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August 18, 2005

Crash - Paul Haggis

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Directed by Paul Haggis
certificate 15, 2005

How can you raise the question of race in modern liberal societies? The whole subject is so much a taboo that any incautious word will get you disdained as a swivel-eyed skinhead. Even the libertarian who starts from the premise that there are good and bad, clever and stupid individuals in any culture is not immune from the dangers of the odd careless inductive remark. "Racist" is the deadliest bit of abuse in the language. Yet the encounter between races, or cultures, or religions, is at the centre of modern Western experience. The remarkable thing is, then, that something as important to us, and something that raises so many vital issues of public policy, should have been rendered undiscussable in states that pride themselves on their civil liberties. An aggressively censorious version of political right-thinking insists that the slightest critical remark about any racial or cultural group will instantly provoke the mobs to take to the streets. Such a "pas devant" attitude is logically incompatible with our democratic practices, but this is a contradiction seldom challenged.

Paul Haggis in Crash has found one partial solution. It consists in treating the subject as it appears in one of its more dramatic local habitations Los Angeles and putting racial antipathies into the mouths of a set of more or less representative racial types, or in some cases, stereotypes. Here, then, the forbidden thoughts appear in the guise of sketches, often as funny as they are angry and hostile, of encounters between strangers. This assemblage of mutual collisions (cars crashing is the metaphor for cross racial life) presents one common image of the human condition in terms of reciprocal frustration and cross purposes. Mistrust is everywhere, and of course there are always grounds for it: some blacks do high-jack cars, some locksmiths do supply the keys to burglars, reporting a racist colleague can lead to more trouble than it's worth, and so on. In the early stages of the film, the multicultural problem appears in the fact that no colour trusts anyone of another hue. This is the situation Haggis sets up early in the film, and as sketches of human frustration, they are compact and often hilarious.

His next problem as a film maker is to meld these scenes into something like a coherent plot, and what he creates is a panorama of intersecting individualities. It's rather like a volume of O'Henry short stories. Critics have been pretty severe on the way Haggis employs coincidence. The racist cop who behaves so disgustingly in groping the beautiful black wife of the black television producer, for example, encounters her the following day trapped in a crashed motor car close to bursting into flames, and exhibits his other, dutiful or possibly even humane side, in risking his life to get her out. But where would a panorama be without a coincidence or two? It's rather like the techniques of satire, in which the effect comes from accumulating oddities that are seldom so compact in real life.

A racist LAPD cop risking his life to get a black out of a burning car? Is this not playing absurd games with character coherence? Only, up to a point, and explaining the point requires that we revert to the central problem of the whole exercise. You cannot make a film out of the hostile snarlings of different races at each other. But the real point is of course much more fundamental: however hostile to other cultures or races these people are, they also live in contemporary America, and other responses are not merely available to them but so insistent as to be no less central a part of their lives than racial and cultural mistrust. Whether hostility, duty or even some element of fellow feeling across the racial lines will be uppermost with this person on this day, or not, is entirely a situational matter.

Haggis's "aesthetic" (if we may lightly employ such a term) is therefore to load the beginning of his film with the problem, and to ease the panorama slowly into a generally, but by no means entirely, sentimental denouement in which humanity, with the help of a coincidence or two emerges to make us all feel a bit better.

Crash is by many tests flawed, but it is so triumphantly superior to the common treatment of racial and cultural diversity as to be a notable cultural event. Few things get on the nerves of our contemporaries more than cheer leaders telling us how marvellous "diversity" is, and how we must all celebrate it. It does rather clear the air to be free of such cant, even if the price is a dose of climactic syrup. And it needs to be added that Haggis (who both wrote and directed) has produced a sharp and lively film with a cast that never lets him down.

A Footnote: Crash is full of guns, and Europeans may well be disdainful of America's passion for the things. But in recent decades, guns have been much more prominent in Britain - both in crime, and also in policing. The correlation, in both Britain and America, is between the level of multiethnic migration, and the prominence of guns in the operations of society. This has been true even aside from the special case of Jihadist terrorism.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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