As the name suggests, Crash is a film of collisions: vehicles, personalities, attitudes, stereotypes, conventions, and ultimately audience expectations. “We crash into each other, just so we can feel something,” Don Cheadle murmurs contemplatively in a clunky opening-scene thesis statement that nevertheless sums up the film’s approach as well as its premise.
Writer–director Paul Haggis definitely wants you to feel something, and spends the rest of the film doing his best to blindside your expectations, spin your emotions around and overturn your preconceptions. The content can be incredibly harsh at times, with constant obscenity and a number of deeply wrenching scenes. Yet Crash looks at our national obsession with race and raises some hot-potato issues with startling frankness.
In a ritzy LA neighborhood, two young black men emerge from a restaurant arguing about the service they received. One, Anthony (Ludacris), bombastically complains that the waitress offered coffee refills to all the white patrons but neglected them. “That woman poured cup after cup to every white person around us. Did she even ask you if you wanted any?”
His friend Peter (Larenz Tate) protests that neither of them ordered or wanted coffee. “We didn’t get any coffee that you didn’t want and I didn’t order, and this is evidence of racial discrimination?” Then the kicker: “Did you happen to notice our waitress was black?”
But Anthony isn’t fazed. “And black women don’t think in stereotypes? When’s the last time you met one who didn’t think she knew everything about [you] before you even opened your mouth? That waitress sized us up in two seconds. We’re black, and black people don’t tip. So she wasn’t gonna waste her time. Someone like that, nothing you can do to change their mind.”
Well, perhaps there is. How much tip did Anthony leave? “You expect me to pay for that kinda service?” he says scornfully.
They continue down the street. A white couple passes them, the woman taking the man’s arm. Anthony notices the movement and launches into another diatribe. “You couldn’t find a whiter, safer or better lit part of this city. But this white woman sees two black guys who look like UCLA students strolling down the sidewalk and her reaction is blind fear.”
Then Haggis drops the other shoe: Peter and Anthony turn around with automatics in their hands and carjack the white couple as they approach their Navigator.
Less than two minutes of screentime; so many stereotypes and ideas raised, challenged, confirmed, and cross-examined, some skewered, some at least partly validated.
The chronically offended black man, seeing racist attitudes everywhere. The idea of prejudicial stereotypes as assumptions we make about other groups, not our own. White fears of appearing racist or giving offense, inhibiting the woman from making any more overt show of unease than taking her husband’s arm. Later we will see the woman (Sandra Bullock) fuming at her husband (Brendan Fraser) about her reluctance to turn around and take another look at the young men because “that would be racist.”
The scene offers a case in point in which one stereotype, about blacks not tipping, holds — but may be a self-fulfilling expectation. Then again, perhaps Anthony is merely rationalizing the tip he would have given anyway. Was the service even really poor, or was Anthony going to see it that way no matter how much coffee he was offered? The only way to challenge the stereotype is to leave a good tip — but do you leave a good tip for bad service just to challenge a stereotype?
Most provocatively of all, the scene raises the explosive suggestion that some kind of racial profiling may not always be irrational, that our cultural taboo against profiling may at times serve us in ill stead. Of course race or ethnicity is never a reason to treat a person as guilty rather than innocent. But is race or ethnicity never a reason to look twice at one person rather than another? If you can’t look twice at everybody, should you avoid giving anyone at all a second look, or perhaps try to choose people at random, like airport security checkers? Does that make sense?
Crash extends its cross-examination of racial attitudes and stereotypes across a sprawling canvas of intersecting storylines in the lives of a score of characters across a day and a half in LA. A black detective (Cheadle) who has somewhat distanced himself from his checkered family roots investigates a pair of shootings that may have been racially motivated, but may also be more complicated than that. In an excruciating scene, an idealistic young cop (Ryan Phillippe) watches sickened as his overbearing, racist partner (Matt Dillon) humiliates an affluent black man and abuses his wife during a routine traffic stop.
A Hispanic locksmith (Michael Pena) gets grief both from the shaken woman whose Navigator Anthony and Peter carjacked, who is sure that the locksmith’s tattoos and attire mark him as a gang member, and also from an Iranian shop owner over-wary of being taken advantage of by a world that seems to think he is Arab. In any other movie, the mistreatment of the locksmith would confirm beyond doubt that he must be an upstanding citizen, though after the bit with the carjackers anything may be possible here. Still, it’s no surprise when he turns out to be a loving family man, and his scene with his daughter is among the film’s best moments.
The interconnected plot threads and LA setting suggest an oft-noted comparison to P. T. Anderson’s Magnolia, but its central concerns mark it as closer in spirit to such films as Changing Lanes and House of Sand and Fog. What these films share is a heightened sense of morally charged conflict among characters of different backgrounds, and an atmosphere of deep moral ambiguity in which nearly everyone is compromised and the right thing to do may be difficult even to define, let alone achieve.
Crash has other things in common with Changing Lanes and House of Sand and Fog, including transparent plot contrivances, key character choices that are not always persuasive, and a clear sense of the screenwriter’s hand behind the hand of fate. These are conceits that you either accept for the sake of the movie’s purposes or not. Having seen Crash twice several weeks apart, I find that I accept Haggis’s conceits more often than not, and certainly more than those of Changing Lanes (or the last third of House of Sand and Fog).
Crash has been much criticized for the flatness of its characters, few of whom, despite a terrific ensemble and generally well-honed dialogue, become more than stereotypes. Even when characters surprise us, which happens frequently, it is often by behavior that is just as stereotypical as what we expected, except that it represents a very different stereotype. A friend of mine has taken to calling this “pancake flipping,” with the dismissive implication that the pancake is no less flat for having two sides rather than one.
But this, I think, is the point. Crash is about stereotypes and categories, attitudes and behavior. The characters clearly embody recognizable types — and then, without in any way transcending or deconstructing that label, they show us another side that we associate with a completely different label.
There have been films that try to understand racist or abusive characters as complex persons. Crash does something different and more startling: It gives us, for instance, a character who on one level is indistinguishable from a stock Hollywood villain, a character for whom in any other film we would have no sympathy whatsoever — and then, rather than humanizing him by exploring what makes him tick, seamlessly challenges us to accept him in the role of an unreconstructed hero.
If this is “pancake flipping,” it is also something of a revolutionary act. In virtually any other Hollywood movie a character like Matt Dillon’s abusive racist cop would be allowed to display only one side, not two (and certainly not three, counting his home life). Some have suggested that Crash seeks to unmask the audience’s prejudices and assumptions, but I think it’s at least as much about the prejudices and assumptions at work in Hollywood and popular culture, including politically correct prejudices.
Does the unabashedly heroic light in which a reprehensible character is seen somehow redeem him from his earlier faults? Is he any less a villain for also being a hero? I wouldn’t say so. Rather, heroism and villainy are both more complex and also simpler than we often imagine. We often debunk our heroes when we discover their feet of clay, but perhaps this is a mistake.
Is a man who risks his life to save another any less a hero if he is also a bigot? How do you weigh one against the other, or average out the two to define the overall moral worth of the man? Neither detracts from or cancels out the other; they are both simply sheer facts about a person, with no way to mediate or relate them to one another, other than the fact that they are convincingly predicated of one and the same person.
Unfortunately, not all of Crash’s conceits are similarly convincing. Crash is driven by conflict, but too often characters are required to do or say the wrong thing in order to keep the conflict heated up, and many of the characters seem ready to jump down one another’s throats at the first provocation. The dialogue, though hyper-articulate and generally persuasive, leaps too often to racial stereotypes without sufficient warrant. (A line from Cheadle to his Latina partner/girlfriend is particularly ridiculous, especially in context.)
The openness and frequency with which racial slurs are hurled obfuscates the point strikingly made by the Sandra Bullock character’s reluctance to turn around and take a second look at the black youths. The truth is, the subject of race has become such a minefield that most of us, whatever prejudices we may or may not labor under, generally try to tiptoe around it as much as possible rather than thundering into the midst like the characters in this film.
Often in small ways we go out of our way to try to defuse the issue and avoid any appearance of offense, e.g., holding doors or extending other minor courtesies to those of another group more observantly than we would with our own. An otherwise thoroughly disposable film, Rob Schneider’s The Animal, had a running gag involving a chronically offended black man who took umbrage at any deferential treatment that he felt reflected such motives, a kind of reverse racism he called “being overly nice to the black man.” That gag reflects a level of nuance about race in America that almost entirely eludes Crash.
Still, the film finds real moral ambiguity in the struggles of a number of characters, above all Cheadle’s detective, who wrestles with various personal and professional issues and above all wishes to keep them separate. The cleverly orchestrated storylines come together with satisfying dramatic resolution, and if as in Changing Lanes and House of Sand and Fog the hand of fate betrays the screenwriter’s hand, at least in Crash is a fate capable of grace and hope as well as grimness and tragedy. (A scene with a father, a child and a gun strikingly recalls a fateful scene from House, but it’s a very different fate.)
Crash is a provocation, an insistent manifesto that filters every scene and almost every line of dialogue through the prism of race, but keeps turning the prism around and around until the colors no longer matter and we see only what the characters do. Often enough what they do is very bad, so bad it can be hard to watch, but there is also room for heroism and nobility (something else missing in Changing Lanes and House of Sand and Fog). It’s a fascinating though far from perfect film, often about as subtle as, well, as a car crash, and as gripping.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.