I just finished watching the film Crash. I must confess that when I saw the ads for a film set in L.A. dealing with racism, I didn't have high expectations. I'm happy to report that I came away very impressed by the film. It provides a very balanced treatment of the controversial topics or violence and racism. Unlike in so many films, the violence (much like the real thing) is depicted as extremely disturbing and traumatic. At the same time, racism, while ugly, is shown as stemming from definite causes (mostly tragic misunderstandings).
The film's realism and emotional appeals comes from the way it draws people as ambiguous figures--at once puppets propelled by events but also as free agents acting within the realm of existential choices. To realize this effect, the director (Paul Haggis) does an excellent job of depicting characters in a sort of bifurcated manner--as if caught in a Picasso sketch. One moment we have a somewhat stereotypical hard-edged Asian lady screaming racist epitaphs at everyone, and the next moment she's leaning over a hospital bed showing profound concern for an injured man.
The film is a complex patchwork of interwoven stories. One of the key stories involves a black detective whose mother wants him to find their wayward son. The story echoes some Biblical parables (the prodigal son, the story of Cain and Abel), bringing us to the moral of the movie (if there is one)--the question of whether we are our brother's keeper. The film suggests that the answer is yes.