It never snows in L.A. So the light dusting that serves as the benediction in director Paul Haggis’s high-strung, blunt-edged Crash seems like a miracle, a thin mantle of hope that settles over a city overcome by racial angst. But the L.A. snowfall is also absurd, a gentle touch of magic realism that underscores the film’s hyperbole and softens its high-amp morality lessons. The British critic Philip French wonders if this visual epilogue of snow falling above one L.A. street corner is the “viewpoint of a puzzled God” trying to understand what has gone wrong. Los Angeles is often seen as the laboratory of the nation’s future—or, what Richard Rodriguez calls the “browning of America.” As a young man living just south of Los Angeles, I had friends from the neighboring barrios, yet it was the Watts Riots of 1965 that opened my eyes to racial injustice. My hometown, once part of the WASP-ish periphery of L.A., is now predominantly Asian, a change sparked by the influx of exiles after the Vietnam War. At the local school district my father oversaw English language and American citizenship classes, and he navigated tensions between whites and immigrants from Cambodia, Korea, Guatemala, Liberia and both sides of the Islamic revolution in Iran. Today some three-fifths of L.A.’s residents are non-Caucasians. Recently the city drew international headlines when it elected a Latino mayor.
Los Angeles has also long been viewed as the nation’s creative and desperate fringe, the place where the American frontier ends in a maze of suburbs. With virtually no mass transit, the city is dominated by the automobile—at once, a symbol of prosperity, independence, congestion, pride and violence. In the first scene of Crash, detective Graham Waters wonders if Angelinos have become so isolated behind their “metal and glass” that they no longer know how to touch one another. “I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can find something.” But the film is not just a tragic L.A. story. Crash is a parable about the collapse of the old view of America as a melting pot. Here, at the bitter edge of the continent, people, dreams, and ideals do not blend into a beautiful mosaic. They simply collide.
The Shadow of Rodney King
Haggis and Bobby Moresco wrote the early drafts of the script before September 11, 2001, yet they did weave one thread in the tale—the story of a shopowner called Osama—that explores the rising American anger at Arabs. The major historical backdrop for the film, however, is the Rodney King debacle of 1991-1992. Badly beaten by the L.A. police during a routine traffic stop, King became a national symbol overnight because the beating was captured on videotape. When the jury exonerated the officers involved in the incident, angry citizens, most of them black youth, rioted in protest. The affair put the spotlight on racism in the L.A. police force—a theme that permeated O.J. Simpson’s murder trial a few years later. The riots—which spread over several days, took dozens of lives, and destroyed considerable property—provoked bitterly mixed reactions. Some politicians, most notably Vice President Dan Quayle, attributed the violence to the erosion of moral order and good citizenship among minority families. Others insisted that the beatings and the “not guilty” verdicts merely exposed mainstream America to what many urban youth and leaders had known all along—that justice and law in the United States were not color blind. Similarly, the plot of Crash hinges on a routine traffic stop by an angry L.A. policeman, and the event turns into an ugly episode of racial and sexual harassment. That scene contains so many of the film’s fiercest themes—class envy, a woman’s helplessness, her husband’s humiliation by a white man with power, a young cop’s struggle between his duty and his conscience, and the inner frustration that prompts a law-and-order police veteran to abuse others. The repercussions of that event not only prompt a well-to-do black man to become enraged, they also cause him to question his own identity, his class, and his language.
Since its release in 2004, Crash has divided audiences and critics. Many find this tapestry of overlapping stories to be profoundly moving and ethically courageous. The film drives right into the heart of racial profiling throughout all levels of society, offering no concessions to “politically correct” codes about racial discourse. All of the characters—the rich and the poor, the whites, blacks, Latinos, Persians and Asians—display their raw fears and presuppositions about one another. Racial slurs dominate the film, some intentionally cruel, others almost subconscious. All of the characters are uptight, quick to assume roles as victims of the others’ racial assumptions. Virtually no one emerges from the film as they first appeared: the honest and idealistic prove capable of anger and violence, the callous and cynical discover capacities for self-sacrifice and tenderness. Quite often, the film audience itself gets caught up in the tension, as one person’s laughter in the theatre intensifies another’s pain. As Peter Bradshaw writes in The Guardian, Crash is a “monster truck rally of ethnic loathing” and a “dance to the music of broken glass and burning gasoline.” Although Crash packs more coincidences than a Dickens novel into an hour and a half, its hyperbolic intensity has been praised as the best and perhaps only way to provoke a post-9/11 America to talk honestly about race.
For others, though, the film’s operatic strains, preachy tone, and constant coincidences ultimately undercut its credibility. According to some viewers, the plot twists and barbed dialogue turn characters into caricatures. The script is so clever at times, the San Francisco Chronicle contends, that “you can almost hear the typewriter” in every scene. Many viewers lament that the portraits of Asians in the film tend to be one-dimensional. Crash “might have even been a landmark film about race relations had its aura of blunt realism not been dispelled by a toxic cloud of dramaturgical pixie dust,” David Edelstein writes in Slate. “A universe in which we are all racist puppets is finally just as single-minded and predictable as one in which we are all smiling multicolored zombies in a rainbow coalition.” There is indeed something about Crash, David Levine observes, that is both “highly calculated” and “reckless.”
In its reckless ambition and criss-crossing stories, Crash is indebted to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993). Like Magnolia, Crash offers an ensemble cast in a series of interlocking scenes about “strangers affecting strangers.” The snowfall in Crash quietly evokes Magnolia’s climatic scene of frogs falling from the sky; both directors strive to give their films a biblical finale. The episodic Short Cuts, based on Raymond Carver stories, is also set in Los Angeles, uses slight exaggeration, and portrays a racist cop. Haggis’s tight, formulaic plot draws as well upon his long experience as a writer for TV shows. The author of scores of scripts for series like Family Law, Diff’rent Strokes, thirtysomething, and EZ Street, Haggis ventured away from TV in 2000 to write Crash as well as a screenplay about a female boxer. Clint Eastwood turned that script into the Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby.