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In L.A., nobody touches anybody else anymore.So begins a story that is certain to touch moviegoers in a way they're not used to being touched. With the ethnically diverse yet deeply divided Los Angeles as its setting, Crash tackles the sensitive subject of racism head-on by intertwining the stories of a litany of people from both sides of the proverbial tracks.
Graham is a police detective. Jean is a district attorney’s wife. Officer Ryan is a veteran cop; Hanson is his rookie partner. Daniel is a locksmith. Flanagan is a television director, and Christine is his wife. Character after character is introduced ... many of whom will intersect—and crash into each other—at some point in a 36-hour period. But while we quickly learn what these people do, what’s more important in this movie is who they are—or more specifically, what race they are. Because in Crash, race is everything.
As a character-driven story, Crash adeptly explores multifaceted individuals—people who are simultaneously heroes and villains, courageous and spineless. Virtually every individual highlighted has both redeeming and contemptible moments. The white Officer Ryan, for example, is overtly racist, and he breaks the law while on duty. It’s easy to despise him. Yet in several scenes we see another side of this tragic, misguided character as he expresses compassion for his cancer-stricken father. And we also witness him risking his life to save a black woman.
Officer Hanson rounds out the good-cop, bad-cop part of the story by repeatedly trying to help people. He sticks up for Flanagan in a tense standoff with police, keeping the frazzled director from getting shot. He later picks up a stranger in need.
Elsewhere, a carjacker frees a group of enslaved immigrants. Jean realizes how valuable her relationship with her oft-abused housekeeper really is. And Daniel gently—and creatively—teaches his 5-year-old daughter that she can face the world without fear. There is an abundance of positive "walk-away" value in this film as it relates to race relations (but it's complicated and sometimes obscured by other content; I'll explore that more in the "Conclusion").
A carjacker insists on placing a figurine of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, on the dashboard of any car he’s riding in, which prompts his partner to ask if he’s heard from God lately. (His pal also refers to the statue as "that voodoo thing.") A father comforts his young daughter by telling her a story about a fairy coming to visit him. The girl is later described by another man as an “angel who came to protect me.” It’s mentioned that Flanagan is Buddhist. Set during Christmastime, the movie shows a couple of nativity scenes.
Before Graham and his female companion are interrupted during sex, we hear their moans, and we're exposed to a full-body shot of the two in a sexual position. (Her bare breasts get screen time, as does his backside.) After getting out of bed, she makes a crude joke about masturbation. And he speaks bluntly of the incident to his mother on the phone.
In a disturbing and drawn-out scenario, Officer Ryan stops Flanagan and Christine in their SUV, asks them to step out of the vehicle and then proceeds to fondle Christine (even running his hands up under her dress) in front of her detained husband. As the camera zooms in, the officer makes several crude remarks about the wife giving her husband oral sex. Christine lets fly more than a few obscene words, too. The scene is verbally rehashed later by Flanagan and Christine, with Christine using the f-word and other vulgar terms to chastise her husband for not intervening.
A large painting of an artistically rendered, fully naked woman hangs in the background of one scene.
Two carjackers run over a man. Though the impact isn't shown, we hear its sound, and then the victim groaning. The offending pair carry on a lengthy discussion about whether they should leave the man under their truck, or pull him out. (They pull him out and drop him off—literally—at a hospital. Before it's all over, the camera gets a pretty good look at his grisly wounds.
Guns appear in what seems like every other scene, though few are fired. We do see, however, a boy getting shot from close range; blood drips from his mouth. Several people are held at gunpoint, including one incident involving a child, who is shot at.
Fire engulfs an overturned vehicle while its driver and her rescuer are still trapped inside. A woman at the scene is shown with blood on her head. Flanagan fights with a carjacker while another crook threatens to shoot him. A Persian shopkeeper’s store gets trashed, and racist graffiti is written on the walls (it’s illegible for movie viewers). Jean falls down a flight of stairs.
Crude or Profane Language
Like the rapid-fire shots of a drive-by, the f-word is sprayed about 100 times (several times it's used with “mother”; it's also used in a sexual manner). The s-word is said at least a dozen times, while God’s name is misused almost as frequently and is often combined with “d--n.” Christ’s name gets abused four times. More than 30 other milder profanities further mar this film, including several sexual slang terms.
Crash includes many racial epithets. Whites, blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, Arabs, Koreans ... no one gets left out on this parade of racially offensive language. The movie attempts to make a point about how frequently we differentiate others based solely on racial descriptions, as when two black carjackers argue about calling each other “n-ggers.” Or when Persians are called Arab “terrorists.” Or when a Latina has to explain to the man she’s sleeping with the difference between Mexicans and South Americans.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Several people smoke cigarettes, including Graham, who says twice that he’s trying to quit. It’s insinuated that a detective was involved in a drug ring. Graham says the man was “coked up out his head” when he was shot dead. Christine is intoxicated during a night full of confrontations.
Other Negative Elements
As stated earlier, Crash excels at delving into the lives of exceedingly complex, and many times morally confused characters. This is a story in which good guys make more bad decisions than bad guys and bad guys sometimes outshine the good. Also, justice is rarely served. Two murderers walk away free while expressing no remorse. Given the chance to stand up for what's right, Graham (one of the good guys) decides to stay quiet and allows a potentially innocent man to be cast off as a repeat offender.
Officer Ryan embodies everything a cop shouldn’t be. After 17 years on the force, he’s become renown for using his authority to intimidate and mishandle blacks—and yet he continues to get away with it. Graham lies. The Persian shop owner seeks lethal revenge. Jean directs her rage at everyone within reach.
In his motion picture directorial debut, Paul Haggis (who wrote the screenplay for the controversial Oscar winner Million Dollar Baby) is wasting no time in stirring up the waters. Crash is a riveting, provocative and well-executed movie. Its actors put in first-class performances. Its photography is seamless. And despite the barrage of tragic characters and situations, it retains an odd sense of beauty. But it’s obvious that Haggis’ intent was not just for people to revere his artistry. Crash is as much about what’s off the screen than what’s on it. The movie’s gritty—and I can't put too much emphasis on that word—take on urban racism is sure to stir up plenty of discussion. So, let’s talk. ...
I grew up a minority in about as ethnically diverse a city as they come—Hong Kong. To give you an indication of how blended the society was, my elementary and high schools included students from more than 40 nationalities. I can’t recall a single time in which I was surrounded entirely by a group of people who looked like me. Diversity was simply a given in life.
But even in such a hodgepodge setting, racism existed. There was always someone “lower” on the totem pole, no matter who you were—someone who mustered up feelings of fear, aggression, protectiveness, intrigue, pity, compassion ... the list is endless as to how we respond to our own racial prejudices. Sure, many of us have been taught to not stereotype others, yet it’s obvious that in this nation—and in many others as well—we still have more than just a few inches to go.
Haggis would argue we have miles to go. Based on his characters in Crash, we are a people utterly incapable of seeing anyone without stereotypical filters. Race colors our every decision. By focusing so exclusively on people who are each racist in some regard, the director creates a powder keg society that’s oversaturated in racial hyper-sensitivity.
In fact, if everyone in the real L.A. thought and acted like its onscreen denizens do, the City of Angels would’ve been blown sky-high a long time ago. So clearly, Haggis is sensationalizing racism for the sake of making a point. What that point is, though, is open to a great deal of interpretation.
One critic, Josh Bell from the Las Vegas Weekly, writes that “by attempting to say everything about race, Haggis ultimately says nothing.” I don’t believe Crash says nothing. As I left the theater and saw the assortment of people walking, standing, living around me, I was more aware of my own preconceived notions of others. But I was also aware of the ultra-thick layer of grimy material I had just waded through to be reminded of this simple notion: We’re all different; we’re all the same; and we all need each other. At the risk of sounding trite, I could’ve watched Sesame Street to tell me that.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Don Cheadle as Graham; Matt Dillon as Officer Ryan; Sandra Bullock as Jean; Jennifer Esposito as Ria; William Fichtner as Flanagan; Brendan Fraser as Rick; Michael Peña as Daniel; Terrence Dashon Howard as Cameron; Ludacris as Anthony; Thandie Newton as Christine; Ryan Phillippe as Officer Hanson; Larenz Tate as Peter