Released: May 5

U.S. distrib: Lions Gate Films

The underlying theme of racism has always resonated with the Academy.

From vintage films such as “In the Heat of the Night” (seven noms, five wins) to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (10 noms, two wins) to 1989 pic winner “Driving Miss Daisy” and Halle Berry’s 2001 actress kudo for “Monster’s Ball,” the topic typically turns Oscar voters’ heads. This year, “Crash” fits that bill.

Helmed by Canadian TV writer-director and two-time Emmy winner Paul Haggis, whose work for last year’s “Million Dollar Baby” garnered an adapted screenwriting honor, “Crash” kicked off the year’s hot-button, op-ed movies during a year of topic-heavy fare. While “Million Dollar” detractors deemed that script soft around the edges, there’s no danger of similar criticism this time.

“Crash” is clearly designed to provoke. Colorblind in its ire and nearly universal in its condemnation, the pic presents people — black and white, Latino and Iranian, rich and poor, powerful and powerless — so entrenched in estrangement and bigotry that it takes car accidents to bring them together and anger to move them forward.

The subject and its treatment polarized critics. Some, like the New Yorker’s David Denby and Chicago-Sun Times’ Roger Ebert, praised the film’s ambition, while others including the New York Times and L.A. Times voiced significant problems with it — mainly the idea that its characters serve as mouthpieces for sociopolitical debate. Still, this didn’t hamper box office: Pic took in $55 million (on a budget of $6.5 million).

To move this film forward, Haggis departed from traditional storytelling structure, choosing a parallel-story format used effectively in similar dramas such as “Magnolia” (three noms) and “21 Grams” (two noms).

While the technique allows the helmer to cover an enormous amount of emotional ground, it limits the focus on any one character. That might hamper Don Cheadle’s chances, despite turning in a poignant performance as an LAPD homicide detective and still having a good deal of residual heat from last year’s “Hotel Rwanda” nom. That said, the film has three serious options for supporting roles in Matt Dillon, a racist cop with a dying father, Terrence Howard as a TV director conflicted; and Thandie Newton, Howard’s wife with an ax to grind.

The pic might also serve as a revelation for those wary of the career choices of Sandra Bullock, who acquits herself here with a scathing, unadorned role as a DA’s spoiled wife whose cruel, insensitive streak might be all-too uncomfortably familiar to many Angelenos.

Also worth noting is Mark Isham, an Oscar nom for “A River Runs Through It,” who delivers one of the year’s most poignant scores, and Hughes Winborne, whose editing holds together a narratively complex film.

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