Activist Hicks, vice president of Community Advocates Inc. and former head of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said "Crash" presents a Los Angeles where most people are filled with prejudice and vitriol, such as the wealthy Brentwood housewife who assumes her Latino locksmith is a gang member.
"What it says about L.A. is something that is completely untrue about the kind of human relations we experience in this city," Hicks said. "It is looking at things, viewing them from some distortion, presenting things as they want them to be to feed into some political agenda."
"Crash" director and co-screenwriter Paul Haggis said he knew the film would touch a nerve because it challenged the conventional wisdom about race in Los Angeles.
"I knew if we did it right it would get under people's skin, and they would react one way or the other," Haggis said in an e-mail from France, where he is working on his next film. "So it doesn't bother me when people say they hate it for this reason or that. It got to them, it made them look at something they would rather not have looked at, so the movie succeeded, at least for me."
Haggis, who was inspired to write the film years after having his own car stolen at gunpoint, said he finds that those who are most critical of the movie see it as an attack on multiculturalism in the city.
"They tend to be upper-middle class liberals, of any color, as those are the people, like myself, I was writing about," he said. "We like to think we are good people, that we champion the underdog and that if there really were race and class problems in our city -- or any city -- we would have fixed them....
"But the truth is that we live in a society where fear still resides under the Hockney-colored surface," Haggis added, referring to the British painter.
On one Internet message board, Haggis' view of Los Angeles was much debated -- with the majority seeming to support it. "I don't understand why everyone doesn't love the movie 'Crash,' " wrote one poster on imdb.com. "It shows an emotional and powerful idea of racism in L.A."
But when Todd Boyd, a professor at USC's School of Cinema-Television who specializes in race and popular culture, screened the movie for a class of about 250 students, most felt the movie was unrealistic.
"When you see these characters as they come on the screen, they are familiar because they are so stereotypical, not because they are real," Boyd said.
Jaime Regalado, director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., said the visceral reactions provoked by the film are largely because it deals with issues of hatred that people prefer not to talk about.
Regalado enjoyed "Crash," but his three adult sons each had differing opinions that they've debated endlessly. His oldest son said he recognized in the movie "a place we call home." His youngest son thought it was too stereotypical to be real. His middle son fell somewhere in between.
But not all "Crash" fans are pessimists about race relations in Los Angeles.
Villaraigosa said in an interview last month that his election showed how far the city has come to bridge racial gaps. He carried not only the Latino vote but also the Jewish vote, a majority of the San Fernando Valley and nearly half the black vote.
Still, the mayor has said he believes "Crash" has become a catalyst for important conversation among Angelenos about issues of race and ethnicity.
"We talk about race every day, except we do it within our own group," he said on ABC's "Nightline." "There's very little opportunity to talk about race and ethnicity between groups."