Clint Eastwood flexed his box office muscle, again, with his 2008 smash “Gran Torino.”
Eastwood directed and starred as Walt, a cranky veteran spending his golden years slinging racial slurs at his multi-ethnic neighbors, especially Hmong residents.
When a local gang threatens both Walt and said neighbors, though, the old timer pushes past his racist feelings to put his life on the line for them.
The film gave Eastwood another hit, generating $148 million at the U.S. box office along with mostly glowing reviews. The film’s Rotten Tomatoes score stands at a strong 81 percent “fresh,” while general audiences offered up a 90 percent approval rating.
The UK Independent marveled at how Eastwood, in his late 70s at the time, showcased an older character growing beyond his bigoted ways.
Now, an Asian actor who co-starred alongside Eastwood in the film, the kind of opportunity any actor would cherish, says “Gran Torino” helped contribute to anti-Asian sentiment.
Bee Vang admits the film gave Hmongs a very rare, nay “historic,” cinematic close up. He still regrets the film, saying the slurs employed by Walt made racism more acceptable stateside.
“At the time, there was a lot of discussion about whether the movie’s slurs were insensitive and gratuitous or simply ‘harmless jokes,’ ” Vang writes. “I found it unnerving, the laughter that the slurs elicited in theaters with predominantly white audiences. And it was always white people who would say, ‘Can’t you take a joke?’
“…Gran Torino” may have elided the crisis in Asia that birthed our diaspora and many others across the Pacific. But more concerning was the way the film mainstreamed anti-Asian racism, even as it increased Asian American representation. The laughter weaponized against us has beaten us into silent submission.”
Vang puts the film in context with an uptick in anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. following the rise of COVID-19.
People magazine says Eastwood’s representative hadn’t returned a request for comment as of this time. One can imagine Eastwood’s true feelings on the subject, so it’s best his media team is laying low for now.
What Vang is doing, of course, is nothing new.
Molly Ringwald became a superstar thanks to filmmaker John Hughes. Decades later, after his passing, Ringwald blasted those very films for being hopelessly unwoke.
Stars like Bryce Dallas Howard and Viola Davis denigrated their own film, 2011’s “The Help,” last year because they deemed it unacceptable to tell that story from a white character’s perspective.
Octavia Spencer, a black actress who earned an Oscar for her role in the film, hasn’t been as vocal in her opposition.
Now, Vang turns the movie role of a lifetime (his first official acting gig, to be precise) into a cudgel to attack Eastwood, his film, and the movie’s racial healing. He’s trying to defang Eastwood the storyteller in the process. How would one convey Walt’s dramatic change of heart without showing his calloused comments early in the film? Should such characters never appear on screen?
What about hit men? Anti-heroes like Tony Soprano and Walter White? Serial killers? Where would Vang like to draw the line? After all, millions secretly or not so secretly rooted on both Soprano and White in their respective shows. Was that wrong?
The best stories offer complex characters who are neither good nor evil. They’re like us, struggling with flaws but open to the possibility of becoming a better human being.
That’s precisely what happened to Walt, who go to know his neighbors so well he fought to the death to protect them. That’s not virtue signaling. That’s having real skin in the game, and it made “Gran Torino” all the more powerful because of it.
Vang may have heard uncomfortable, or even full-throated laughter, from some audiences watching the film’s coarse moments. Comedy can be cruel, ugly and unexpected, and laughter often spills from those emotions as well as a sense of surprise. Seeing a screen icon like Eastwood spitting out slurs is certainly surprising, no doubt, something the film’s creative team deemed a necessary artistic choice to propel the narrative.
For decades audiences howled over people in pain, from someone stepping on a rake or unexpectedly plunging into a pool. They still do.
That doesn’t mean movie goers are cold, cruel or unworthy of our empathy.
In fact, laughter doesn’t mean the audience condones a specific thought or action. Chances are Eastwood himself might tell the younger actor just that, had he engaged the icon face-to-face rather than pen an essay for the media.
Certainly the bigger messages found in “Gran Torino” – growth, acceptance, healing and sacrifice – linger longer than a few ugly slurs in the film’s first act.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
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