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Differing Views of Race in L.A. Collide in ‘Crash’

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton has seen the film three times, and encouraged the deputy chief in charge of LAPD’s professional standards to pass copies around the department. But Joe Hicks, the longtime African American community activist, believes the movie so distorts the state of race relations that it could hurt Los Angeles’ reputation.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa loved the movie. His lawyer, a former member of the county Human Relations Commission, hated it.

“Crash” opened 10 months ago, but it continues to resonate across Los Angeles for reasons that have little to do with the six Oscars it is up for Sunday.

The movie has become something of a Rorschach test for Angelenos, separating those who believe the city’s multicultural residents usually get along and those who feel race relations remain an open wound. Is the Los Angeles of “Crash” an accurate depiction of racial strife lurking just below the surface, or is it a cartoonish collection of stereotypes presented as the real L.A.? It’s a debate that has played out at dinner tables, in classrooms and online.

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While previous films about race relations in Los Angeles, such as “Grand Canyon” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” focused on main characters who stood for racial tolerance even when society did not, “Crash” offers about a dozen loosely based stories with few heroes.

A young black man complains when a white woman clutches her purse as she walks by him, then carjacks her SUV. An LAPD officer goes on a racist rant against a black employee of an HMO and later saves the life of a black woman. An Iranian shop owner is the victim of a hate crime and takes his anger out on a Latino locksmith. A Latina police detective and a Korean woman exchange racial epithets after a fender bender.

To its fans, “Crash” offers a raw, unsentimental but ultimately honest view of race in Los Angeles.

“There’s nothing I saw depicted there that I’ve not experienced in my own years of policing, that my wife has not,” Bratton said in an interview last week. “Just under the surface there is, unfortunately, a tension.”

Since he became police chief nearly four years ago, no issue has more consumed Bratton than the fragile relationship between his department and African Americans. He’s been called a racial healer and a racist as he grappled with an officer’s fatal shooting of a 13-year-old black boy and the videotaped beating of a black car-chase suspect that some compared to the Rodney King assault a decade earlier. More recently, his department has been dealing with reverberations from racial tensions between blacks and Latinos in the county jails and at several high schools.

“It’s like a scab that doesn’t get to heal and it gets picked at and comes right to the surface,” the chief said. “The relationship between the city’s African American community and the Police Department is a clear example of that.”

The film’s fans praise it for challenging the popular notion that as Los Angeles becomes more diverse, it also becomes more tolerant.

Jamal Watkins, Western regional director of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said that despite milestones such as Villaraigosa’s election last year as the city’s first Latino mayor in modern times, Los Angeles is still a city divided by class and race. “Crash,” he said, captures that.

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“People live in their own enclaves, whether insulated by class or wealth or status. A part of the challenge is that we are expected to merge together, meld together in the workplace, the classroom,” he said. “What the movie shows is that all of the issues around race, stereotypes and prejudice have not died out -- because we have these enclaves within the city.”

The movie’s critics acknowledge that racism and divisions remain in Los Angeles. But they argue that “Crash” is over the top in its portrayal of a city always on the verge of exploding with racial resentment. Some are particularly turned off by the explicit dialogue in which many conversations between characters of different races devolve into ugly exchanges of prejudice and stereotyping.

“L.A. is a different place to me,” said Melany de la Cruz, assistant director of the Asian American Studies program at UCLA, adding she didn’t recognize the city depicted on the screen.

De la Cruz, a Filipina who is engaged to a Latino, said she feels race relations have improved since the 1992 riots -- but one would not know that by watching the film.

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She remembers attending a march in Koreatown marking the 10th anniversary of the riots and how proud she felt that Koreans, whites, blacks and Latinos joined to try to heal old wounds.

After the riots, “coalitions and organizations sprang up ... so there’s no longer such polarity,” she said.

Activist Hicks, vice president of Community Advocates Inc. and former head of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said “Crash” presents a Los Angeles where most people are filled with prejudice and vitriol, such as the wealthy Brentwood housewife who assumes her Latino locksmith is a gang member.

“What it says about L.A. is something that is completely untrue about the kind of human relations we experience in this city,” Hicks said. “It is looking at things, viewing them from some distortion, presenting things as they want them to be to feed into some political agenda.”

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“Crash” director and co-screenwriter Paul Haggis said he knew the film would touch a nerve because it challenged the conventional wisdom about race in Los Angeles.

“I knew if we did it right it would get under people’s skin, and they would react one way or the other,” Haggis said in an e-mail from France, where he is working on his next film. “So it doesn’t bother me when people say they hate it for this reason or that. It got to them, it made them look at something they would rather not have looked at, so the movie succeeded, at least for me.”

Haggis, who was inspired to write the film years after having his own car stolen at gunpoint, said he finds that those who are most critical of the movie see it as an attack on multiculturalism in the city.

“They tend to be upper-middle class liberals, of any color, as those are the people, like myself, I was writing about,” he said. “We like to think we are good people, that we champion the underdog and that if there really were race and class problems in our city -- or any city -- we would have fixed them....

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“But the truth is that we live in a society where fear still resides under the Hockney-colored surface,” Haggis added, referring to the British painter.

On one Internet message board, Haggis’ view of Los Angeles was much debated -- with the majority seeming to support it. “I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t love the movie ‘Crash,’ ” wrote one poster on imdb.com. “It shows an emotional and powerful idea of racism in L.A.”

But when Todd Boyd, a professor at USC’s School of Cinema-Television who specializes in race and popular culture, screened the movie for a class of about 250 students, most felt the movie was unrealistic.

“When you see these characters as they come on the screen, they are familiar because they are so stereotypical, not because they are real,” Boyd said.

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Jaime Regalado, director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., said the visceral reactions provoked by the film are largely because it deals with issues of hatred that people prefer not to talk about.

Regalado enjoyed “Crash,” but his three adult sons each had differing opinions that they’ve debated endlessly. His oldest son said he recognized in the movie “a place we call home.” His youngest son thought it was too stereotypical to be real. His middle son fell somewhere in between.

But not all “Crash” fans are pessimists about race relations in Los Angeles.

Villaraigosa said in an interview last month that his election showed how far the city has come to bridge racial gaps. He carried not only the Latino vote but also the Jewish vote, a majority of the San Fernando Valley and nearly half the black vote.

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Still, the mayor has said he believes “Crash” has become a catalyst for important conversation among Angelenos about issues of race and ethnicity.

“We talk about race every day, except we do it within our own group,” he said on ABC’s “Nightline.” “There’s very little opportunity to talk about race and ethnicity between groups.”


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