Gran Torino [Counterpoint]

by Guest Contributor Geo, originally published at Prometheus Brown

Three reasons that Gran Torino is more than just another movie about some white person “saving” people of color:

1. It rejects the idea of a “post-racial” society.

While Hollywood tripe like Finding Forrester, Freedom Writers and the like either minimize, or try to resolve, racial tension, Gran Torino confronts them head-on. Those who tout political “correctness” over honesty (however brash) might decry Walt Kowalski’s (Eastwood) blatant racism. The last white person in his run-down midwestern neighborhood, he bitterly throws out every slur imaginable, and I can’t front – it was unsettling to hear. However, an interesting juxtaposition is made between Walt and his supposedly more “liberal” son, who protests his father’s bigotry but lives a decidedly more sheltered, suburban existence in contrast to his father’s working-class life as a Korean War veteran. Without excusing Walt’s distasteful views on race, Eastwood explores where such bitterness may have come from, exposing it as something that is bigger than just him (unlike Mike Douglas in Fallling Down). With a class consciousness absent from similiar film templates, Gran Torino asks the question: who is the real racist – the working-class white dude who tosses slurs around but actually interacts – sometimes friendly, sometimes bitterly – with these communities? Or the bourgeois white dude who has learned not to use these words but never has into interact with communities of color? Perhaps both are racist, but at least one is honest about it.

2. Stereotypes are present, but given context, and sometimes challenged

Asian Americans seem to only play geeks or gangsters in American mainstream film. It’s a valid complaint, but no amount of protest will do away with the fact that alot of us really are geeks or gangsters (how about a film about folks who are both?). Gran Torino can be rightfully faulted for its stereotyping, which is expected for a Hollywood flick, but Eastwood’s framing and Nick Schenk’s screenplay at least blur the lines between stereotypes and, most of all, contextualize them. In one scene, geeky Thao (Bee Vang) is punked by a Mexican gang with a pistol when his thuggish cousins bail him out brandishing a semi-automatic. Then they try to recruit him – one of them saying, “I was just like you, getting punked all the time. Now nobody fucks with me.” In another scene, Thao’s sister Sue calls out some aggressive suitors for having an Asian fetish and makes sure Walt pronounces “Hmong” correctly. Some will fault some of the Hmong characters’ acting, but I thought it was dope that acutal Hmong people were cast instead of some close-enough-looking Asian thespian. Plus, when’s the last time you heard Hmong gangster rap in a film soundtrack?

3. Clint Eastwood – actor and director

Drawing on a career’s worth of notorious film roles, Eastwood’s Walt is at once familiar and foreign. He’s a retired, sickly (humanized?) Dirty Harry – gun-toting, threatening, proud with a scowl and always in mid-monologue. But not without a sense of humor, which sometimes comes across unintentionally. Or, perhaps, very much intended but cleverly so. In fact, there is an underlying dark humor to the role that offsets the very, very serious subject matter and strips Walt of any of that putrid “White Noble”-ness that we see in too many well-meaning (read: missionary) whites, on or off screen. His bitterness, his hatred, his few moments of revelation – all carry real emotional weight. He is not a particularly religious man, though questions of spirituality and sacrifice figure greatly in the underlying storyline. Yes, he ends up attempting to do good for his poor, colored neighbors but it becomes very clear that, in the end, they’re the ones who saved him.

Eastwood’s mature, understated style is both a draw and repellant to moviegoers expecting either more flash or theatre. The interactions are nuanced, the politics (of race and religion) are at once laid bare and hidden, and some scenes will jar the shit out of you. Overall, its a film that will challenge the way you think about race at a time when everyone, whether you’re “anti-racist,” “post-racist” or straight up racist, thinks they got it all figured out.

Related: Gran Torino and Hmong Gangs in the Midwest