Crash Study Guide

In the post-9/11 media landscape, Crash’s backstory has garnered nearly as much attention as the plot itself. After personally experiencing a carjacking in 1991, television writer Paul Haggis was inspired to pen this story about social and racial tension in Los Angeles, California. The film’s unique combination of a star-studded cast—including Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, and Terrence Howard—and relatively-low budget demonstrated the “passion” behind the project. Following its release in 2004, Haggis’s directorial debut was initially met with rave reviews. During the 78th Annual Academy Awards, it won the awards for Best Editing and Best Original Screenplay. And in a controversial decision, it beat Brokeback Mountain to win the year’s Best Picture award.

Lauded for its unique narrative style, Crash tells the intertwining stories of several characters during two days in Los Angeles. The audience becomes acquainted with an African American detective who is estranged from his mother and his younger brother, a criminal with gang affiliations. Additionally, the film profiles the district attorney and his spoiled, irritable wife; a racist police officer and his young partner who is repelled by his attitude; and a black Hollywood director and his wife. Other principal characters include a Persian store-owner who innately distrusts others, and a hard-working Latino locksmith. Haggis chooses not to judge his characters, or separate them into distinct categories of victims or perpetrators of racist behavior. Rather, many of the characters that are belittled by their racial and ethnic backgrounds are shown to perpetuate their prejudices. In this regard, Haggis demonstrates that racism stems from pain and ignorance rather than from evil.

Though initially met with acclaim, Crash has faced increasing criticism in recent years for its insensitive treatment of racial issues. Critics found many of the film’s characters unrealistic and existent solely within the defined confines of their predetermined stereotype. Further, many academics have argued that the portrayal of race in Crash actually reinforces the issues it aims to critique. Many critics argue that the film’s portrayal of flat characters is particularly damaging, as it ends up solidifying racial and ethnic categories into eternal types. For its celebration and for its criticism, Crash is undeniably one of the most polarizing films of the 21st century.