Human Traffic

Issue section: 

Review of 'Crash', director Paul Harris

'Moving at the speed of life, we are bound to collide with each other.'

Traffic is the central metaphor of this fast-paced, thought-provoking film about race relations in LA. The film opens with a car crash, and then backtracks through 24 hours to cover the intersection of lives that have led to this point. There is never a dull moment. The film is beautifully shot, the acting is strong, and the dialogue is fresh and provocative. It tackles a difficult subject in a sincere and searching manner.

It is difficult to describe what actually happens in the film without giving away its pivotal moments. There are acts of intolerance and compassion in equal measure. We see individuals struggling with their own prejudice and the implications of the prejudice of others. The characters are multi-faceted and complex. The development of the plot is such that we are continually faced with 'the other side of the story'. We may not like all the individuals portrayed, but we are encouraged to understand them. The cast includes Don Cheadle, Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon, all of whom do great justice to their roles.

The writer/director is Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby), a peace activist and environmentalist, who wrote the screenplay for Crash following an incident that made him question his own attitudes to race and class. Having lived in LA for 25 years, he was carjacked at gun point. Crash is, in part, an attempt to reconcile the raw emotions of fear and prejudice that were immediately provoked, with his more considered views.

His need to understand the circumstances and motivations of his attackers comes across in the film in a number of ways, most directly in political conversation between the two young carjackers about the prejudice they face. Their intelligence, humour and (somewhat limited) self-awareness are conveyed in Pulp Fiction style banter throughout the film.

Haggis is concerned and aware that 'we live in a society of fear, where people like our president use that fear in order to control us, and the media uses that fear to manipulate us.' The film explores the role of racism in fuelling that fear.

Some critics have argued that Crash is too heavy-handed with the issue of race and that absurd coincidences distort the storyline. But this misses the point that the film is about race relations. It isn't really trying to do anything else. The plot is there to explore complex relationships of race and class. It doesn't make sense to judge it in conventional narrative terms. In fact, what is amazing is that, despite its relentless focus on racial prejudice from every possible angle, it still manages to provide a very coherent story.

This isn't a perfect film. There are some stereotypes that it doesn't challenge far enough, and it certainly doesn't claim to offer any solutions. Changes in view throughout the film come more from chance events than any deeper process. Still, they do come. Nearly everyone in the film has their preconceptions challenged at least once, as does the audience.

Perhaps the metaphor of traffic is indicative of what weakness there is in the film, that the causes, consequences and possible solutions to racism are all a bit random. Perhaps there is a better and equally appropriate metaphor for Los Angeles in that beneath the surface we see enormous pressure on these characters and race is simply one of the fault lines along which this pressure is expressed. Overall this is probably the most thought-provoking look at race relations in the US that we've seen for some time, and will certainly foster debate.