Volume 74, Number 55 | May 25 - 31 , 2005

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Dark Horizons

Scene from ‘Crash’ with Matt Dillon and Thandie Newton

A serious look at racism

Film stars Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock and Matt Dillon

By Leonard Quart

Movies have been made on the studio sound stages and back lots of Los Angeles since the film industry began to move out to Hollywood from New York in the second decade of the 20th century. But it’s only been in the last decade or so that a number of films have appeared that capture aspects of Los Angeles’ darker side. Some of those that readily come to mind are “Grand Canyon,” “Magnolia,” “Boyz N' the Hood,” “Short Cuts,” and now “Crash.”

Directed by Paul Haggis (screenwriter of “Million Dollar Baby”), Crash is an ambitious, ensemble work that wrestles with the theme of racism, and its impact on a number of characters from a variety of class, ethnic and racial backgrounds. It takes place in LA—a sprawling city seen as a rigidly class and racially divided urban turf where the car rules, and “nobody touches you,” except when the film’s characters break out of their isolation to express racist venom. Given the number of characters, the film needs the kind of fluid editing that seamlessly cuts from one group of characters’ story to another narrative—granting them all sufficient time to develop.

Crash takes place in a feverish 36-hour period that encompasses car crashes, carjacking, and a volatile encounter between a racist white policeman and an upper middle class African-American couple whose dignity he robs. In addition, illegal aliens are smuggled, an Iranian immigrant small storeowner, feeling continually victimized, spins out of control and attempts to kill an innocent Hispanic locksmith, and a politician manipulates the facts about a murder involving a black and white cop in order to get re-elected. In sum, an overheated film with too many melodramatic incidents and coincidences, an inflated, intrusive sound track, and a too-schematic quality where every interaction turns out to have racial connotations.

But Crash does contain a number of striking performances, including Don Cheadle as a decent, soft-spoken, despairing detective, who is trapped by his own ambivalent feelings towards both the compromises of his job and his loyalty to his street criminal brother. Also, Sandra Bullock (playing against her comic, girl next door movie persona) as a well-off, neurotic, difficult wife of the LA District Attorney who is filled with anger towards and fear of (some of it justified here) African-Americans and Hispanics. And Matt Dillon convincingly embodies the character of a brutal, racist cop who also loves his sick father, and who is even capable of transcending his prejudices to courageously save the life of an African-American woman from a burning car crash.

What’s disturbing about Crash is not only its penchant for revving up the action and emotion, but Haggis’ need to try to balance its dark, almost apocalyptic portrait of LA with some contrived scenes where some of the characters discover a capacity for understanding and others, like the cop, for doing the right thing.

However, Haggis’ attempt to offer some redemptive magic in this bleak portrait of LA never takes hold. What resonates in this flawed, suggestive film is the feeling of an American city profoundly driven by stated and unstated racist feelings and stereotyping. Crash achieves this without simplistically defining the city as one consisting merely of oppressors and victims.

Yes, I would have liked a more penetrating and subtle film about the politics of race and ethnicity in LA, but Crash is one of the few mainstream Hollywood movies that deal with more than teen-age romance, comic book heroes, and sit-com slapstick. Crash is serious, adult, and worth seeing.

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