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Movies | Races, cultures, and classes collide in this film from "Million Dollar Baby" screenwriter Paul Haggis

Issue: "An evolving debate," May 21, 2005

Crash begins, appropriately enough, with a car accident. An elderly Asian woman rear-ends two police detectives, one a black male, the other a Hispanic female. A minor fender-bender at the scene of a crime quickly devolves into a shouting match full of calculated racial epithets.

This early scene sets the tone for Crash (rated R for language, sexual content, and some violence), a mosaic of stories in which races, cultures, and classes collide. Set in Los Angeles, the movie defines every character-consciously or unconsciously-by his race.

Paul Haggis, screenwriter of last year's Million Dollar Baby, here both writes (with co-scripter Robert Moresco) and directs. Mr. Haggis takes an audacious, unflinching approach to modern race relations. The result is sometimes lyrical, sometimes tortured. The film deals intelligently with difficult issues, but contains a steady stream of profane and graphic language and one scene of brief nudity.

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Anchoring the story is Don Cheadle (as in Hotel Rwanda, Mr. Cheadle demonstrates that he is more than capable of such a task), playing the black detective, paired up both professionally and personally with Jennifer Esposito. Most of the characters in the film are similarly introduced in pairs: upscale white couple Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser; upscale black couple Thandie Newton and Terrence Howard; street thugs Larenz Tate and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges; uniformed cops Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillippe, and so on.

Each pair is operating within the constraints of both internal and external racial dynamics, some of which shift through the course of the film. The strength of Crash rests in Mr. Haggis's readiness to allow for depth of character even in unattractive people, and his willingness to admit that racial distrust and hatred is born out of a complex web of rationales and experiences.

Howver, he's so single-mindedly focused on race that racism exists almost entirely as a cause, not as a symptom-where it could be usefully seen in the larger context of fallen human nature.


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