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In a Head On 'Crash' With Racism
[Film review] A small-budget American film successfully takes on a big topic on the streets of L.A.
Philip Satchell (pfsatchell)     Print Article 
Published 2005-05-13 10:56 (KST)   
"Crash" succeeds in telling a complex, challenging but ultimately universal story about racism on the streets of Los Angeles.
©2005 Lions Gate
The other day, the novelist Russell Banks ("The Sweet Hereafter," "Rule of the Bone"), was on the radio while I was stuck in L.A. traffic. The interviewer asked him about his new novel and why he consistently returned to the topics of race and immigration for inspiration. He replied succinctly, "The story of race is the central story of America."

True. But why just America? Everyone, everywhere has to deal with race, whether they live in Los Angeles or Lagos.

The ample space provided by a novel to take on race relations seems limiting; but it is positively palatial compared to a two-hour Hollywood film. That is why it is all the more stunning that "Crash" succeeds in telling a complex, challenging but ultimately universal story about racism on the streets of Los Angeles.

©2005 Lions Gate
There are two aspects of the film that make it succeed where others have failed. A fabulous ensemble cast -- and Paul Haggis.

Haggis, first time director/long time writer ("Million Dollar Baby"), with co-writer Robert Moresco, has hit upon something in "Crash" that is both intriguing and beguilingly simple: we can become bigots when we can't find an excuse for our own unhappiness.

The film starts in a daze. A black detective, Graham, (Don Cheadle in another great performance) and his Hispanic partner/lover, Ria (Jennifer Esposito), have just been in a car accident with an Asian-American woman.

"It's the sense of touch. Any real city you walk, you know. You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A. nobody touches you. We are always behind this metal and glass... It's the sense of touch. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other so we can feel something." Ria thinks he's hit his head. Has he?

It is a romantic notion that we are all so miserable, so alone, so isolated in our little bubbles, with our iPods and email and our online dating services, that we seek out a jarring and destructive opportunity to wake ourselves up and connect with people. It is the lack of entropy, the complete safety that is boring our lives to death.

The film takes the idea and runs with it. A Persian family struggles to understand the language and cope with their neighbors' violence towards Arabs. A successful African-American couple (Terrence Dashon Howard and Thandie Newton) nearly tears itself apart after a run in with a lecherous cop (Matt Dillon). Two young African-American thugs (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges and Larenz Tate) argue about fidelity to their own race while letting it down themselves. A hard-looking Hispanic locksmith (Michael Pena) tries to protect his daughter from the streets.

Haggis and Moresco's dialogue is so direct and pitch perfect, the audience just gasped. Some of the slur-ridden dialogue, especially in the beginning, reminded me of great stand-up routines from Richard Pryor or Chris Rock. With those comedians and "Crash," the slur is not the point. It is the start to finding something beyond, some truth. It is why the film is worth two hours. As well, Haggis does not let it over animate itself into a nuclear bomb of racial tension and hatred.

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"Crash" might be part of a new genre -- the slur driven plot, because the action is random but interconnected. The characters' reactions are just as unpredictable. People are good and bad, the bigot/savior, the saint/murderer, the thief/liberator to name a few. They are the words that come out of their mouths and their actions when there is nothing to say. Haggis wants his characters to be tested and no one escapes untarnished.

The cast is great. Michael Pena as Daniel, the Hispanic locksmith, is fantastic. The scenes with him and his daughter Lara (Ashlyn Sanchez) are wonderful. They are simultaneously simple and universal -- always a sign of good storytelling. Thandie Newton is beautiful, physically waifish and emotionally frail. Terrence Dashon Howard, her husband, is so powerfully fed up, you just want to help him out in some way. His response: I didn't ask for your help.

It is impossible to deal with every race and every story in L.A. and their experiences. Haggis has already woven a tangled web. I have one criticism: If any part of L.A. appears to be left out of the film, it is the Asian/Asian-American population. Their presence doesn't go beyond more than a slur and a crash. But if the ending of the film is any clue, my only guess is "Crash" makes a point to back off and leave that story for another film, someone else's tale.

"I'm angry all the time and I don't know why," whines Sandra Bullock's character. If Haggis provides a response, then it is that nobody's to blame but yourself. There is little overt moralizing, no Rodney King can't-we-all-get-along moment, and no collapse into melodramatic violence. The ending is as quiet and pensive as the beginning was insulting and inflammatory. It is why the movie works. Perhaps, the only protection may be faith in the intangible, in family, in self and not in a pat solution to the world's million tiny injustices.
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©2005 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Philip Satchell

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