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The Best Picture Misses the Big Picture

Steve Lopez / POINTS WEST

March 08, 2006|Steve Lopez

Standing cautiously but bravely at the intersection of Beverly and Normandie, I could feel the racial tension in the air.

The place was about to blow.

A white woman walked into Video Hot, which is run by Koreans, and an Asian man bought flowers from a Guatemalan woman. Given the boiling hatred that pumps through L.A.'s veins, as depicted in the Oscar-winning movie "Crash," could ethnic violence be far behind?

I used to think we could all get along, more or less. I believed that despite its many flaws and obvious divisions by race and class, Los Angeles was one of the more successfully integrated cities in the world. And so to me, "Crash" felt like an artless, dated and manipulative morality tale on the evils of the sprawling metropolis, shot with a long lens from behind the bars of a gated seaside community.

But that was before the all-knowing wizards of the academy set me straight, choosing "Crash" as the best picture of the year. Could so many kabbala and Bikram yoga practitioners have been wrong, even if it's been years since any of them ventured east of Robertson except to hand out Oscars or cruise for hookers?

I think not. All I can figure is that in my own travels across the city, I must have sped past one powder keg after another without seeing the fuses. And so I ventured back out there to see what I could see.

Beverly and Normandie. Can you get any more L.A. than that?

The corner businesses tell the story: Subway, Chinatown Express, Tokyo Sushi Academy, Pizza Hut, Chicken Wok, El Chipilin Salvadoran and Honduran restaurant, Green Village Acupuncture & Herbs Clinic, La Nueva Flor Blanca Salvadoran and Guatemalan restaurant, Yoshinoya, Dr. Julio Guzman Medical Group and Pacific Market, owned by a brother and sister from India.

As I pulled into the parking lot, Latino, Asian, white and black patrons were coming and going without apparent incident, but it was early.

I got out of my car, looked both ways, and dived for cover when I saw an Asian driver enter the parking lot.

Whewwww!

Still in one piece, I spied a suspicious black man standing in the parking lot next to a car.

Burglar?

Or was it worse? Was he reaching into the glove box for a pistol, planning to knock off Yoshinoya and pistol-whip customers for their teriyaki chicken bowls?

\o7You know it's hard out there for a pimp.\f7

I walked into Hermano's Flowers, where Ana Ramirez claimed she has gotten along with her neighbors for 10 years, no problems. A man walked in to say hello. They chatted amiably. He walked away.

"Who was that?" I asked.

"A friend of mine."

"He wasn't Latino," I said.

"No. He's Japanese."

"And you get along?"

Two Latinos walked in after that. Gangbangers? I left the store for my own safety.

Kyung Suh, 34, was getting into his car when I asked where he lived.

Koreatown, he said. He moved there from Korea 10 years ago.

And where does he work?

South-Central L.A., he said. He's got a cellphone shop, and his customers are black and Latino, and against all odds, none of them have attacked each other or beaten him over the head. If you can believe him.

At Pacific Market, Micky, who grew up in India, sells her customers phone cards so they can call home to Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Africa and the Philippines.

"Crash?" she asked. Never heard of it.

I saw a white woman walk into Subway and followed her inside to make sure she wasn't mugged. She got a sandwich and made it out OK. I got a soda, and when the Latino clerk took my money, he said, "Thank you, senor."

Kyle Anderson, a black pharmaceutical rep, was visiting the office of Dr. Guzman just upstairs from Subway. Anderson lives in Mid-City, where his nearest neighbors are black, white and Persian. He's traveled far and wide in the United States and feels more comfortable in Los Angeles than anywhere else.

"You can go where you want," he said. "It's a multicultural environment. In the city of Los Angeles, you can visit a different country every day."

Sure, if you enjoy being carjacked.

Nick Shipp, a chef, walked into Dr. Guzman's office for a checkup. "I Love Lucy" was on TV, and most of the clients were Latino.

I pointed out to Shipp that he happens to be white.

He shrugged.

I mentioned the movie "Crash."

"My experience in L.A.," he said, "is the complete opposite."

Maybe so, but Lucy and Ricky looked like they were about to have a fight on TV. Those interracial marriages are doomed from the moment they cut the cake.

In the parking lot, I worked up the nerve to approach the black man standing near the BMW, which he couldn't possibly own. He claimed he was sealing holes in the cloth roof with a silicone gel.

What did he take me for, a nitwit?

"Where you from?" I asked the stranger.

Cameroon, George Louis said, calling himself an accountant and resident of Hollywood. Yes, he said, he did see "Crash."

"You do have problems in Los Angeles, but not as big as that," he said. "People aren't looking for trouble. They're too busy working and trying to make it."

Negative media influences are a dark force and a distraction, Louis said. He frees himself from those influences by focusing on positive energy and trying to live a spiritual life.

He shook my hand firmly and gave me a warm gaze, and I felt like Sandra Bullock in "Crash." I didn't buy her sudden transformation when she embraced the Latina maid she had repeatedly insulted, but now I could see the truth in it.

I realized the black man is not my enemy, but my friend.

Thank you, "Crash."

Thank you, Academy.

Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com.

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