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Film 'Crash' Probes Race in the United States

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The new movie "Crash" takes on the topic of race in the United States: black, white, every other category that you can mark on the census nowadays. The story unfolds in Los Angeles, where a series of random encounters link a huge cast of characters from a variety of backgrounds. The city becomes a kind of chessboard on which characters of different colors and ethnicities enjoy power or lose it depending upon the race or ethnicity of the person standing next to them. Brendan Fraser plays a white district attorney who's been robbed by two black men. In this scene he is talking to his staff--Nona Gaye and Ken Garito.

(Soundbite of "Crash")

Mr. BRENDAN FRASER (Actor): (As Rick) Why do these guys have to be black? No matter how we spin this thing, I'm either gonna lose the black vote or I'm gonna lose the law-and-order vote.

Ms. NONA GAYE (Actress): (As Karen) You know, I think you're worrying too much. You've a lot of support in the black community.

Mr. FRASER: (As Rick) All right. If we can't duck this thing we're gonna have to neutralize it. What we need is a picture of me pinning a medal on a black man. The firefighter--the put the--the one who saved the camp or something--North Ridge. What's his name?

Mr. KEN GARITO (Actor): (As Bruce) He's Iraqi.

WERTHEIMER: Joan Kaufman is a writer and film critic for The Wall Street Journal and for other publications. She joins us from New York.

Hi, Joan.

Ms. JOAN KAUFMAN (Film Critic): Hi.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Joan, this movie was written and directed by Paul Haggis, who wrote the screenplay for "Million Dollar Baby." Do you think "Crash" has anything new to say about race in America?

Ms. KAUFMAN: I'm not sure that it has anything new to say about race. I can tell you that the effect it had on me was making me squirm a lot in my seat. I recognized to some extent myself. I recognized people I knew. And I think the worst of it was almost not the deliberate racism, but the casual racism that I don't even think that we're aware of. I think that Haggis captured that quite perfectly.

WERTHEIMER: Tell us about the performances in the film. It has an enormous and really amazing cast. Don Cheadle, Brendan Fraser, Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton, Matt Dillon, the rapper Ludacris.

Ms. KAUFMAN: The cast was shining, but I think people should go and see what these characters have to tell us about culture that we live in. I think what Haggis does--what's really interesting is that movie certainly is not exactly a cliche-free zone, but I think that he very cunningly tends to turn cliches on their head. There's a spot earlier in the movie, quite early on, where Chris "Ludacris" Bridges and Larenz Tate, who are two African-Americans, are walking out of a restaurant and talking about the frightfully ill treatment they've had from a waitress. And they're talking about how incredibly racist people are, and they point to Sandra Bullock, who's a little way down the street, and they point scathingly to the fact that she's clutching close to her husband when she sees them. Gosh, what does she think? That they have a gun? Well, guess what? They got a gun.

WERTHEIMER: Joan Kaufman is a writer and film critic. She joined us from New York. Joan, thank you.

Ms. KAUFMAN: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: It is 22 minutes before the hour. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.