The greatest fallacy about the Oscars is that they’re an arbiter of quality and greatness. That simply just isn’t the case. Over the decades, the Oscar for Best Picture has found itself in the hands of the makers behind films that certainly weren’t the best of their given year, or even remotely good. Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 bloated circus film The Greatest Show on Earth is typically considered among the worst film to ever win Best Picture. Right alongside The Greatest Show on Earth, 2005’s Crash is widely viewed as the worst winner of Best Picture in the modern era. Cultural critic and writer of Black Panther, Ta-Nehisi Coates has called the film the worst of the decade. As he wrote in 2009, “I don’t think there’s a single human being in Crash. Instead you have arguments and propaganda violently bumping into each other, impressed with their own quirkiness.”
Time hasn’t been kind to Crash either. When it was released in 2005, there was this naïve belief that we could somehow find ourselves in a post-racial America. This was before the election of Barack Obama and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, key moments in our recent history that have illustrated that the dark specter of racism will loom over our nation for a long, long time. But in 2005, Crash wasn’t expected to walk away with the award for Best Picture. The odds-on favorite was Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, the controversial film about two gay cowboys. George W. Bush had proposed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and rode into reelection on the heels of various anti-gay ballot initiatives across the country. But the Academy is an organization that isn’t immune to politics, and they made an obviously political decision in awarding Best Picture to Crash over Brokeback Mountain.
The central premise of Paul Haggis’ massive ensemble is that deep down in the psyche of each and every one of us lies a set of prejudices that affect how interact (or crash) with one another. It’s a concept that has a bit of truth to it – we all do have our prejudices. But Crash is so resoundingly ham-fisted in everything that it does, carrying its story of overt racism with all the nuance of a cheap political cartoon. Instead of “Everything is Awesome,” the people of Crash could unite for a soaring musical number of “Everyone is Racist.” Even worse, Crash wallows in countless crude racial stereotypes without anything resembling social commentary – Asians are bad drivers, not all Latinos are Mexican, black people don’t like be viewed as criminals even when they are violent criminals, and the job of a police officer will make you a racist even if you start out as an idealist.
Crash opens with a bit of voiceover from Don Cheadle’s Detective Graham Waters: “In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.” You see, the constraints of the modern world have left cold and numb, so we seek out conflict and strife in order to have some semblance of humanity. It’s a bold choice by Haggis to establish in the very first line of the movie that this is a story that will be overflowing with sanctimonious bullshit. Content with his decision, Haggis then takes it further with an Asian woman, Kim Lee (Alexis Rhee), arguing with a Latino woman, Ria (Jennifer Esposito), following a car crash. The Asian woman speaks in a thick accent with broken English – she literally says, “Mexicans! No know how to drive! She blake too fast!” Haggis is almost daring you to turn off this horrid movie before it even starts.
From there we’re greeted with moment after moment of noxious racial politics, individual scenes where all these various stereotypes crash into one another. There’s the angry Persian shop owner, Farhad (Shaun Toub), takes out his rage about being discriminated against towards the Mexican locksmith, Daniel (Michael Peña), almost shooting the locksmith’s daughter if not for the blanks in his gun. Then there are the two black men (played by Ludacris and Larenz Tate) that are tired of being discriminated against for being black despite the fact that they are gun-weilding carjackers, robbing the affluent District Attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his wife (Sandra Bullock) of their SUV on the well-lit streets of Santa Monica. All of these characters and their stories are tied by their racial profiling of others and eventually are forced to face some kind of moral reckoning that could only happen in a moronic message movie like Crash.
Without a doubt, the worst subplot of Crash deals with racist cop, John Ryan (Matt Dillon), and his eventual redemption. Not only is this officer of the law a rabid racist that takes out his prejudices upon the poor employee of his father’s insurance company, calling her an Affirmative Action hire, but he pulls over the affluent black couple, Cameron (Terrance Howard) and Christine (Thandie Newton), before sexually assaulting the poor woman while his partner, Tom Hansen (Ryan Phillippe), watches with disgust. Hansen then seeks a reassignment from his superior, played by the great Keith David, only to find that the supervising officer is indifferent to his underling’s robust racism. It gets worse, though, when Ryan is the first on the scene when Christine car has overturned on the road, gasoline spilling from the wrecked vehicle. The abhorrent sexual predator that has abused his position of authority with overt racist beliefs is to be redeemed by saving the victim of both his racism and sexual assault. Is there anything more to this character’s redemption? No, he just saves the life of someone he’s terrorized and violated. She may carry the scars of her encounter with him for the rest of her life, but now she has the rest of her life to live thanks to her tormentor. You know, progress!
As the film continues to descend further and further down the bowels of its creators, Crash then has the righteous Hansen shoot Tate’s criminal during a misunderstanding, thus validating the omen of Hansen’s former partner that the job will change him. But Hansen has shot the criminal brother of Cheadle’s Detective Waters, who will later be blamed for the death of his brother by his junky mother. Meanwhile, Ludacris’ carjacking criminal gets his own moment of redemption when he finds that human trafficking is a step too far, releasing a number of Asian immigrants onto the streets of Los Angeles. The way that Haggis tries to have all of the characters incite conflict and resolve it with some sort of half-assed redemption makes me wonder if the filmmaker was overtaken with a large number of thetans following his break from the Church of Scientology.
In the years before and since Crash, the voters for the Academy Awards have rarely honored the best movie of any given year. Most movies to win the award typically range between forgettable to good. Crash only sticks out like a sore thumb because it’s incredibly inelegant in its messaging. But is it any worse of a movie than The Artist or The King’s Speech? I’m not entirely sure because I’ve already forgotten about The Artist and The King’s Speech. Crash may be the worst Best Picture winner of recent memory, but at least its awfulness won’t allow it be forgotten or overlooked like the countless other Best Picture winners to have earned their award with simplistic adequacy. Hollywood will continue to pat itself on the back, and heap awards upon self-righteous works of misguided social commentary. And the Oscars will continue to give awards to movies that aren’t the best, or even particularly good. Every once and a while the voters crash into the right decision. They certainly didn’t with Crash.