Race’s an odd duck. We rarely talk about it, but everyone’s aware of it. It shouldn’t matter what color someone’s skin is, but even the most tolerant individual will occasionally judge his fellow man based on his appearance. If I run into a gang of loud black guys in hip hop attire, I’m annoyed. You could say I’m a self-hating Black but, to paraphrase Larry David, while I do hate myself, it has nothing to do with my being black. Seriously, I’m not racist, but sometimes I can be. Does that make any sense? What I mean is that I don’t hate, say, all Arabs, but I do hate Arab assholes, the same way I hate white assholes, black assholes or Chinese assholes. There is good and bad in everyone. We learn to live, we learn to give each other what we need to survive together alive. Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony side by side on my piano keyboard, oh lord why don’t we?
“Crash” is the directorial debut of Paul Haggis, the creator of “Walker, Texas Ranger” (!) and the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Million Dollar Baby. It’s one of the most candid explorations of racial tension in America that I’ve seen outside Spike Lee’s oeuvre. The film is hardly perfect, relying too much on coincidences and shock value over thematic depth, but at least it dares to be about something heavy.
Like Short Cuts and Magnolia before it, “Crash” depicts a little more than twenty-four hours in the lives of a myriad of seemingly unrelated characters in and around Los Angeles. The L.A. District Attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his pampered wife (Sandra Bullock) are carjacked by young black thugs (Larenz Tate and rapper Ludacris). A black woman (Thandie Newton) is molested by a racist cop (Matt Dillon) while his partner (Ryan Phillippe) and her husband (Terrence Howard) look on helplessly. A Latino locksmith (Michael Pena) and a Persian store owner (Shaun Toub) nearly come to blows over a professional disagreement. A police detective (Don Cheadle) is too busy having an affair with his Puerto Rican partner (Jennifer Esposito) to take care of his mother and brother in the ghetto.
What Haggis apparently wants to show is that people who initially seem like bad news can end up becoming heroes, while the “good guys” find themselves doing horrible things. To achieve this, though, the film has to take some pretty contrived twists and have people conveniently run into each other at just the right time and place repeatedly. They end up being not so much characters as plot devices, cogs in Haggis’ thematic Erector set.
Still, as preposterous as the circumstances can be, “Crash” does build up four or five times to operatic moments of extreme emotion. The strokes can be a bit broad, the different threads don’t add up to anything really profound and there’s a sense that instead of the intimacy it strives for, the film actually encourages people to be even more isolated and terrified (you get the impression that you could randomly get shot or shoot someone at any time), but the overall picture is powerful nonetheless. Much credit must be given to the uniformly excellent cast of actors, who manage to make the story resonate even when it’s illogical and over the top.