Crash should be called “Let’s Talk about Race.” TV director Paul Haggis makes his feature film debut as both writer and director of Crash, an issue movie on the subject of race relations in Los Angeles.
R for language, sex violence
It’s more than fair to say that Crash is an “issue movie” because although it has all the requisite properties of a regular movie — plot, characters, dialogue, action — it is essentially a place for Haggis to work out his own feelings about race. It is earnest, and that works both for it and against it. On the one hand, Crash is preachy and contrived. On the other, if you are open and receptive, Crash is the start of a serious dialogue about race issues, particularly in L.A.
Haggis borrows heavily from movies like 21 Grams, Amores Perros, and Traffic where, instead of an overarching plot, the movie uses a theme to tie together several short stories. Using a dramatic contrivance — in this case, the car crash — Haggis actually connects all the characters to create a web. It’s not a bad device, but it feels less like a novelty and more like a ripoff of its contemporaries.
Since the movie’s plot is not the key, let’s look at the characters.
- Daniel (Michael Pena), a Mexican-American locksmith, is a superdad. In his first scene he comforts his five-year-old daughter — she’s afraid of bullets — in a moment that every father wishes he could live.
- Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock are a power couple. He’s the D.A. of L.A., and she is the most selfish and angry woman in the city. As D.A., Fraser plays the race card for political gain. His wife, meanwhile, is afraid of minorities and is angry that she’s not allowed to be afraid without being called a racist.
- Don Cheadle is detective Graham, and a beneficiary of the D.A.’s handling of the race card. Outside of work, he takes care of his ailing mother. She is probably becoming senile, and she’s very stressed about her favorite son, Graham’s younger brother.
- Peter and Anthony (Larenz Tate and Ludacris) are two thugs. We are led to believe they are harmless students when they complain about white fear of black men in people like Bullock’s character, but then it turns out they are carjackers. They do have some moral boundaries: they won’t steal from fellow African-Americans.
- Cameron (Terrence Dashon Howard) is a black TV producer who drives the same black Lincoln Navigator that the D.A.drives. A racist cop stops him and his wife. The cop uses a standard pat-down to fondle her while he is forced to watch. When they get home, she takes it out on her husband for not standing up to the cop and “being a man.”
- Shaun Taub plays a Persian who speaks a little English and reads none of it. He runs a little shop and wants to make it safer. He calls our locksmith to have a new lock installed, and he takes his adult daughter to help him buy a revolver.
I’ve left out a handful of others, but I’m sure but you get the idea of the tapestry of characters, motivations, and prejudices that color the story.
Good On Ya, Mate
Crash is an ambitious project. It’s very involved, with many characters, settings, and locations, so even making a passable movie of it is a major feather in Haggis’ cap. More importantly, he got me to think about the characters, morality, prejudice, right and wrong and how to tell the difference, whom to judge and whom to forgive. I’m sure this is exactly the reaction Haggis was hoping audiences would have, so congratulations again for bringing it about.
But as successful as Haggis is, the movie is still flawed. Worst of all, it is very contrived. Although there are probably several crashes on any given day in L.A. the likelihood of them all coming together in such a tidy way is obviously contrived and a little distracting.
And in order for the characters to be talking about race, all of L.A. has been boiled down into this small handful of “types.” We have the black gangsters, the rich white folks living behind gates, the Middle-Eastern immigrants who run a shop and hate their customers, the sellout black man, and the emotionally-driven and irrational black female. They aren’t overt stereotypes, but they are distillations, shortand sketches... okay, stereotypes, but dressed in some measure of humanity.
The trouble with these characters being types is that they are driven much more by racial matters than your average person actually is. Until you get used to it, all the talk of race sounds like a bad filmmaker’s sermon, which is a sure way to turn off movie viewers. Audiences come to movies to be entertained and inspired, but not to be lectured by heavy-handed, shallow filmmakers.
On the other hand, Crash could not be what it is without calling on some level of contrivance and distillation of characters. With less than two hours to tell a dozen webbed-together stories, a lot of depth has to be sacrificed. So Crash will probably have to be forgiven for some shallowness.
And yet, that shallowness is still there and it remains a distraction and a disappointment. How did Traffic manage not to seem as pedantic as Crash? Maybe it’s Steven Soderbergh’s longer experience in film, or the talent of the actors, or the sensitivity of the screenwriter. In any case Crash isn’t as good as some of its peers.
But if you’re interested in talking about race in the United States Crash is a very good conversation-starter.