'Crash,' Tackling Race Relations Head On

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Paul Haggis wrote the script for the Oscar-winning film Million Dollar Baby. For his initial shot at directing, he's picked a big subject: race and racism. Crash features a huge, diverse and mostly well-known cast.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Screenwriter Paul Haggis had never made a movie before last year, but he's making quite a splash as a Hollywood rookie. His first film was "Million Dollar Baby," which won this year's Oscar for best picture. His second film, "Crash," opens today with his name on both the writer's and director's credits. NPR's Bob Mondello says Haggis handles both assignments well.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

Bright, upscale Restaurant Row in Los Angeles packed on Saturday night, two young black men leave a restaurant annoyed at bad service. Probably, one of them observes, the waitress, also black, figured black people don't tip. And in fact, they didn't tip because they didn't like the service. The banter is brisk and witty until a formally attired white couple comes by, the white woman hugging her husband's arm just a little tighter as they pass.

(Soundbite of "Crash")

Unidentified Man #1: You see what that woman just did? You see that?

Unidentified Man #2: Boy, she's cold.

Unidentified Man #1: She got colder as soon as she saw us though.

Unidentified Man #2: Oh, man, come on. Don't start.

Unidentified Man #1: Man, look around you, man. You couldn't find a whiter, safer or better lit part of this city right now. But yet this white woman sees two black guys who look like UCLA students strolling down the sidewalk, and her reaction is blind fear? I mean, look at us, dog. Are we dressed like gangbangers, huh?

No.

Do we look threatening?

No.

Fact: If anybody should be scared around here, it's us. We're the only two black faces surrounded by a sea of over-caffeinated white people patrolled by the trigger-happy LAPD. So you tell me why aren't we scared?

MONDELLO: There is a pause before the other man answers, `Because we've got guns?' Then in an adrenalin-pumping pace change, they steal the couple's car.

The next scene is at the home of the couple, and your heart kind of goes out to the wife for a second until you discover, as she scowls at the Latino guy who's installing new locks on their doors, that she is more than a little racist.

(Soundbite of "Crash")

Unidentified Woman: I would like the locks changed again in the morning. And you know what? You might mention that we'd appreciate it if next time they didn't send a gang member.

Unidentified Man #3: A gang member?

Unidentified Woman: Yes. Yes.

Unidentified Man #3: What? You mean that kid in there?

Unidentified Woman: Yes. The guy in there with the shaved head, the pants around his ass, the prison tattoos.

Unidentified Man #3: Oh, come on. Those are not prison tattoos.

Unidentified Woman: Oh, really? And he's not going to go sell our key to one of his gangbanger friends the moment he is out our door?

Unidentified Man #3: Look, we've had a really tough night. I think it would be best if you just went upstairs right now...

Unidentified Woman: And what? Wait for them to break in? I just had a gun pointed in my face...

Unidentified Man #3: You lower your voice.

Unidentified Woman: ...and it was my fault because I knew it was going to happen.

MONDELLO: The Latino guy hears all this, of course. It's meant for him. Then we follow him home, noting that he does look a little worrisome with all those tattoos until he peeks into his daughter's room and finds his five-year-old hiding under the bed.

(Soundbite of "Crash")

Unidentified Man #4: There's no monsters in the closet, Veronica. I hate monsters.

Unidentified Girl: (As Veronica) There's no such thing as monsters.

Unidentified Man #4: Oh, that's a good thing.

Unidentified Girl: (As Veronica) I heard a bang.

Unidentified Man #4: Like a truck bang?

Unidentified Girl: (As Veronica) Like a gun.

Unidentified Man #4: That's funny because we moved out of that bad neighborhood. There's not too many guns around here.

Unidentified Girl: (As Veronica) How far can bullets go?

Unidentified Man #4: They go pretty far, but they usually get stuck in something and stop.

Unidentified Girl: (As Veronica) What if they don't?

Unidentified Man #4: You thinking about that bullet that came through your window? You think we should move again?

Unidentified Girl: (As Veronica) I like it here.

Unidentified Man #4: Me, too. But if that bullet found out where we lived...

MONDELLO: Still sound like a gangbanger? Director Paul Haggis keeps introducing characters you feel you know after a few moments, mostly to prove that you really don't. Get mad at a sexually harassing cop or a cruel mother, and you'll soon find reasons to sympathize with them. Start to like a detective who's on the side of the angels or an immigrant trying to hang onto a piece of the American Dream, and you'll discover they've got dark sides. This low-budget movie offers a surprisingly complex portrait of urban life, which may be why it attracted a name cast. Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Sandra Bullock, the rap star Ludacris, Brendan Fraser and others all do subtle, nuanced work.

Haggis gives them a couple of hurdles to overcome. He's fashioned the plot as a daisy chain with each story line looping into the next one, which means it's hard to build the character in a conventional sense. And structurally, the director is a tad over-enamored of formal pairings, two spoiled, rich couples--one black, one white--two sons who disappoint parents, two sets of traumatized immigrants and so forth. That's a little too neat for a story that's all about the mess we make of race and discrimination. But it ends up giving the film a spine when it reaches for operatic heights. And reach "Crash" does, more than any film in quite a while. In a breathtaking last half-hour where story lines mesh, characters crash and everyone behaves in ways that are Hollywood stereotypes, notwithstanding, all too recognizably human. I'm Bob Mondello.

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