CRASH directed by Paul Haggis, written by Haggis and Robert Moresco, with Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Sandra Bullock, Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton and Ryan Phillippe. A Maple Pictures release. 107 minutes. Opens Friday (May 6). For venues and times, see Movies, page 92. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
He didn't take home the Oscar two months ago (like anyone was going to outrun Jamie Foxx), but ask people who care about movies and acting and they'll tell you: Don Cheadle's day will come.
His dignified, humane turn as Paul Rusesabagina, Hotel Rwanda's real-life hotel manager who helped save 1,200 Tutsi refugees during the Rwandan genocide, delivered on the hopes Cheadle has raised over the past decade, stealing scenes in films as wide-ranging as Devil In A Blue Dress, Boogie Nights and Traffic.
"People think that after an Oscar nomination and a movie that got some recognition, I'm suddenly reading 50 scripts and studios are banging on my door," says Cheadle on the phone from L.A.
"But I'm still a black actor in Hollywood, which is a limiting thing. I'm not a comedian, which is tough, because there's a whole side of the business that's strictly for them. Denzel's already working, and Jamie's the go-to guy now."
Not that the intense actor is anyone's third choice these days.
In fact, when Paul Haggis, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Million Dollar Baby, was sending around his script Crash, the first actor he thought of was Cheadle.
After reading the script, which tells the interweaving stories of a dozen Los Angelinos who crash up against each other's racial prejudices over the course of 36 hours, Cheadle was so knocked out that he said he'd play any role. He also signed on as co-producer to help raise the film's $6.5 million and attract big names like Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, Ryan Phillippe and Matt Dillon (obviously working for less than their usual fees) .
"It's rare that you read a script where you can't anticipate what's going to happen, something that engages you fully from the first beat to the last," he says about the film, which debuted at last year's Toronto International Film Festival.
"It deals with things I've been waiting to see talked about for a long, long time."
Crash collides head-on with issues like race-related police brutality, car-jacking and subtle and not-so-subtle forms of harassment.
"Oh, I've had my incidents with the LAPD," Cheadle says. "My friends and I have experienced that whole DWB thing -- driving while black. Especially when Daryl Gates was police chief and there was a mandate called Program Hammer designed to harass and sweat black and brown people."
What sets Crash apart from other films about race is its characters' uncensored language. People take aim with words. L.A. becomes a war zone of insults and pleas. Race becomes the troubling ostinato of each and every conversation.
And no one, except maybe those most worried about their jobs in the public eye -- Brendan Fraser's district attorney, for instance -- holds back what they're thinking.
Imagine Neil LaBute writing about race instead of relationships and you've got some idea of the script's raw power.
"You could never get Archie Bunker on TV these days," argues Cheadle. "All In The Family was brilliant, and even watching it today gets you roused. These days people don't say what they're thinking. The whole PC ideology is fake, a watering down of what we're feeling and thinking."
Like Benicio Del Toro's character in Traffic, Cheadle's cop is the guy who intersects with the most characters. Yet he's by no means the moral centre. In one small scene, he hangs up on his drugged-up mother because, he tells her, he's "having sex with a white woman."
You get the sense that Cheadle gets off on complicated characters, ones that aren't black-and-white but richly textured shades of grey. His Rusesabagina was a good capitalist who selflessly proved his mettle when his powerful friends abandoned him. Even his porn star character in Boogie Nights found his way out of the business by becoming a stereo tycoon.
If he ever makes one of his dream projects, a film about jazz great Miles Davis, he claims he wouldn't want Davis's life to be the focus. Now, how many actors would say that?
"The star of Miles's life is his music, not his life," says Cheadle, who considered a career in music (he sings jazz and plays the saxophone) before pursuing acting.
"I've seen a lot of scripts about him, but none has ever got it right. Most biopics -- and, hey, I've done my share of them -- are formulaic. Even Ray was, although Jamie did a brilliant job."
As for the race card, Cheadle shrugs off Chris Rock's controversial Oscar statements about the differences between black and white moviegoers. You know, white ticket-buyers see The Aviator and Sideways, black theatregoers see Alien Vs. Predator and The Chronicles Of Riddick.
"Controversial?" laughs Cheadle. "That was his funniest bit!
"Listen, studios want to make money. The only colour they're interested in is the colour green. They would put a shoe on the screen for two hours if they thought people would buy tickets."
CRASH (Paul Haggis) Rating: NNNNN
Crash -- not to be confused with David Cronenberg's auto-erotic thriller -- examines head on the racial tensions among a dozen or so Los Angelinos over one tumultuous 36-hour period.
In his directing debut, screenwriter Haggis (Million Dollar Baby) pulls no punches in his brutal dialogue or in his exposure of the ways fear and anger feed each other. Yet Crash is never predictable. In Haggis¹s world, a comic riff about racism can turn violent, while a scene headed for bloodshed can be tempered by a moment of grace.
Confidently interweaving the stories of the privileged and the poor, Haggis gets revelatory performances from his strong cast, which, besides Don Cheadle, includes Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton and (remember his name - it¹s gonna be his year) Terrence Howard.
This film will shake you up. Leave time to talk about it afterwards.