Wednesday 4 November 2009

Not Just Black and White

Crash, directed and co-written by Paul Haggis, is about collisions of people of different ethnic backgrounds in Los Angeles. It’s about the maiming of lives by the accident of race: biologically nugatory but culturally potent.

The film is a story of the lives of 14 main characters. It starts with the car of Ria (Jennifer Esposito) being rear-ended by that of an Asian woman, and with the drivers yelling racist invective at each other. Ria is the Latina working partner and bed partner of black detective Graham (Don Cheadle).

How does one make a film about race that is both engaging to watch and informative about some very fundamental issues in modern Western society? This is a pretty good attempt. The film's 14 characters range across black, white, and Asian, born in the USA and immigrants, high earners in glamorous occupations and people who scrape by. Every one of them is affected by race, and in the course of the film, one of the 14 characters kills another of them, in a way that few would predict.

The events of the film take place within a day and half. The drama is based (I imagine) on Aristotle's idea, in Poetics, of unity of time: "as far as it's length is concerned, tragedy tries as hard as it can to exist during a single daylight period, or to vary but little" (p. 24). And this film is a tragedy. The idea that occurred to me as I thought about the film was of Thornton Wilder's novella, The bridge of San Luis Rey, in which five people died at the same time, seemingly by chance, when a rope suspension bridge on the road between Lima and Cuzco collapsed in 1714. Did the event happen to just these five people because they were especially wicked, so that God decided to punish them? Were they especially loved by God so that as they were crossing the bridge he decided to call them all to His side? Wilder's story approaches these questions by tracing the lives of the people as they made their way towards the bridge. Was there anything that connected them apart from chance?

In a comparable way Haggis traces the lives of the 14 people in Los Angeles. They are connected by the cultural forces of racial difference. They are caught up in these forces, not because they are especially wicked or especially good. In the film, criminals and racist cops are at times moved to acts of generosity, and even the kindly characters are compromised by race.

Crash won the 2006 Oscar for best film. In my view it gives the physical beauty of the actors—who all seem rather film-starlike—too large a role in its appeal to us the viewers, and this may detract somewhat from its psychological insights. But it's still very good with memorable scenes and images. You can see a longer review of the film in our archive of Film Reviews, which you can reach by clicking here. It's watchable and thought-provoking; I would give it three stars on a five-star scale.

Aristotle. (c. 330 BC). Poetics (G. E. Else, Trans.). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press (Current edition 1970).

Paul Haggis (Director) (2005) Crash. USA.

Thornton Wilder (1927). The bridge of San Luis Rey. New York: Boni.

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