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Segregated Screenwriters
Crash is not my L.A.


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I think Crash, which depicts Los Angeles as a segregated city of angry racists, has a good chance to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards on Sunday–if the Academy decides the big message they want to send this year is “America Is Racist.” On the other hand, “America Is Homophobic” is always a popular Oscars message too (remember Philadelphia?) as well as more buzzworthy right now. So probably the smart money should be on Brokeback Mountain.

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”America Is McCarthyite/George Clooney Speaks Truth to Power” (Good Night and Good Luck) and “America Doesn’t Understand the Human Beings Behind the Israeli/Arab Conflict” (Munich) certainly resonate with Academy voters, but don’t have quite the same easy to understand snap. The fifth Best Picture nominee, Capote, is merely a brilliant character study with no obviously useful lessons for Hollywood to teach the unenlightened, so I’d say it’s a longshot–although Phillip Seymour Hoffman is deservedly a shoo-in for Best Actor.

But Crash, which came out almost a year ago, is getting renewed attention here in L.A. for its six Oscar nominations and depiction of race relations in this city. Roger Simon, the screenwriter and blogger, predicts Best Original Screenplay for Paul Haggis. A front-page story in the Los Angeles Times Thursday reported that Police Chief William Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa love Crash; black community activist Joe Hicks, on the other hand, hates it.

Times reporter Cara Mia DiMassa observed in her piece that “the movie has become something of a Rorschach test for Angelenos, separating those who believe the city’s multicultural residents usually get along and those who feel race relations remain an open wound,” and indeed this seems to be true. I haven’t seen Crash yet, mostly because my friend Matt Welch, who recently left Reason magazine to become assistant editorial page editor at the Times, hated it and warned me away. Last weekend he wrote in a Times op-ed:

As someone who rides the Metro to work, lives in the mixed neighborhood of Silver Lake and is married to a foreigner, maybe I’m just not the target audience. But I’m certainly not alone–more than 1 million of us ride L.A. public transit each weekday. We “crash” into each other at shopping malls, the YMCA and the ballpark. And unlike characters in “Crash,” we usually react to fender-benders by at least trading insurance cards before screaming racist insults.

The conceit of “Crash” and the Oscar-nominated L.A.-bashing movies it borrows liberally from (“Magnolia,” “Short Cuts,” “Grand Canyon”) is that they have the guts to portray the real Los Angeles. In truth, they tell us far more about the neuroses of their directors–and the prejudices of academy voters–than about our actual city.

Because I also live in Silver Lake, and grew up in the same dumpy Long Beach-adjacent area that Matt did, I share his impatience with rich Hollywood screenwriters who live in isolated enclaves but feel sure they somehow see the racist truth of life here that eludes the rest of us. Haggis, who got the idea for Crash after his Porsche was carjacked, explains in the current Written By (a magazine for Writers Guild of America members):

It’s an odd life we live here in Los Angeles, a city that uses freeways and wide boulevards to divide people by race and class. We spend most of our time encased in metal and glass while in our homes, our cars, at work. Unlike any real city, we only walk were “it’s safe”–those outdoor malls and ersatz city blocks we’ve created to feel like we’re still part of humanity, if only humanity could afford to shop where we do.

In the same issue, an interviewer asks TV writer Jenji Kohan, a Los Angeles-raised daughter of a TV writer, about her Showtime series Weeds–the story of a white suburban mom and widower who begins selling marijuana to pay bills after her husband dies. Kohan explains why the show’s cast has to remain all white:

L.A. is an incredibly segregated city. There are certain places where they cross, like Venice or downtown, but, really, there are separate worlds. Inevitably, we got [from the network] the “Can’t you give them a black neighbor? Can’t you give them a Chinese friend?” kind of notes. The answer was absolutely not–we’re trying to reflect her reality. It’s a segregated place. I spent my whole life here, and there isn’t a whole lot of interaction with the black community, or the Hispanic, or the Korean, or the Japanese, or the Salvadoran.

Besides serving as a useful reminder that liberal Hollywood writers aren’t always the nonwhite working actor’s best friend, these kind of cocksure pronouncements make me scratch my head and wonder: Who is this privileged, rarefied, and all-encompassing “we” these people are always talking about?

Even from the vantage point of the particularly bland bedroom community I grew up in decades ago–a period when southern California was far whiter than it is now–my family, who managed rental real estate, had regular interactions with Japanese shopkeepers, Mexican contractors, black insurance salesmen, Cambodian apartment managers, Korean roofers, and tenants of all stripes. These encounters were usually friendly, even when my dad drove up to Watts one day in 1966 to collect rent for my grandparents–before realizing this was Day One of what turned out to be the famous riots.

He got a clue when he noticed a lot of young men running down the street with TV sets under their arms. “Mr. Harvey, what are you doing here today?” yelled one of them as he dashed past. “You better get out!”

My 16-year-old daughter switched from private school to a big urban public school this year, where everyone’s been very nice and she quickly got a new nickname, “Hey, White Girl!” But her old school, not exactly one of those classy $25,000-a-year places screenwriters jostle to get their kids into, wasn’t all that white either. Life there, in fact, was filled with good-natured, unCrashlike multicultural jostling. I’d estimate that about half the kids were Hispanic, black, Asian, Armenian, or Eastern European.

The science teacher, a smart but cranky Armenian guy, often yelled that they looked like Turkish peasants if their uniforms were sloppy. I guess he could get away with that because the one ethnicity not represented at that school was Turkish peasants.

One day he stared at my daughter closely and suddenly snapped, “Are you Jewish?”

“Yes….”

“My mother was Jewish. Here, you can have the best lab coat.” This was ridiculous, because all the lab coats were identical, but it’s the thought that counts.

When I learned that adding my daughter to my car insurance would raise the annual premium by an extra $3,000, I decided that if the Metro is good enough for L.A. Times assistant editorial-page editors it’s good enough for her, at least for a while. That’s another advantage of living far from the Westside and its Hollywood players: Kids aren’t freaks just because they don’t have their own cars at 16. Also, despite Paul Haggis’s vision of a city made up entirely of freeways and wide boulevards, it is actually possible to walk places in L.A. And people don’t automatically keel over dead if they do this for more than half-an-hour at a time.

Yesterday my daughter and I walked, as we regularly do, to the bank and then the Vietnamese restaurant around the corner. She often goes by foot to the supermarket or drugstore to pick up a few things for us. And sometimes she trudges the long stretch home from school–which she actually began to enjoy once she realized she could stop by shops on the way, and also that every plumber driving by isn’t a serial killer. (And just think of all the Crashlike situations she avoids!)

So yes, you can get around in Los Angeles without a car, pleasantly interacting with people of all colors, although admittedly this is much easier if you don’t live way up on those winding canyon roads with all the screenwriters. They may be the big experts when it comes to segregation. But at least my daughter knows how to take the bus.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.



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