A first-generation American and her shop-owning father. A no-nonsense Black detective facing high stress at home. A working-class Latino ensnared in someone else’s crime. An aggrieved white man laying his misfortunes on others.
Down to its characters’ rough outlines, Laila Lalami’s new novel, The Other Americans, isn’t merely reminiscent of Crash (2004), director Paul Haggis’ controversial Best Picture winner: It has the air of a retelling, or perhaps a hostile takeover, using the same materials to construct a more truthful world. Lalami sets the action in Southern California—a small town in the Mojave Desert, not the film’s indeterminate “L.A.” She, too, hinges her plot on collisions—of cars, of people, of ideologies and ethnic groups. She even employs a similar kaleidoscopic lens, shifting among the perspectives of nine central characters.
But Crash is a parable of chance, a randomization machine of emotional manipulations; The Other Americans, though its inciting event is indeed a crash, deals in systems, structures, turning gears. In offering such a potent alternative to Haggis’ cudgel, Lalami rebuts the film’s suggestion that racism is primarily the result of personal animus and replaces it with the understanding that it’s an application of power, a strategy for gain.
Oppression is no accident.
If The Other Americans has a singular protagonist in its sprawling cast of characters, it’s Nora Guerraoui, a struggling composer who returns to her hometown when her father, Driss, is killed in a hit-and-run. Nora is the novel’s fulcrum: Her dogged pursuit of justice keeps Coleman, the reluctant detective, on the case; the unexpected windfall from her father’s life insurance policy generates tension with her mother, Maryam, and her sister, Salma; her loneliness attracts her to Jeremy, an insomniac Iraq War veteran and friend from high school, situating the Guerraouis’ experience firmly within the post-9/11 moment. But it’s Nora’s recollections of the racist abuse directed at her family after the towers came down—hearing the epithets “raghead” and “Taliban” with new regularity; watching the donut shop her parents built burn to the ground in an act of arson—that lends The Other Americans its foreboding charge.
“This wasn’t enough for me,” Nora remarks at one point, after Jeremy suggests that there’s no reasons or explanation for the crash. “To believe that my father’s death was just an unfortunate accident meant that I would have to forget everything else I knew about my hometown. Discount the arson, erase the small insults, untether the hit-and-run from the time and place in which it happened. I couldn’t.”
The time and place in which it happened: Historians call this “context,” and despite their shared time (the early 2000s) and place (Los Angeles and its environs), it’s the most essential distinction the novel draws with Crash. Haggis, too, includes an immigrant, Farhad (Shaun Toub), and his adult daughter (Bahar Soomekh), Dorri, left reeling after racist vandals ransack the family business. But as blunt as the film’s treatment of Islamophobia is (“Yo, Osama!”), it plays as context-free within the film’s snowstorm of racial and ethnic stereotypes.
In Crash, the Avenue Q of Serious Cinema, everyone’s a little bit racist: A Puerto Rican detective (Jennifer Esposito) mocks an Asian woman’s (Alexis Rhee) pronunciation of brake (“blake”), then bristles when the colleague she’s sleeping with (Don Cheadle) describes her as white; a politician’s wife (Sandra Bullock) recoils from two black men (Ludacris and Larenz Tate) on the sidewalk, moments before they steal her car; the Persian shop owner accuses his Latino locksmith (Michael Peña) of pulling a scam to benefit one of his buddies; one LAPD beat cop (Ryan Phillippe) murders a Black man, while another (Matt Dillon) gropes a Black woman (Thandie Newton), who in turn delivers a “shuck & jive” routine to belittle her passive husband (Terrence Howard). Haggis and co-writer Bobby Moresco’s treatment of racism as merely a problem of learned prejudices, to be unlearned through a car wreck, a standoff, a slip on the stairs, betrays such an impoverished grasp of their own chosen subject that the film becomes a renewable source of secondhand embarrassment. Crash, a film in which human trafficking is made into the equivalent of a network sitcom’s closing “tag,” isn’t an “exploration” of racism in America, much less a “searing indictment.” It’s an apologia for it: When everyone’s racist, no one is.
Whether or not Lalami—the author of meticulous spins on the refugee saga (Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits), the coming-of-age tale (Secret Son) and the slave narrative (The Moor’s Account)—has Crash specifically in mind, The Other Americans is a forceful corrective to a certain kind of story that’s “ripped from the headlines” and “sparks a national conversation” before earning a fistful of Oscars. In part, this is a matter of careful characterization; Maryam’s heartbreaking memory of a failed attempt to befriend a stranger over baking tips, in which her need to connect comes up against the limits of communication, is as particular a rendering of the immigrant’s social isolation as I’ve ever encountered.
But as Lalami layers in more white voices, including Anderson, the owner of the bowling alley next door to the Guerraouis’ diner, it becomes clear that one of Lalami’s central interests is in the one collision Crash elides. When Anderson laments the changing makeup of the local population, or Jeremy recalls the dehumanizing nature of the war in Iraq, personal grievance—a failing business, combat trauma—crashes into political might, and The Other Americans crystallizes the all-consuming purpose of racism: the projection and protection of power.
Fifteen years after the release of Crash, as New Zealand reels from a horrific white supremacist terror attack, the U.S. proclaims the end of the ISIS “caliphate,” and children born after 9/11 prepare to vote in the next presidential election, it’s clear that the slanderous stories about Muslims and Muslim Americans and “the Muslim world” told in the West since 2001 are inextricable from that application of power. Though Crash is not nearly the worst offender, it is nonetheless the most prominent representative of the urge to individualize racism, to anatomize it, to paint it as a problem of mere ignorance, waiting to be overcome.
You blake too fast.
Mexicans don’t know how to drive.
Well, he looks Black.
Plan the jihad on your own time.
For Haggis and Moresco, the composers of the cacophony of epithets above, an encounter with the Other—a crash—becomes the antidote to one’s prejudicial impulses. Their apprehension of racism is only skin deep. In The Other Americans, by contrast, the operation of racism is more elemental, not so much a misunderstanding or cultural blindspot as a willful deception, a dangerous myth. That Lalami succeeds in offering an alternative to Crash and its ilk, a stirring fragment to shore against our ruins, ultimately comes down to her rejection of cacophony for its own sake and of the notion that power operates by chance.
“I stayed where I was, transfixed by the pattern of the acrobats’ movement,” Nora remembers at one point, describing a childhood trip to Marrakesh. “Each boy performed alone, yet in community with the others.”
As it turns out, art is no accident, either.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.