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'Crash' resonates in LA on race relations

Film's depiction opens dialogue

LOS ANGELES -- Police Chief William J. Bratton has seen the film ''Crash" three times and encouraged the deputy in charge of the Los Angeles Police Department's professional standards to pass around copies. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa loved the movie; his lawyer, a former member of the LA County Human Relations Commission, hated it.

Joe Hicks, a black community activist, contends that the movie so distorts the state of race relations that it could hurt this city's reputation.

''Crash" opened 10 months ago, but it continues to resonate across Los Angeles for reasons that have little to do with the six Oscars it is up for tonight.

The movie has become a test for Angelenos, separating those who believe the city's multicultural citizens usually get along and those who feel race relations are an open wound. Is the Los Angeles of ''Crash" an accurate depiction of racial strife lurking below the surface, or is it a cartoonish collection of stereotypes? It's a debate that has played out at dinner tables, in classrooms, and online.

''Crash" offers about a dozen loosely based stories in which there are few heroes. A young black man complains when a white woman clutches her purse as she walks by, then carjacks her sport utility vehicle. An LAPD officer rants against a black insurance employee and later saves the life of another black woman. An Iranian shop owner is the victim of a hate crime and takes out his anger on a locksmith who is Hispanic.

To its fans, ''Crash" offers a raw, unsentimental but ultimately honest view of race relations in Los Angeles.

''There's nothing I saw depicted there that I've not experienced in my own years of policing, that my wife has not," Bratton, a former police commissioner in both Boston and New York, said in an interview last week. ''Just under the surface, there is, unfortunately, a tension."

Since he became the police chief of Los Angeles nearly four years ago, Bratton has been consumed with the fragile relationship between his department and black residents. He's been called both a racial healer and a racist as he grappled with the fatal shooting of a 13-year-old black youth and the videotaped beating of a black car chase suspect that some compared to the Rodney King assault a decade earlier. More recently, his department has been dealing with reverberations from racial tensions between blacks and Hispanics in the county jails and in high schools.

''It's like a scab that doesn't get to heal, and it gets picked at," he said. ''The relationship between the city's African-American community and the Police Department is a clear example of that."

The film's fans praise it for challenging the notion that as Los Angeles becomes more diverse, it also becomes more tolerant. Jamal Watkins, Western regional director of the NAACP, said Los Angeles is still a city divided by class and race.

''People live in their own enclaves, whether insulated by class or wealth or status. A part of the challenge is that we are expected to merge together, meld together in the workplace, the classroom," he said. ''What the movie shows is that all of the issues around race, stereotypes, and prejudice, have not died out -- because we have these enclaves within the city."

The movie's critics acknowledge that racism and divisions remain in Los Angeles. But they argue that ''Crash" is over the top in its portrayal of a city exploding with racial resentment. Some are turned off by the dialogue in which many conversations between characters of different races devolve into ugly exchanges of prejudice and stereotyping.

''LA is a different place to me," said Melany de la Cruz, assistant director of the Asian-American studies program at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Villaraigosa has said his election shows how far the city has come to bridge racial gaps. Still, he contends ''Crash" has become a catalyst for important conversations.

''We talk about race every day, except we do it within our own group," he said during a ''Nightline" interview.

''There's very little opportunity to talk about race and ethnicity between groups."

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