Okay, okay, so the Crash bashing is getting a little tired? I still can’t help taking a way-too-easy swipe at Roger Ebert for the worst attempt at a logical argument this side of a Pulitzer Prize: “Dickensian narratives are contrived and caricature-laden; Crash is contrived and caricature-laden; ergo, Crash is Dickensian!” (Note to Roger Ebert: Just because Gangs of New York was overlong and narratively incoherent, no one went around calling it Proustian). Still, most distressing about Crash winning Oscars isn’t its general badness (hello Ron Howard!) so much as the persistent bias Hollywood has for honoring lousy “race” films made by and for white people (we’ve moved from “Miss Daisy! I’m tryin’ to drive you to the store!” to “We just ran over a Chinaman”) while truly great films like Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger pass to obscurity.
But much as there is to bitch about, I’m happy to report that Sanaa Hamri’s Something New has quietly dropped into theaters and given us a real alternative to Haggis-fever: Hamri’s subtle melodrama casually reinvents the All that Heaven Allows/Far from Heaven formula to offer a fresh, sophisticated take on race and racism — as they’re lived and as they’re felt — in contemporary L.A. Kenya (Sanaa Lathan) is a beautiful, hard-working, privileged, and successful black woman who finds herself a little lovelorn, so concerned with finding her romantic ideal that she can’t deal with romantic reality. When she slowly falls for her sexy white gardener — fine, “landscape architect” — Brian (Simon Baker), she finds herself torn between her feelings and the social pressure she receives from all directions. If we know where this is going — and let’s face it, we probably do — it’s still a pretty nice ride: beautifully acted, intelligently shot, and well put together.
Most remarkable of all, though, is the film’s insistence on not simplifying the complexities of interracial romance, as it asks both lovers to make some hard realizations: Kenya must learn that social approval can never take the place of emotional fulfillment, and Brian must shake his naive assumption that race somehow doesn’t matter and accept the fact that being with Kenya demands dealing with race and racism as facts of social experience. Using the most conventional of genres, Something New offers more insight, minute to minute, than all of Crash and Monster’s Ball combined. Dickensian it isn’t, but I’m betting Douglas Sirk would be impressed.