Everyone is angry. Everyone is scared. They all feel that something that belongs to them has been taken away and they don’t know how to get it back.
And in this movie, they say so.
“Crash,” the winner of the 2006 Best Picture Oscar, is an ensemble film with several intersecting stories, all of them about people who can’t quite seem to understand how things turned out the way they did or how they themselves turned out the way they did. Most of them find out, in the course of the movie, that they are capable of more — or less — than they thought they were.
Paul Haggis, the screenwriter for Million Dollar Baby has co-written and directed a devastating movie about people who are very much like us, with one important difference. It’s as though the drinking water in Los Angeles has been spiked with some mild de-inhibitor that makes people say what they are thinking. In this film, everyone says the most horrifyingly virulent things to everyone else: family members, people in business, employees, and strangers, reflecting a range of prejudice on the basis of class, gender, and, above all, race.
These comments are sometimes made angrily, sometimes carelessly or thoughtlessly, but often, and more unsettlingly, matter-of-factly. As vicious as the insults are, the part that hurts the most is that people don’t care enough, don’t pay attention closely enough, to know the people they are insulting. “When did Persians become Arab?” asks an Iranian, who cannot understand how people can hate him without taking the time to know who he is. A Hispanic woman explains to a man she is sleeping with that she is not Mexican. Her parents are from El Salvador and Puerto Rico. He tells her that it doesn’t matter because they all leave cars on their lawns anyway.
The movie is intricately constructed, going back and forth between the characters and back and forth in time. There are small moments that create a mosaic in which we see the pattern before the characters do. The movie has big shocks but it also has small glimpses and moments of great subtlety. A black woman looks at her white boss while he talks to his wife on a cell phone and we can tell there is more to their relationship than we have seen. The daughter of immigrants we have only seen in one context shows up in another and we see that her professional life is very different from what we might have imagined, reminding us that racism may be inextricably intertwined with America, but so is opportunity.
Every character is three-dimensional, utterly real and heartbreakingly sympathetic. The characters keep surprising themselves and each other, for better and for worse.
A white upper class couple gets carjacked. He’s a politician (Brendan Fraser) concerned about how it will look. She (Sandra Bullock) is terrified and angry. She doesn’t trust the man who has come to change their locks because he looks like a gang member. A black detective (co-producer Don Cheadle) tells his Latina partner and sometimes girlfriend (Jennifer Esposito) that “in LA, nobody touches you. We miss that so much, we crash into each other just so we can feel something.”
A black actress (Thandie Newton) tells her black television director husband (Terrence Howard) that “The closest you ever came to being black was watching ‘The Cosby Show.’” The white producer of a television sit-com (Tony Danza) tells that same director to re-shoot a scene because “Jamal is talking a little less black.” A character in an overturned car is caught in a safety belt, hanging upside down. A pair of black carjackers believe that what they do is acceptable because they are not robbing black people. One of the tenderest father-daughter scenes in years is the set-up for an explosive emotional pay-off later on.
The brilliance of the movie is the way it makes each character both symbol and individual. As a whole, the cast is neatly aligned along a continuum of prejudice, and yet each character is complete and complex and real. Just when we think we know who they are, they surprise us. We find ourselves sympathetic to those we thought we hated and disturbed by those we thought we understood. Just when we think we know what bigotry is, it, too, surprises us by being more about fear and loss and feeling powerless than about hatred and ignorance. The characters confront their assumptions about each other and they make us confront our own about them and about ourselves.