixon), Shaun Toub (Farhad), Loretta Devine (Shaniqua), Michael Pena (Daniel), Bahar Soomekh (Dorri)
The message of Crash is simple and direct: Racism not only still exists, but it perniciously affects -- both directly and indirectly -- the everyday experiences of people from all walks of life. To make this point and drive it home, first-time director Paul Haggis (who wrote the screenplay for Million Dollar Baby and coscreenwriter Bobby Moresco (who was one of that film's producers) have cooked up an interlocking set of stories featuring more than a dozen principal characters set during an unusually cold 24 hours in Los Angeles, that American hotbed of racial and cultural tensions.
Although at the opposite end of the temperature spectrum, the chill in the air, visually evoked by the film's cool blue palette and occasional sprinkling of snow, has a similar effect as the heat did in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989) by both symbolizing and intensifying the racial emotions and conflicts. In his film, Lee saw racism as a constant boil just waiting to explode, while 15 years later Haggis sees it as a chill that has settled into the bones of society, with the occasional flare-ups acting as reminders of its unseemly permanence.
Crash is also similar to Do the Right Thing in that its characters do some terrible things, but we always understand why they do them. We may not agree with what they do, but we always have a sense of their reasoning, even if that reasoning is buried on a deep, subconscious level. Much of the film is about action and reaction, but at its heart it is about communication - or, more precisely, the lack thereof. So much of the conflict in Crash is the direct result of miscommunication, which is as prevalent among strangers who don't speak the same first language as it is among husbands, wives, lovers, and partners.
Haggis and Moresco's screenplay is an interesting study in contrivance masked by expertly drawn characters and excellent dialogue. All of the characters cross each others' paths at some point, and in some way they are all bound to crash into other, both physically and emotionally. Haggis and Moresco have to work in some amazing coincidences in order to get all the characters in the right place at the right time, for example Matt Dillon's racist police officer just happening to be in a position to save a wealthy black woman (Thandie Newton) who he happened to sexually harass the night before when he stopped her and husband, a successful black TV director (Terence Howard). Similarly, a younger police officer played by Ryan Philippe, who was on hand to witness Dillon's grotesque behavior and asked for a reassignment as a result, just happens to be nearby when the TV director husband, after being accused of being an Uncle Tom one too many times, goes off the deep end and threatens to make good on every racist stereotype about black male behavior imaginable.
The fact that all the characters come from different racial and ethnic backgrounds intensifies their interactions, as they constantly bear the weight of their color. Stereotypes -- assumption about strangers made by their appearance -- figure heavily into Crash, and although the film has a clear agenda of unmasking the perniciousness of socially instituted racism, it is not above the suggestion that certain stereotypes exist because people keep fueling them. This is pointed out explicitly nearly the beginning of the film, as two young black men (Larenz Tate and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) walk through a predominantly white part of the city, bemoaning the fact that they are automatically feared by those around them. They are victims of stereotyping, yet as the film shows in a quick, unexpected turn, they also contribute to the very stereotypes they complain about.
At the same time, though, there are characters who defy others' expectations of them. After having been carjacked, the wealthy, paranoid, and spoiled wife (Sandra Bullock) of the L.A. district attorney (Brendan Fraser) demands that the locks on their doors be changed. When she sees that the worker changing the locks (Michael Pena) is a young Hispanic man covered with tattoos, she immediately assumes that he has criminal intentions and will pass their keys off to his "homeys." As it turns out, he is one of the film's most sympathetic and genuine characters, the exact opposite of the wife's stereotype. Yet, because she has just been the victim of a crime -- the initial fear of which she buried in an attempt to restrain an impulse that might be deemed "racist" -- we can understand why she would be so edgy, even if we are shocked by the tone of what she is saying.
At its most powerful, Crash reminds us of the power of words to both heal and destroy. In the former instance, the Hispanic locksmith helps his daughter overcome her justified fears of the world outside by giving her an invisible, magic cloak -- really just words from a loving father that function as a shield for his defenseless child. As for the latter, the film is replete with characters barking racial slurs at each other, sometimes in ways that strain credulity (can we really believe that people who have just been in an auto accident would immediately start openly blaming the wreck on the other person's race?). Yet, even with some of its heavy-handedness, Crash is an eye-opening experience, a finely acted and directed story that lays bares in so many ways how race informs our everyday experiences, whether we want it to or not.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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