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Empire List #460: Crash

Remember how surprised Jack Nicholson looked when he announced Paul Haggis’ “Crash” as the winner for best picture at the 2005 Academy Awards? It surprised me to, but to be fair, unlike many people I had actually seen quite a few of the movies nominated for an Oscar that year including “Good Night and Good Luck”, “Munich”, and “Brokeback Mountain” which won for best director but not best movie. How does that work again?

Over the years people have questioned whether or not “Crash” deserved the Best Picture Oscar and made sure to distinguish between this movie and David Cronenberg’s “Crash” which one of my fellow film fans from the University of Sherbrooke assured me is a much better picture. Regardless of which is the better movie, the fact is that when first saw “Crash” by Paul Haggis on DVD a few weeks before the Oscars, I found the story to be well constructed, acted, and touching at times. I would have given the award to “Good Night and Good Luck” but I am a sucker for movies about journalism.

The plot follows several characters over a two-day period in the city of Los Angeles as they crash into each other amid racial tensions. Oscar presenter Jon Stewart said it best when he asked: “Raise your hand if you were NOT in Crash.” But it’s not just a large cast, it’s also an excellent one. Don Cheadle as a world-weary cop searching for his brother, Brendan Fraser as a district attorney, Sandra Bullock as his wife, Chris Bridges as criminal who steals their car, Matt Dillon as racist patrolman, Ryan Phillipe as his partner, Terence Howard as a TV director, and Thandie Newton as his wife. Just like in every movie that follows multiple characters, the storylines of each of these characters run parallel to each other and sometimes the actions of one person will have an impact on several others hours later.

No matter their skin colour all of these inhabitants of L.A have pre-conceived notions about other people. Sandra Bullock’s character is distrustful of blacks and Hispanics. When she and her husband are carjacked by two black guys, she becomes suspicious of the Latino man who is changing the locks. Meanwhile her husband is doing damage as district attorney. “Why did they have to be black?” That’s nothing. Watch him freak out when he learns he has to give a medal to a guy whose last name is Hussein.

Meanwhile, the two carjackers have ideas and prejudices of their own. They discuss racial profiling, whether or not black guys can like hockey, and whether or not rap music is more racist than country music.

There are many poignant scenes throughout such as when Matt Dillon must rescue Thandie Newton from a burning car, only for her to remember that this is the same man who had molested her the night before. A confrontation between an armed Persian immigrant and a Hispanic locksmith is so powerful it made the movie’s poster. By far my favourite moment is when Sandra Bullock’s character is laying in bed after having fallen down a flight a stairs and none of her rich friends will come to visit her. She then hugs her Hispanic maid realizing she is her only true friend.

It’s really difficult for me to say whether or not this movie is an accurate portrayal of race relations in Los Angeles, or anywhere else for that matter. I’ve spent a lot of years in Quebec City, which is about as white as it can get. During the two years of college I spent there I only met one black student and no one ever said a bad word about her. I did spend many years in South America, but over there it’s more about class than race. It doesn’t matter if you are from Canada, Peru or Korea; if you have the money then you have the power.

The themes of “Crash” can therefore only be applied to a city as multicultural as Los Angeles where people of all races, according to screenwriters Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco, are still learning to live next to each other. I am too young to remember the L.A riots, but I remember the quote from Rodney King: “Can we all get along?” Apparently, years later a lot of people still can’t.

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