Crash

| May 14, 2005

Set in Los Angeles, California, Crash, provides a gritty, realistic look at the complexity of racism. Paul Haggis (writer of Million Dollar Baby) writes and directs (his debut) this tale of racial discrimination, prejudice, and bigotry. However, the purpose of his film is not to provide a static characterization of what racism is, but instead to illustrate that racism is not something only experienced by the poor or dished out by certain groups of people or that it makes the people who have such thoughts or actions incapable of doing good.
Paul Haggis uses the multicultural city of Los Angeles as the backdrop to stress that everyone is, in some way, connected to one another. The problem, according to detective Graham (Don Cheadle) is, “In LA, no one touches you.” It is this distance that creates a space for the racism to burrow, so when that gap is closed, people do not acknowledge each other as individuals but types of people based on race. Crash examines what happens when that gap is closed by beginning the film with an accident between two cars, which causes Graham’s thoughts to reflect on the previous day.
Mr. Haggis uses a complex framework for his characters to emphasize the different forms of racism. Peter (Larenz Tate) and Anthony (Ludacris) appear as good, articulate young men, who are concerned about discrimination and stereotypes; however, they are car-jackers who only rob white people because it is empowering. On the other hand, Cameron (Terrance Dashon Howard) and his wife Christine (Thandie Newton) are robbed of their dignity by Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon). He pulls the couple over after receiving a call from dispatch concerning a stolen car; however, they do not match the profile. Officer Ryan decides to pull them over because it appears, when he shines his light through the rear window, that a white woman is engaged in an improper activity with a black man. The officer proceeds to physically rob Christine of her dignity, and he makes Cameron feel powerless with his words.
With most of the characters in this film, the director provides a first impression, and then he takes a step back to provide additional information about the character, so the audience is able to understand his or her complexity. For instance, Officer Ryan’s father has a medical condition that has him fighting with a black HMO representative (Loretta Devine), so he can make sure his father gets the proper treatment. It is this resentment that adds to his already underlying racism and causes him to act in such a way. This example should be used as a model when examining this film because it is applicable when looking at Peter and Anthony’s encounter with Cameron. Cameron provides a repressed reaction to racism. As an executive at a major studio in Hollywood, he is made to feel powerless, when Fred, a fellow executive played by Tony Danza, tells him that one of their actors wasn’t acting black enough, and he furthers his insult by connecting his assessment of the actor’s behavior to intelligence. Cameron continues to take these verbal lashings until even he can’t hold his tongue longer. While Officer Hanson (Ryan Phillippe) “saves” Cameron out of guilt for what his ex-partner, Officer Ryan, did to this man earlier, his own repression is revealed later in the film in a very tragic fashion.
Out of all the characters in this film there is only one whose good nature remains untainted: Daniel the locksmith (Michael Pena). Whether he is being berated by the wealthy Jean (Sandra Bullock) for his tattoos and being a threat to come back with his “homies” or is confronted by an angry store owner who believes he is the reason for his store being vandalized, Daniel always remains cool. It is obvious that the way he is talked to bothers him, but as is revealed in his speech to his daughter, safety and having a better life is his main concern.
While almost all of the characters in this film use racism either defensively, most of them exhibit positive traits as well. Detective Graham looks in on his estranged mother and brings her groceries, Anthony lets the immigrants go instead of selling them into slavery, Officer Hanson saves Cameron by vouching for him as his friend as a way to get rid of his guilt for the other incident.
However, the most complex and incredibly played character is that of Officer Ryan played by Matt Dillon. While he shows incredible disgust for an HMO employee who is black, he shows incredible anguish for his father who is suffering from an ailment that could be misdiagnosed. No other character provides such dark contrasts in character. From seething anger to being over come with tears, Officer Ryan represents a very realistic and common form of racism. In fact, it appears that his hatred for blacks is spurred from his anger for his father’s situation. With his father’s condition dominating his mind, the only time he is able to look at another race and not speak down to them, is when he is saving Christine’s (Thandie Newton) life.
As easy as it is for a person to save, it is for them to destroy. Paul Haggis speaks out against the distance people create to keep themselves safe by emphasizing that such distance only leads to misunderstanding, confrontation, and further agony. The answer to this problem is two fold. First, Haggis reveals that at its very core, racism is a problem that leaves the individual completely isolated and angry. This is emphasized when the district attorney’s wife, Jean (Sandra Bullock) tells her housekeeper that she wakes up every morning angry, and that she is her best friend. The authenticity of this friendship is clearly questioned because their closeness is only based on proximity rather than an emotional connection. Mr. Haggis provides a solution of sorts when Detective Graham’s mother repeatedly asks her son, “Have you found your brother?” In a film that stresses that we are all connected, this hope filled statement leaves the viewer feeling that there are two categories of people: Those who have discovered their brother, and those who allow distance to rule their lives to the point that they only encounter others by accident and act irrationally if they do. Hopefully after seeing this film, the audience will choose to find his brother rather than crashing into a stranger.

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