Gran Torino and Hmong Gangs in the Midwest

by Guest Contributor Joanna Eng

In Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood plays a bitter old man who’s basically the only white person left in a run-down neighborhood somewhere in the Midwest. He (reluctantly, at first) gets to know his Hmong neighbors, and ends up getting intricately involved in their lives, as they deal with issues caused by a local Hmong gang that some of their relatives are a part of.

There are plenty of things about the movie that might make for great posts on Racialicious:

1. Like most Hollywood movies that are about a community of people of color, Gran Torino features a white protagonist who not only saves the day, but also has the most layers of complexity to his personality.

2. As the first major Hollywood film about Hmong Americans, how did it do at depicting this community? Does the exposure of Hmong culture and the opportunity for Hmong actors outweigh the possible inaccuracies and negative representations? (See some of the commentary about this on AsianWeek.)

3. Clint Eastwood’s character’s constant racist remarks serve as a running joke in the movie. Just because he uses outdated and blatantly un-P.C. language with an “equal-opportunity discrimination” approach, is it OK to use this deeply offensive language as comic relief?

But I don’t really want to write about those things. I want to write about another reaction I had.

Of course I’ve seen other movies involving gangs, shootings, and/or rape. But this one hit me harder. After seeing it, I couldn’t stop worrying about the Hmong family depicted in the movie. I think there were a few reasons that the gang violence and the rest of the plot made such a big impact on me:

One reason is that the gang members and family affected were all Asian. I suppose I had heard of the existence of Asian American (or even Hmong American) gangs, but it’s easy to forget. Because of the media I’ve been exposed to my whole life, I usually make the assumption that street gangs are mostly made up of African Americans and Latinos, and then I also hear about “organized” crime—the Italian mafia, Chinese mafia, etc. (I’m pretty sure there’s a fine line between gangs and organized crime anyway, and I wonder how much racist assumptions factor in to that distinction.)

The gang activity in the movie was disturbing because it was relatively unexpected. My girlfriend pointed out that in the beginning of the movie, the neighborhood where it takes place doesn’t seem like a dangerous neighborhood. I think that’s because the neighborhood isn’t the stereotypical dangerous neighborhood usually depicted in films—which would be a black or Latino neighborhood in a densely populated urban area. In Gran Torino, the first impressions the viewers get of the neighborhood are of a white (Polish American) family gathering at one house, and then of a Hmong family gathering at the house next door. White and Asian families coming together around home-cooked food on the weekends, in their two-story houses with lawns, doesn’t seem to have much to do with criminal activity. But of course, that’s because the movie scenes we’re accustomed to tell us otherwise.

Another thing that made the setting less stereotypical was that it took place in the Midwest (I’m not sure where exactly). And rather than showing us the culturally homogeneous setting that we’re used to seeing and that’s become synonymous with the Midwest (except for Chicago), we see an extremely diverse neighborhood, in which the main character is quickly becoming, or already is, a racial minority as a white person. Indeed, a little casual research showed me that Minnesota and Wisconsin have the largest populations of Hmong Americans along with California.

The reality is that there are large numbers of Asian American gangs and a whole lot of gangs in the Midwest. I’m obviously not an expert on this, but to take one example, just Googling “Hmong gangs” brings up a list of many of the factions of the Crips all over the United States and Canada. On that list of 115, there are 17 factions of the Crips that are specifically described as Hmong, 11 labeled as Laotian, and 5 others with “Asian” or “Oriental” in their names. There are about 10 factions in Minnesota, 10 in Wisconsin, and some others in Indiana, Kansas, Ohio, and Oklahoma. These are facts that I’m pretty sure most American media consumers have never heard.

The film showed situations and settings that we don’t normally see in mainstream movies, and I have to give it a lot of credit for that. Highlighting a minority group that most Americans have never even heard of, showing cultural diversity in the Midwest, and even featuring an elderly person as the protagonist, were all uncommon choices.

If you saw Gran Torino, what did you think?