A black criminal makes speeches about oppression to justify his behaviour. A white district attorney demands that a racist cop be produced and sacrificed to appease his black voters. An Iranian shopkeeper buys a gun to protect himself from those who assume he is a terrorist. A white woman's paranoia about minorities grows worse after she's carjacked by black youths. A working class white cop takes his frustrations out on a rich black couple. A middle class black man is treated as an Uncle Tom by his own kind and still mistrusted by whites. Welcome to Los Angeles.
Crash isn't a film that pulls its punches. A provocative look at racism in contemporary LA, it tackles the subject from a number of different perspectives, through the eyes of many different characters. Some are racists, some are victims of racism, some are both. All are fascinating and thoroughly believable people. Writer and first time director Paul Haggis is best known for his script for Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, which featured some of the most memorable movie characters of recent years. He brings the same perception to Crash, creating a rich and complex film worthy of comparison to Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. Both films confront racism by giving us human beings we like, both black and white and forcing us to see both sides of their quarrels.
Another movie Crash calls to mind is Grand Canyon, also a multistrand drama set in LA and dealing with similar themes. Lawrence Kasdan's film, made in 1991, was upbeat and hopeful. Crash takes a more jaundiced view of the subject, as well it might since 14 years have passed and not much seems to have changed. That's not to say Crash is cynical - it isn't, there are stories of redemption here - but Paul Haggis has no easy solutions and he doesn't see the city changing anytime soon.
What Haggis does is present a seemingly random cross-section of Angelino society and look at the part racism plays in each person's life. He does so fairly and non-judgementally. Haggis isn't interested in self-serving moralising or simplistic portrayals of heroes and villains. When characters are racist, we're shown why. In certain cases, it's difficult not to sympathise. Racism may be evil but racists are not necessarily evil people. A pair of black carjackers are treated with an equal lack of judgement. Despite their actions, they aren't irredeemable and they're capable of decency. That doesn't mean Haggis makes excuses for people. Racism, we see, is often a way of transferring frustrations onto people who are not responsible for them - blaming minorities for the ham-fisted social policies of mostly white politicians. The carjackers could clearly get by honestly and the film acknowledges the large part they play in perpetuating fear and prejudice against their own race.
The most odious characters are the politicians and lawyers who treat racism as a matter of votes lost or gained and who are prepared to destroy a cop who is not provably racist to help preserve their jobs. Of course these are my reactions. You will have your own. Crash isn't a film that tells you what to think. There are certain scenes that will hit black audiences hard and others that will resonate with white moviegoers. Your own experiences will shape how you react to it and believe me, you will react. This is the kind of film you should go and see with friends because you'll want to talk about it afterwards.
Crash isn't entirely about blacks and whites. There are Asian characters, Hispanics and Middle Easterners, all of whom feel and experience their own peculiar kinds of prejudice. The Iranian shopkeeper played by Shaun Toub is particularly well written and his strand sums up many of the film's themes. His character is an honest and hard-working man who has been victimised because of the actions of terrorists he does not support - he calls himself a Persian so one assumes he came to America to escape the fanatics. His reaction is to become bitter and bigoted himself and his treatment of a decent Hispanic locksmith leads to personal disaster and possibly to greater tragedy. This episode has a punchline worthy of Tarantino. In fact, Paul Haggis's plotting and dialogue do sometimes call to mind the Pulp Fiction maestro in a good way - in the scathingly funny dialogue and in the way Tarantino mixes humour and drama to powerful effect.
Just as impressive is the Matt Dillon storyline. He plays the racist cop who we first meet harassing a black couple for no apparent reason. Later we learn more about him, enough to understand him, if not sympathise with him. Then... without going into detail, his strand climaxes in a scene as surprising and brave as anything you'll see at the pictures this year. It turns the way we see his character on its head and forces us to ask ourselves hard questions about human nature. Okay, it involves a coincidence that some will find hard to take but I think this is one case where artistic license can be granted.
Crash is extremely well made and acted. The ensemble cast is sensational, so uniformly good that it's hard to pick standouts. The biggest surprises are Ryan Phillippe, Thandie Newton and Sandra Bullock, who are far better than you'd expect from their usual lightweight roles, and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, a hip hop star taking on his first major acting role and rising to the occasion. Bridges' work here is further proof that Samuel L Jackson was unfair with his comments earlier this year about rappers turning to acting. The list of rappers who have turned in respectable performances in films is longer than you might think and ever growing.
This is a debut film and it isn't perfect. Haggis can't resist using Paul Thomas Anderson-style musical montages to try and create mood and the results are self-conscious. At times it feels like the screenplay is hammering home points and underlining things it needn't. For example, the way Ryan Phillippe's thread concludes, it's too obviously intended as an ironic counterpoint to Matt Dillon's. It's a good point that's being made but there's no reason to make it twice. Let me add though that while the script sometimes seems heavy-handed, never is it predictable. As he proved with Million Dollar Baby, Haggis is a master of storytelling sleight of hand.
Those flaws are easily forgiven in the context of one of the best and most thought-provoking films of 2005. If you reckon you're fed up of all the dumb genre movies that have dominated multiplexes these last few months, prove it by supporting a film that is anything but dumb. Crash is funny, it's unsettling and it stings. Whatever your point of view on racism, it will challenge you. It's like the answer to Rodney King's question, "Why can't we all just get along?" Here's why.