Review: Crash (2004)

I’m glad I don’t live in Los Angeles. At least, I’m glad I do not in the world of Los Angeles depicted in the movie Crash (2004), but this movie at least gives me a chance to be a reluctant visitor. Los Angeles is known for its multiple ethnicities, about equal parts White, Hispanic, Black and Asian. At least they are equal opportunity racists. You may need a scorecard in this movie to keep up with all the racism going on. Here’s some of it:

  • The street-wise white cop (Matt Dillon) hates the nice black director dude (Terrance Howard) because he is black (and successful). He takes his hatred out through fondling his wife (Thandie Newton) in front of him while frisking both of them during a routine traffic stop. He’s also upset that his boss is black guy and his white father with chronic bladder problem was a janitor who never got any respect. However, he gets really perturbed when the black lady at his health insurance company turns down his father’s claim.
  • The local district attorney who is also running for office (Brendan Fraser) and his wife (Sandra Bullock) are car-jacked by two black dudes. Once they make it home, the wife demands that their locks be changed, but is upset that a Hispanic locksmith (Michael Peña) is doing the work, and doesn’t mind saying so while he is within earshot. In a tirade she even lets her long time black housekeeper hear that she mistrusts her.
  • A white gun shop owner starts saying racist things to a Persian shop owner (Shaun Toub) and his daughter who feel the need to pack a little heat because their shop is in a bad neighborhood.
  • The shop owner decides his Hispanic locksmith is lying to him. He doesn’t believe that he must fix the door frame, not the lock, because, well, their type always lies.

It seems that everyone’s a victim in this movie, and it’s all the fault of someone in another ethnic group. Mostly the racism is overt, but sometimes the racism is subtle. The black director is called out by an actor because his black character did not sound black enough, and he so feels the need to fit in that he reshoots the scene. There are so many tea kettles close to boiling you figure it all has to explode somehow, and yes there will be a homicide or two. Yet for every racist there is also someone trying to look past it. There is the white rookie cop, who cannot deal with his partner’s racism. There is the police lieutenant who tries to overlook his officer’s racism, while fretting over his younger brother who steals cars and seems destined to die early.

Crash tries hard to investigate this topic that makes almost all of us squirm. It sure had me squirming. And yet, the scenarios are probably more typical than not in LA. One only has to look back twenty years to the riots following the acquittal of police caught on tape beating Rodney King to know how explosive ethnic rage can be, particularly in Los Angeles. Yet it is just as true that there are natural forces relentlessly trying to counteract racism, and documenting these is probably what Crash is really all about. It’s a movie that shows that the glue that binds community may be weak, but there are always people around willing to apply more caulk even as more natural forces want to pull things apart. It’s all a grand cacophony of sorts, especially in Los Angeles.

Crash won Best Picture in 2006. Some say it won because Hollywood was too homophobic to give it to Brokeback Mountain. After finishing the movie, I found it to be a good movie, but not quite best picture material. It does succeed in exposing a challenging topic through compelling and wholly realistic characters. Despite the presence of some top-tier actors, they all feel like people you would find eating at a Waffle House. It’s almost like you can see the arrows that life has shot into their bodies. They are all wounded people of a sort, in chronic anguish, fatigued by society in general and each have less than ideal skills dealing with the mess. It’s hard to find your better nature when you live in a 24/7 urban jungle.

Aside from the memorable characters and the neat interweaving of lives in stress, I also enjoyed Crash for many of the same reasons I enjoyed Chinatown (1974). In both movies you feel not so much in America as immersed in the peculiar nation of Los Angeles. Both films leave you thinking that LA may be a crazy city, but there is something weird and compelling about living there anyhow. It’s almost like you haven’t really lived until you have spent a few years living in LA in its heat, air pollution and crime. LA today may well be what New York was fifty or 75 years ago: a crazy and complex zoo of people who can just barely stand to endure each other, yet who also need each other despite their generally dysfunctional natures. The theme of racism that pervades Crash may ultimately be just a frame to move us viewers into the world of Los Angeles, and make it permeate our heartland souls for a while.

3.3 points on my four-point scale.

[xrr rating=3.3/4]

One thought on “Review: Crash (2004)

  1. Funny you should be reviewing this movie right now since my husband is stuck out in LA on business til Friday. Not one of his favorite cities to be sure.

    After I saw this movie I was also left with pretty much the same uncomfortable feeling you have about this film. I wonder, since the Academy of voters for the most part all reside in LA, was giving it such a high rank among movies that year their way of acknowledging what LA is, even while they defend it?

    It is truly a microcosm. We lived in San Francisco for 4 years & would go south to LA on occasion. I always felt happy to return to San Fran & had this compulsion to shower on returning home. It is everything this movie depicts altho’ maybe not as Hollywoodized.

    Another enjoyable article, Mark!

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