Monday, June 13, 2005

Crash (2005)

"Crash" is a new film by director Paul Haggis. The entire film is a commentary on the role of race in the United States, especially in the post 9/11 era. I recommend this movie, but I have a number of reservations I'd like to share. Please don't let this review hold you back from seeing "Crash" or renting it later on if it's not playing near you. Beware, there might be some slight plot spoilers below.

"Crash," I mentioned above, is a commentary on race. "Commentary" is the right word, too. This isn't just a movie about race, but a movie where the characters discuss race with one another. As I explain later, the constant explanations and racial-proofs offered as justifications for the plot to go on get to be too much after awhile.

Take for instance Ludacris' performance as a car-jacker who discusses with his accomplice the fear non-blacks exhibit when they see Ludacris or people "like" him on the street. Or the Iranian convenience store owner and the stuck-up aristocrat who both feel that a particular Latino locksmith is untrustworthy. A couple victimized by a white policeman. Or a by-the-book cop played by Don Cheadle who is juxtaposed with his disreputable brother. Or a not so by-the-book cop played by Matt Dillon who transgresses and seeks redemption. The list goes on and on.

What you notice is that "Crash" has a lot of characters and every one of them is dealing with issues related to race. - - My critique is fourfold.

1) The characters seem to be dealing ONLY with race. There are issues about class and a hinting of gender issues from time to time, but they are not expanded upon whatsoever. These characters frame everything in terms of race. Sure there are a few references in anger to "Bin Ladens" which would suggest a kind of religious connotation, but the screenplay does not sway from the race perspective. This gets tiresome because we are no longer being told a story in which race plays an issue, but are being force-fed stories purposely crafted to show a particular point. Subtlety is not something you'll find here.

Compare "Crash" with Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" (or even "Malcolm X"), Alan Parker's "Mississippi Burning" and Tony Kaye's "American History X." These movies captured a sense of racial tension that give their films a sense of urgency but did not overpower the stories themselves.

2) The way in which the characters in "Crash" interrelate is contrived. Granted vignette screenplays have been in high-fashion ever since P.T. Anderson's "Magnolia" hit the jackpot, "Crash" is still missing something. Director Paul Haggis does not let the story unfold, but forces the issue (no pun intended). All the characters are cherry picked for their racial characteristics and put in a screenplay together and its apparent that everyone is there for a specific purpose: to represent their racial/ethnic group. On top of the constant racial justifications given by each character, the fact that their lives intersect in the way that they do is just too much to take in at times.

That a police man--after having abused a black, female woman in his custody--felt remorse for having done so is one thing. However, why did the direction insist on having both the police man and this woman meet again under different circumstances? It's just too much.

3) "Crash" is hopelessly entangled in a racial discourse full of simplistic binaries. While the story does offer the "there's always two sides to the debate" point, the larger point should be that these conflicts are multidimensional. This critique relates to the aforementioned lack of gender, class, political and religious texture to the film.

4) The last critique relates to #3: "Crash" needs to keep its screenplay simple by using binaries because each character finds some sense of redemption by the end of the film. This isn't a happy film, but one that attempts to make a very grand gesture. This is too grand of a gesture because by the end of the film, the tension has been diffused to a certain degree.

Ultimately, "Crash" makes the mistake many of us do in our daily lives: the belief that our lives are determined by only one category.

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