“Crash” is written and directed by Paul Haggis, and features an ensemble cast with a number of big names including – Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, and Sandra Bullock amongst others.
Overall “Crash,” also known as, “look we ‘Crashed’ and landed in Magnolia” is a solid movie. On NetFlix, which is how I saw the movie, and how I see any movie with Sandra Bullock, I gave it 4 stars. I would have preferred to give it 3.5 stars, but no halves allowed on NetFlix, so the ambition of the film bumps it up to a "begrudging 4." As an FYI - my NetFlix review policies dictate that most movies get 3’s and 4’s, by virtue of the fact that I like movies. Great ones get 5’s. Bad ones get twos. There are more 5’s than 2’s. And more 3’s than 4’s. I don’t think I’ve given a 1 out, but something like "Guess Who" makes me think about it.
Magnolia is definitely the better film of the two, it came first, looks and feels more "artistic", and comes off less preachy. Though both movies take themselves very seriously.
Another major difference is that while both explore relationship dynamics, Crash is clearly centralized around the issue of race.
For my money, racism (as it is portrayed in movies), is in need of an extreme makeover. I think Crash recognizes this need, but ultimately doesn’t live up to the lofty ambition of bringing new perspective to an old conversation.
Most movies present what I would call “behind-closed-doors racism,” someone closes the door, and someone else goes on a rant, “damn them ni**as did this, them ni**as did that.”
This is a progressive step from “out-in-the-open racism,” where of course, there was no closing of the door, you just yelled your thoughts right to a ni@@a’s face.
Behind-closed-doors racism is based on the premise that you can’t be racist in public anymore, because no one tolerates it. But the racists still need to bond and vent, so in the interest of public relations, they do so after closing the doors.
But behind-closed-doors racism, like out-in-the-open racism before it, has lost its relevance. When seen on the screen it doesn't get you fired up like it once did. No matter how you dress it up, it's not compelling, because it’s not true to life for most people. There’s also an extra schlock factor because actors/writers/directors are so often proving their moral righteousness. Watching a character make some bone-head racist remark is the equivalent of a Maxim cover, shocking, attention-getting, sexy (in a marketing sense)… but still nothing more than eye-candy. It’s false, doctored, and artificial. It’s glamorized to massage your ego.
This is not to say that racism is no longer a cauldron of emotion and drama ripe for portrayal on the big or small screen. It’s just saying movie-making hasn’t caught up with the real-time national perception on the issue.
I’m sure I’ll explore this some more another time, but as a quick reference, here are two books, and an essay by Shelby Steele that are more relevant to the conversation going on in America today. The racism inherent in our subconscious, the racial implications involved in hip hop’s continuing rise as a commercial and cultural force, the comparison of racial issues to sexuality preference issues … these strike me as better beacons of light to a path that advances the conversation.
So Crash, in my estimation, presents a lot of behind-closed-doors racism. They’ve mixed-and-matched some of the standard racist characterizations, so there’s some novelty to it all, but nothing that really sticks. EXCEPT:
The scenario that plays out with Dillon, Thandie Newton, and Terrence Howard is top shelf and really jumps off the screen. The two main scenes they play together grab and immerse you in the movie. It’s a little over the top, but for proper reasons. And the characters all play it pitch-perfect. And while the initial scenario itself is a bit contrived, the aftermath becomes the most compelling storyline in the movie. The rest of it plays like a sensitive white guy, who has observed racism very closely, and wants to prove he really knows what's going on.
And that stance begs the question, can racism be properly depicted by someone who hasn't experienced it? I'll look for that answer in the next issue of Maxim...
All in all, my language has been a little negative, but I did say I gave it 4 stars. I give a lot of credit for ambition. It’s incredibly difficult to nail a perfect portrayal of race in America, so coming up short is not a failure, provoking the conversation is a worthy-enough goal ... and Paul Haggis certainly remains a talented and insightful writer.
One final note, and it's a return to the comparison with Magnolia...
It’s interesting that Sandra Bullock, who is kind of like a female Tom Cruise, plays a similar role to the one Tom did in Magnolia, one that runs counter to their usual all-american image. Of course Sandra's more like Tom Cruise light, not quite Julia Roberts status ... but that's beside the point.