Racial bigotry. Stoic individualism. The struggle to find compassion in a society infected with indifference. "Crash," set in a swelling world of contradictions, explores the complexities of racial tolerance in contemporary America.
Out Friday (May 6), the film — which marks the directorial debut of "Million Dollar Baby" screenwriter Paul Haggis — tracks several diverse strangers whose lives careen together within 36 hours in post-9/11 Los Angeles.
"This movie is about fear of strangers. It's about intolerance and compassion, about how we all hate to be judged but see no contradiction in judging others," Haggis said. "We had no master plan for this movie. We were just intrigued by the notion of how we affect strangers without knowing it."
The concept for "Crash" was birthed out of an incident in 1991 when the 52-year-old director was carjacked at gunpoint outside a Blockbuster near Hancock Park. He went home, changed all the locks in his house and started wondering about his young attackers. How long had they been friends? Was this a one-time incident or something they did often?
These questions lingered in Haggis' mind for years until he finally put the pen to paper and drafted the film's first screenplay. As he questioned the complacency of his life, Haggis was roused to explore the concept further after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, when racial tensions escalated across the nation.
The film explores what lies, and is boiling, underneath the surface — a well of pent-up emotions, frustration and compassion that can be unleashed by a simple glance. That chain of events, Haggis said, constitutes the core of "Crash."
"Film enables us to walk, however briefly, in the shoes of strangers," he said. "In that sense, I hope this movie succeeds not so much in pointing out our differences, but in recognizing our shared humanity."
The film stars an eclectic ensemble cast including Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton, Larenz Tate, Ryan Phillippe and rapper-turned-actor Chris "Ludacris" Bridges. Although he did not have anyone specifically pegged for the roles, as he did with "Million Dollar Baby," Haggis knew he wanted to recruit actors whose images the audience might have preconceived.
"When people saw the scene with [Sandra Bullock], they held their breath. I actually heard people exhale after she went off. That's when I said, 'Wow. We did the right thing there,' " Haggis said.
Cheadle, who plays police detective Graham Walters, was immediately intrigued by the film's controversial, yet brutally honest, nature. "I laughed through the whole script and it was a laugh of like, 'Oh my God, you're really going to write this? We're really going to have people say these things?' Because I know people say these things all the time, but it's very rare to see that honest portrayal of people," said Cheadle, who also signed on as one of the film's producers. "There is no [politically correct] veneer, just people talking in their own unabashed opinions."
The film highlights people's strengths as much as it exposes their frailties, and ultimately no one is spared from introspection — a notion even the actors were not able to escape.
"I found that I am a bigot at times and I'm also a coward at times," said Terrance Howard, who plays television director Cameron. "There's also a part [of me] that's self-destructive and there's a part of me that's a hero. I saw my humanity in every one of those things. This story showed me that I'm a block away from falling apart. And if you're honest, that's how it is for a lot of us; [we're] just a block away from crashing."
Haggis, who left behind a successful television career in 2000 to dive into feature films, is looking to cement his status as a bona fide Hollywood power player. He wrote the script for Clint Eastwood's next endeavor, "Flags of Our Fathers," a Steven Spielberg-produced film based on the true story of six men who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima. He also adapted the screenplay for "The Last Kiss," which is currently in production in Montreal, Canada, and will star Zach Braff and Jacinda Barrett. Another project with Eastwood is also in the works, but is being kept under wraps.
For more on Ludacris and his role in "Crash," check out the feature "Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges: Movie Star."
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