There is no us against them. It is only us.
“It’s the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.”
– Detective Graham Walters, Crash.
I couldn’t sleep the night that I watched Crash. That’s because I crashed into somebody. 26 different people, in fact. In life, we are so self-consumed by the business and burdens of our lives that we never stop to think of how we might affect the lives of the people around us. So we crash into them. Sometimes it’s just a fender-bender. Sometimes it’s a straight-on collision. But it always has repercussions, whether it’s an exchange of flurried insults, or the breaking down of someone’s worth and self-esteem.
There are no characters in Crash, only faces that you remember. Those faces belong to Don Cheadle, Jennifer Esposito, Shaun Toub, Bahar Soomekh, Chris Bridges, Larenz Tate, Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, Matt Dillon, Ryan Phillippe, Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton, Michael Pena, Yomi Perry, Ashlyn Sanchez, Karina Arroyave, Loretta Devine, Beverly Todd, William Fictner, Keith David, Greg Joung Paik, Nona Gaye, Bruce Kirby, Tony Danza, Kathleen York, Sylva Kelegian, and Marina Sirtis. I list all of them out only because they all matter. You’ll only recognize a few by name or from another film. But you care about all of them, no matter how small their role may seem.
To cover the full scope of Crash would be impossible. It takes place over the course of a few days in downtown L.A. and features an assortment of people that affect each other’s lives in one way or another, whether they realize it or not. I use “people” instead of “characters” because these are not fictionalized troupes that could only exist in a movie. These people feel, breathe, talk, and behave like any real person would. Even though the movie is classified as fictional, you can easily see the events happening to someone else in real life. In many cases they’ve already happened, and more than likely they’ve happened to you.
One of them already happened to writer-director Paul Haggis, who was inspired to write Crash after having his car stolen by a pair of carjackers. Playing it back in his head, he creates a path that starts with the carjackers, then it follows to the theft victims. Then it follows the locksmith at their house. Then it follows one of his customers that got his store broken into. Then it follows his daughter at her night job and et cetera, et cetera until it paints a beautifully written, tragic path between all of its subjects, creating a recurring pattern of judgement and apprehension that each person shares, that each person is guilty of.
And none of these people are innocent of prejudice. None of them are blameless for contributing to the problem. All of them are guilty of judging based on appearance, no matter if they’re White, Black, Mexican, Latino, Persian, or Chinese. It shows very vividly that there is not a difference between the perpetrators and victims of racism. There are only victims.
This perspective is so important because it humanizes everyone in the film, no matter what malice or misdeeds they commit. Imagine, if you would, if every character in this film were one race. White, Black, Mexican, Indian, Asian, whatever. Now imagine all of them throwing their same prejudice and judgements on each other even though they all look the same. The movie would look pretty silly, wouldn’t it?
Yet the movie makes complete sense, because of the stereotypes and the xenophobia we learn growing up. How sad is it that as a person, you can identify and understand why these people behave and react the way they do? How maddening is it when in one moment we get angry at a character for calling someone a criminal, a gangster, a hoodlum, or a terrorist, then we look at the mirror and realize we do the same thing? The people in the movie see each other for what they look like, but the movie never does. It only sees them as fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, family, friends, people.
I felt genuinely ashamed while watching Crash. Guilt-ridden, heartbroken, frustrated, upset, angry. That’s because I saw myself while watching it. Perhaps not at the level of a racist cop or an opportunistic district attorney, but in the small, subtle moments. When one woman wants to get the locks changed again because she doesn’t trust the Mexican locksmith “homie” over there, I quietly gasped to myself saying “Oh shoot, I do that too.” And then you see “homie” go home, quietly comforting his daughter when she hears gunshots, kissing her forehead, telling her he will protect her. That’s when you realize “homie” isn’t Mexican or gangster. He’s a father. He’s human.
We don’t want these judgements passed on to us. Yet, we pass them on to others. Why? Because that’s our nature, I suppose. We’re engineered at an early age to judge and be cautious of people based on appearance, so this security mechanism is instilled in our mindset to be wary of someone just because of what they look like. It’s saved our lives many times. It’s also ruined the lives of so many others.
Yet, through this brilliantly interwoven narrative that Haggis creates, he also demonstrates the same remedy for this problem. Kindness. Compassion. Empathy. Many times, at the hands of the people who were cruel or inhumane only a few scenes ago. There’s this genius reversal of character between where someone starts at the beginning of the film versus where they are at the end. In the movie, there is a racist cop who ends up saving the life of a black woman in a burning vehicle. There’s a spoiled housewife who’s wary of Mexicans who ends up saying her best friend is her Mexican housemaid. There’s a black man who demonstrates disregard for Asians, only to save the lives of multiple Asians by the end. A white man who saves a black man’s life, only to take another’s later on. Whether they are on one end of the spectrum or another, by the end of the film, they exist on the other end.
This is so important because it demonstrates that we’re capable of that same kindness and cruelty, whether we want to admit it or not. How many times have you been more open to someone of your race rather than another? How many times have you acted more cautious because of someone’s skin color? How many times do you say “I don’t want to be around this person” because of a generalization or an assumption you have on their character because of their appearance? We don’t want to admit that it’s about race, but what else could it be about? Whether they’re matching colors on their outfit?
The movie technically ends on a cliffhanger, because there are still many things that we don’t know. Does John’s dad ever get the medical treatment he needs? Does Graham ever find the man who killed his brother? Does Anthony find redemption or fall back into a life of crime? Does Farhad ever manage to reopen his store? Does Tom remain in the police force?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, just like I don’t know the answers to my questions or to your questions about the future. Perhaps that’s the point. In life, we don’t know where we’re going, where we’re traveling to, or who we meet on the way. We can’t control the people that come into our lives. We can only control how we react to them. And instead of reacting with fear, maybe we can react with curiosity. Confidence. Belief in the best of people. By doing this, we begin to create an atmosphere of change.
And change doesn’t come in big steps. As Crash demonstrates, they come in small doses of change, whether they be positive or negative. If we focus on those changes being kind and compassionate as opposed to cold and fearful, we change many things at once until we change the world entire. That’s the one that I want to be a part of: one where we won’t have to crash into someone ever again.