The Common Good
December 2005

Cultural Collisions

by Craig Detweiler | December 2005

Participating in the Divine

Race relations used to be a pertinent and profitable topic in Hollywood’s movies. As multiculturalism rose in public consciousness, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) fueled the discussion. Los Angeles filmmakers followed with Boyz N the Hood, Grand Canyon, and Menace II Society. But Hollywood’s interest in simmering racial tensions seemed to vanish after the 1992 uprising. The fires that followed the acquittal of police officers accused of beating Rodney King never inspired a feature film. Leave it to a Canadian to resurrect race in Hollywood drama.

In Crash, writer-director Paul Haggis draws upon all corners of Los Angeles to tell his story. The district attorney and his wife represent the wealthy Westside. They collide with carjackers from south Los Angeles. A Latino locksmith wants peace and quiet for his Eastside family. Persian immigrants invest all they have into stocking their convenience store. The Asian “model” minority are revealed as trafficking in more than math. Mediating this culture clash are the police, both the compromised and the committed. The dramatic tension arises from border crossings, when urban people cross into suburban areas, when divergent sensibilities crash into each other.

Crash is about elusive but essential human contact. The film opens with a lament: “In L.A., nobody touches you. We crash into each other just so we can feel something.” Its characters deal with issues of fear, how much time and money we invest in locks, in arming ourselves, in security. Yet the most secured homes are the loneliest. Crash illustrates our desperate desire to remain aloof, to stay out of the fray, to avoid contact. Amid a life-threatening car wreck, an injured woman cries out, “Please don’t touch me!”

Much of Crash occurs during one long night, in low-light conditions, so the film has a grainy, hand-held feel. Yet this small independent movie demonstrated surprising resiliency, drawing audiences throughout a summer of forgettable flicks. More than $50 million in ticket receipts suggest the issues raised by this sincere, searing film deserve much more attention.

CRASH WALKS a fine line, mixing a realistic portrait of pertinent issues with magic realism. Haggis offers a range of familiar types, attempting to prick his viewers’ consciences without being preachy or strident. Tempers are already simmering as the movie opens. Invective and epithets fly. Prejudices are looking for confirmation. “I am angry all the time, and I don’t know why,” laments a frustrated housewife. The first half of the film stirs the melting pot, with racist assumptions spilling out fast and furious. We see sexual harassment, a broken health-care system, the purchase of firearms.

In the softer second half, isolated moments suggest the possibility of transcendence. A motorist hassled by the cops for “driving while black” turns out to be a conflict-avoiding “Buddhist for Christ’s sake.” But that doesn’t dissuade the police from violating his humanity and that of his wife. A statue of St. Christopher shows up at surprising times, but it ultimately proves ineffectual. A protective icon inspires a random act of violence. As Crash unspools amid the Christmas season, images of the nativity suggest an unrealized prayer for “peace on earth.” The film operates as a fable, arguing that we are connected to each other, like it or not.

Crash works best as polemic, raising hot-button issues. Is prejudice primarily a question of color? How do differences of language and culture play into our misunderstandings? How much hell must be navigated before we can get to reconciliation? So many well-intentioned films about race deal with color but not class, prejudice but not economics. One of the film’s most poignant exchanges takes place when a white cop begs a black woman to extend health benefits to his ailing father. Economic hardship only heightens his racism.

Haggis dramatizes the tensions inherent in our fragile American experiment, and leaves the solutions up to us. The film concludes with the arrival of new immigrants and the promise, “You’re free to go. This is America.” The question of how free and how far remains unanswered. n
Craig Detweiler is associate professor at Biola University in California, a screenwriter, and author of A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture.

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