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									Humanities 12                                                                                                    2010

The San Francisco Chronicle
Drama crashes through barriers already down
By Mick LaSalle, Chronicle Movie Critic

Friday, May 6, 2005

"Crash," an ensemble drama about race relations in Los Angeles, has smart writing and taut situations. Writer
director Paul Haggis, who adapted "Million Dollar Baby" for the screen, puts characters into illuminating conflict
and consistently devises turns of plot that are inventive and yet, in the best way, seem inevitable. Without doubt,
it's a skillful effort, and it's also infused with passion. It's a committed piece of work.

Yet something about "Crash" feels a little past its expiration date, reminiscent of a kind of movie being made a
dozen years ago, in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots. The racial tensions that brought on that crisis may
not have dissipated, but the artistic soil the crisis uncovered seems pretty turned over by now. Call it bad timing,
but it's timing alone that robs "Crash" of some (not all) of its reason for being. Presented like an exposé, it
exposes nothing. The characters and individual dramas remain interesting in a personal way, but the overall
conception of "Crash" is hackneyed.

Should it be surprising, for example, that an upper-middle-class white woman (Sandra Bullock) might be a little
racially insensitive in the immediate aftermath of having her SUV hijacked at gunpoint by two black youths? Is it
a revelation that black citizens driving nice cars get pulled over frequently by cops, for no reason, and that some
of those cops -- like the one played here by Matt Dillon -- may be a little twisted and racist? It's not.

If "Crash" has value, then, it's not in what it depicts but in the vividness with which it depicts it. A crash on the
freeway begins the picture. A police detective, played by Don Cheadle, arrives on the scene with his partner
(Jennifer Esposito), who is also his girlfriend. He looks around and something catches his eye. With that, the
movie goes into flashback mode, showing the events of the previous day that led to the pileup.

The film follows various characters, many of whose story lines intertwine. An especially satisfying vein begins
with Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton, as the prosperous black couple being pulled over by the racist cop
(Dillon). In what is easily the most disturbing scene in the film, the cop does a body search on the wife --
fondling her, putting his hands between her legs -- while the husband has no choice but to stand there,

So much is at play in that moment that it's almost overwhelming. There's the cop's lust. His class resentment
(they have money; he doesn't). There's politics. There's history -- it's a moment straight out of the plantation.
There's a woman's humiliation, a husband's virtual castration and murderous rage on all sides. An event like that
has ramifications on the human psyche, on a marriage and on the world. As the husband, Howard has the film's
best and truest role, that of a rational man whose dignity is compromised and who thereafter is on a slow boil.

Other scenes don't work as well. Two young black men (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges and Larenz Tate) walk down
the street in an upscale shopping area, complaining that the white people looking at them assume they're
criminals. And then, seamlessly, with no preamble, they whip out guns and pull a carjacking. It's a clever reversal
out of a David Mamet play, but the realistic context doesn't support such an unreal touch. It's cute stuff. You can
almost hear the typewriter.

That's atypical, however. The writing is mostly strong. Cheadle and Ryan Phillippe each play police officers
who, in their respective ways, have to make compromises with racial injustice in order to maintain thriving
careers. For each, there's a price. Shaun Toub, in a story line almost outside the main action, makes a strong
impression as a disagreeable Iranian grocery store owner, who's as much the victim of his own temperament as
he is of anti-Middle Eastern anger. Bullock doesn't have much screen time, but she makes the most of her role as
the pampered wife of the city's morally dubious district attorney (Brendan Fraser).

But in the end, "Crash" lacks a cumulative impact. It takes audiences to new places, but we've all been to similar
places, and we walk out knowing no more than we did walking in.

Humanities 12                                                                                                 2010

Race Fictions: Crash, Do the Right Thing and La Haine
By John Downing of Southern Illinois University

July 8, 2005

In a certain sense an heir to Spike Lee‟s Do The Right Thing and Matthieu Kassovitz‟s La Haine, Crash sets out
to unpeel the fiction of supposedly evolved post-Civil Rights era U.S. „racial‟ mores in general, and the romance
of LaLa Land in particular. Does it work? And what‟s the value in doing so, if it does work?

The writing is often refreshingly good. It comes across as an articulate ensemble cast version of Lee‟s famous
five spouting their „racial‟ hatreds into the camera. Whether in Sandra Bullock‟s or Thandie Newton‟s emotional
terror and spitting rage, or the brutal realism of the cynical, embittered 17-year veteran Black precinct sergeant,
the collective American fantasy in force in „racial‟ buddy movies and happy MTV party-goers gets no play in
this one.

What is more, the movie definitively moves away from the obsession with Black-White, not in any sense because
that issue is passé — check the last paragraph! — but to register the multiple ethnic antagonisms that we play
more or less 24/7. The smoldering suspicion the Iranian shopkeeper and the Sandra Bullock character nurse
toward the Latino locksmith, the Black petty hood‟s condensation of all East Asians into “Chinatown,” the sour
wisecrack that the Don Cheadle character throws at his Latina sexual partner when she decides to curtail sex with
him, all serve to strip away the comforting notion that any of us hold unique property rights in racism.

At the same time, there is never any doubt in the film that White people still run the big show, even if they may
be blocked in some small sideshows by Black petty officials, and even if an angry Korean woman can yell at a
White nurse. The film is much more than an exercise in “we‟re all guilty,” which is a very convenient and
comforting position to take. As we see the machinations in the recording studio, or the manipulation of the Don
Cheadle character in the interests of the Brendan Foster character‟s political career, this much should be clear.

A further strength of the film is its degree of success in rapidly conveying some complexities and ethical
ambiguities in the characters. In an ensemble cast film, this is not an easy task. I do not share the view that the
Sandra Bullock character‟s eventual admission of her deep loneliness is there to excuse her attitudes, merely it is
there to round out her character, rather than leave her as a rich-bitch lampoon. The domestic and career dilemmas
of the Don Cheadle character, given especial salience by his remarkably expressive countenance, are further
testimony to this richness in portrayal, as is the sharp dialogue between the two petty hoods.

My fundamental uncertainty in this film is about its portrayal of the LAPD. They turn up quite often, and it is
refreshing — though very depressing that it has to be refreshing — that wanton police nastiness is portrayed so
directly. The sexual violation of the Thandie Newton character, the near-annihilation of the Lorenz Tate
character when his control finally blows, both speak to the reality that the police all too often operate as an
occupation force rather than a social defense force when it comes to people of color and the poor. The cynical
precinct sergeant already referred to is a brilliantly damning case in point.

The turning point, however, is arguably the racist beat-cop‟s parting advice to the Ryan Philippe character, that
in that job you do not know who you are until you get into the actual situation. The film then has the racist cop
instinctually follow his training and save the life of the Black woman he has violated, at great risk to his own —
the risk is heavily spelled out visually — and the decent rookie in a moment of panic shoot a petty hood dead
who has offered him only friendly conversation.

In the context of long-entrenched official denials of police violence against people of color, for which the second
line of defense in the light of evidence to the contrary is always “OK, but what would society be like without any
police at all?” — so don‟t get too aerated! — this parallel positioning of the two cops has a very unpleasant odor.
It‟s an odor which is particularly pungent given the film‟s attempt otherwise to rip the scabs off.

So to return to my first two questions: the film mostly does work for this reviewer, for the reasons given above,
and others there is no space for here. It definitely stands out from the pack. What‟s the value in it? Ultimately,
Humanities 12                                                                                                2010

only talking to its audiences over time could begin to let us answer that question with any confidence. But it did
run for quite a while, including in some locations such as my current small mid-Western city, where one might
have expected a lot less interest. Perhaps we are a little further along in the USA than the situation in France at
this time, where when Kassovitz‟s La Haine came out, the French Cabinet solemnly sat in conclave and watched
it as though it were a documentary window into a world from which they were utterly remote, rather than a neo-
realist narrative. There is U.S. television material that addresses these issues frontally (though not much). But
this is dangerous ground, and I will leave it at once.

The rewards for smugness about „racial‟ issues in the USA are a whole lot higher and more pervasive than for
honesty. Will this be another Thelma and Louise, then — a much-talked-about, but never repeated, “success?”


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