May 12, 2005

"Crash" with Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, by Paul Haggis

My review in The American Conservative will be available to electronic subscribers this weekend. To read my film reviews while the movies are still in the the theatre, you have to subscribe):

On Los Angeles' Wilshire Boulevard in 1991, during the murderous crack era, two young black men shoved snub-nosed .38s in the faces of screenwriter Paul Haggis and his wife and car-jacked their new Porsche. Out of that horrifying incident grew Haggis' directorial debut, the ensemble drama "Crash."

More than making up for the phoniness of his portrayal of women's boxing in "Million Dollar Baby," Haggis's "Crash" is perhaps the most honest movie yet about how America's racial patterns in crime generate corrosive, but sadly accurate, ethnic prejudices...

As two African-American men emerge from an expensive restaurant, one (played well by rapper Ludacris) entertainingly rants about how their waitress gave them poor service just because they are black. While his sidekick points out that she was black, too, they pass L.A.'s district attorney (Brendan Fraser of "The Mummy") and his Brentwood socialite wife (Sandra Bullock of "Speed"). Although heavily Botoxed, she visibly flinches at the sight of black guys just walking past her. This blatant racism enrages Ludacris, so he chooses the DA's Lincoln Navigator as tonight's vehicle to car-jack.

Afterwards, the DA groans, "Why'd they have to be black?" Calculating that the news is going to cost him either the black vote or the "law-and-order vote," he immediately instructs his aides to find some black to publicly promote.

Meanwhile, a black LAPD detective (Don Cheadle of "Hotel Rwanda") is investigating a road rage incident in which a white undercover policeman shot an out-of-control off-duty black cop. The DA's oily Irish-American fixer (character actor William Fichtner) lets Cheadle know the boss wants to prosecute the white cop to appease black voters, so he's not happy when Cheadle reveals the dead black officer had $300,000 in his trunk. (This is based on a 1997 LAPD scandal.)

The politico blurts out his frustration at how the tidy deals he engineers are constantly undermined by black malfeasance. "Why do blacks get themselves thrown in prison eight times more often per capita than whites?" he demands of Cheadle, who has no answer. Cheadle finally agrees to frame the innocent white cop in exchange for a promotion and the dropping of felony charges against his younger brother (who turns out to be one of the car-jackers).

Despite its admirable candor, "Crash" is not a realistic film. The immensity of L.A. means that Angelenos seldom run into other people they know by accident. Some L.A. screenwriters respond by crafting intricate coincidence-driven plots about a fantasy L.A. where everyone knows everyone else, as in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" or Alex Cox's brilliant "Repo Man." Similarly, "Crash" slams together the lives of about 16 Angelenos of every ethnic group (except, oddly enough, Jewish) in a chain-reaction of racial conflicts.

Haggis imposes two more implausible but intensifying rules. Each character has clich├ęd qualities, both good and bad. The Irish cop (superbly portrayed by Matt Dillon of "Drugstore Cowboy") resents blacks' affirmative action privileges but risks his life to save a black woman he once abused. The immigrant Iranian shopkeeper is industrious yet also a touchy hothead. The Mexican locksmith is a good family man, while sporting alarming gang tattoos on his neck.

Finally, every character in "Crash" must bark out his innermost negative views about the race of every other character he collides with. In the opening scene, for example, an impolite Korean woman rear-ends the car driven by a Latino lady, who explains to her exactly what she (and everyone else in L.A.) thinks of Asian women drivers.

The mostly minority L.A. audience at my showing found this unlikely in-your-face frankness a hoot, an enjoyable holiday from the public politeness prevailing among Angelenos, whose social template was laid down long ago by upbeat Midwesterners.

Moreover, since 1992, when the LAPD, rather than be further condemned for brutality after Rodney King's beating, let a drunken mob run amok at Florence and Normandie, resulting in much of the city being burned down, law-abiding citizens have bought lots of guns for self-defense. And, as Robert A. Heinlein pointed out, "An armed society is a polite society."

"Crash" is too contrived to be a great movie, but it's a contrivance of an unusually high order.

Rated R for language, sexual content and some violence.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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