The recently released film “Gran Torino,” which Clint Eastwood stars in, directs and partially scores, is being hailed as a tour de force of filmmaking and a harbinger of a hopeful future by many critics. The review of the film that appeared in The New York Times entitled, “Hope for a Racist, and Maybe a Country,” written by Manhola Dargis, is characteristic of the kind of praise the film is receiving ( photo credit: Daquella manera). The film also reveals a good deal about white masculinity and racism. [WARNING: *SPOILERS* follow]
The plot of “Gran Torino” revolves around Walt Kowalski (played by Eastwood), a Korean war veteran, a retired autoworker, and an extremely misanthropic and apparently deeply racist man. The film opens just after the death of Kowalski’s wife. His grandchildren are shallow and self-absorbed, and Kowalski has no interest in nor affection for them. His two grown sons are anti-Eastwood figures of masculinity: weak, ineffectual men, dominated by their shrewish, materialistic wives. He has no interest in bonding with his parish priest, another representation of weak, white masculinity. Kowalski is a loner and he likes it that way as he sits on his front porch, growling at people and drinking can after can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Kowalski seems incapable of interacting with a non-white person without using the most offensive racial epithets, and his racism is played mostly for laughs throughout the first part of the film. This snarling character represents a particular form of white masculinity that relies on overt racism as a constituitive feature.
Kowalski’s Detroit, Michigan neighborhood is changing around him and he is none too happy about it. Although we never learn the exact setting, in many ways the neighborhood evokes the rise and fall of Highland Park, Michigan. When the city was founded in 1919, it was home to the flagship factory of Henry Ford and the highest average living standard for U.S. workers. Today, it’s the site of some of the worst poverty in the states. Setting the film in the context of the auto industry is not coincidental, and the fate of Kowalski character and this dying (or, at the very least, seriously troubled) industry are intertwined. Both appear to be on their way out, but the cherry perfect condition of the Gran Torino speaks of a past, muscular glory. Along with the car, Kowalski’s house stands out in the neighborhood, and his meticulous tending of his small, tidy lawn serves as a marker of his class (and moral) values. He mows his lawn with a manual – not a power – lawn mower, thus reinforcing the muscularity of the muscle car’s aging owner. When Kowalski’s effete sons try to get him to leave the neighborhood, he chases them from his house, and we barely see them in the film again. Instead, Kowalski chooses to stay in the neighborhood, looking down the class ladder at his neighbors.
The Detroit neighborhood in the film is becoming a primarily Hmong (pronounced “mung”) enclave. Many in the Hmong community throughout the U.S. are heralding the film as a wonderful opportunity for raising awareness. For example, Brooke Thao, the actor who plays the widowed mother and next door neighbor, tells Hmong Today:
“Eastwood is a miracle in the Hmong community. I hope that this really sheds some light. … it tells people that Hmong exist and how we helped in the war. My own father was recruited to fight for the US when he was only 14.”
Despite the warm reception the film is receiving among many in the Hmong community, the depictions of the Hmong characters in “Gran Torino” are closely aligned with stereotypical representations of Asian Americans. Sue and Thao Lor, part of the family that live next door to Kowalski, and most of the members of the Hmong characters in the film, are depicted as people who are unable to care for and protect themselves and thus desperately need Kowalski’s intervention. There are no Hmong characters, male or female, who emerge to mobilize the community to fight back against the gang who terrorizes it. There are no Hmong characters, male or female, who attempt to take individual action to protect the community. Importantly, the gang that threatens the neighborhood is also Hmong. As such, the Hmong are represented in ways that are consistent with stereotypical images–Asian Americans are either passive, docile, and acquiescent, “model minorities,” as Chou and Feagin explain; or dangerous criminals who constitute, as Yen Le Espiritu writes, a “yellow peril.” Simply put, all the Hmong characters in the film are either weak and in need of protection, or they are depraved criminals. Espiritu argues that both stereotypes legitimize discrimination towards Asian Americans. By depicting the Hmong community only through these two stereotypical extremes, “Gran Torino” represents the Hmong as powerless, dependent, and in need of the patriarchal machismo of Kowalski’s white messiah to protect them from their criminal counterparts.
Eastwood’s fictionalized city stands in sharp contrast to the actual racial composition of Detroit, which has experienced a dramatic white flight and simultaneous large migration of blacks into the city’s urban center. Given the reality of this racial makeup of Detroit, it’s noteworthy that blacks rarely appear on screen in this film. In the one scene in which three young African American men do appear, they are quite predictably cast as thugs, harassing the perky Sue Lor whose hapless white boyfriend is useless at diffusing the tense situation or protecting her. In movie magic timing, Kowalski happens to drive by (in an old pick-up truck, not in the Gran Tarino which he rarely drives) at the precise moment that Sue is in trouble. Remarkably, Kowalski makes it through this entire encounter with three young, black men without ever once uttering the “n-word” (and, even when he’s in a bar with his buddies telling a racist joke, Kowalski never utters this epithet, instead referring to a black man as “colored”). After the encounter, he lectures Sue about avoiding dangerous situations and about her dating choices. While these scenes are likely intended to show that Kowalski is becoming a father figure to Sue, the racial dynamics of the film reinforce the idea that people of color must rely on white heroes to provide guidance, stability, and pathways to safety. It’s interesting that the screenplay’s author, Nick Schenk, chose to tell the story of Kowalski’s racism through his encounters with the Hmong people rather than with blacks or Latinos. The racial epithets in the film get big laughs from most American audiences; it seems reasonable to wonder how many laughs there might be if the racism were directed at a different group. Perhaps the contrast between the sympathetic Hmong and the violent or absent African Americans reflects Frank Wu’s argument that the representation of passive, contented Asian Americans offers a symbolic contrast to African Americans, who are considered to be “bad” minorities who are too strident and forceful in their push for equal rights.
The representation of masculinity in “Gran Torino,” is racialized in such a way that the subordinate Hmong masculinity is continually juxtaposed against the hegemonic white masculinity of Eastwood. Rutgers scholar and expert on Hmong culture Louisa Schein, notes finds the representation of Hmong men problematic:
“I feel a lot of the plot about the Eastwood character is driven by the fact that he is a veteran. Yet there is no possibility for representing the fact that the Hmong were veterans too.”
Schein also notes that the only Hmong men shown with any depth are a nerdy teenager and a tough-guy gang member. All the adult Hmong men are absent: the Lor family’s father is dead and the only other adult Hmong man is a elderly man that asks for help repairing his house. Into this context of missing adult Hmong men, Kowalski takes on the role of teaching the young Thao how to “act like a man.” The initiation into manhood for Thao focuses, in part, around manual labor tasks, learning about the vast collection of tools in Kowalski’s garage, and getting an entry-level construction job (he offers none of this sort of guidance to Sue). The rest of Thao’s rite de passage involves being schooled in the elocution of racial epithets that Kowalski has honed through years of practice with his Italian barber. Kowalski bring Thao to his barber, and through a series of trading racial epithets (the rules about which are mystifying), Thao learns how to “talk like a real man,” by trading racist insults. (This skill proves to be useful when Thao interviews for the construction job.) This scene in the barbershop, perhaps more than any other, illustrates the point that the form of white masculinity on display here relies upon overt racism for its raw material. Kowalski’s only relationships in the film with friends or peers (the barber, the men at the bar) are premised upon this shared exchange of overtly racist language. For Kowalski to be able to regard Thao as a “real man,” he has to be initiated into this racist ritual. To object is to risk losing one’s manhood. In contrast, Sue, Thao’s sister, is not subjected to this kind of hazing as there is no possibility that she can enter the exclusive club of masculine privilege that awaits Thao if he is successful.
Even as Kowalski’s relationship with the Lor family is the mechanism in the film by which he finds redemption, he still continues to engage with the family in racist ways. Throughout the entire movie, he uses racial slurs to refer to the Lors (even Thao, to whom he is supposed to be a father figure), and repeatedly mispronounces Thao’s name. In keeping with the “passive Asian American” meme, the Lors do not take offense at the fact that Kowalski frequently addresses them using racial slurs. They simply take it in stride—Sue in fact goes so far as to say that she wishes their father had been more like Kowalski. This not only legitimizes the use of racial slurs that many Asian Americans find utterly offensive and harmful, but reinforces the message of Asian Americans as so passive and acquiescent that it’s perfectly fine to subject them to overt racial stereotyping. Sue’s evocation of her dead father, and her longing for Kowalski as a father figure, reinscribes a version of white masculinity that relies on over expressions of racism.
“Gran Torino” can be viewed as a story of one man’s personal triumph over racism and his redemption through his friendship with the Hmong Lors family; and, that certainly seems to be the intention of the film’s director, the author of the screenplay, and the intrepretation of many critics. Yet, a different reading of the film suggests that the central narrative relies on the intertwining of racialized stereotypes juxtaposed with heroic white masculinity. As Kowalski, Clint Eastwood plays a variation of the standard tough guy roles he perfected as “Dirty Harry” and continued in his performances in films like “Million Dollar Baby.” Indeed, as New York Times critic Manhola Dargis writes:
“We’ve seen this western before, though not quite. Because this isn’t John Wayne near the end of the 20th century, but Clint Eastwood at the start of the still-new 21st, remaking the image of the hero for one more and perhaps final time, one generation of Americans making way for the next.”
Eastwood’s role is emblematic of the “white messiah” image conceptualized by Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon in their book, Screen Saviors. Vera and Gordon argue that white male characters in film often embody a white messiah where they are cast as the saviors of people of color. Often loners or outcasts, the white messiah typically establishes his heroism by rescuing or saving a group of racial minorities who are depicted as too childlike, infirm, or weak defend themselves from peril. In “Gran Torino,” Eastwood’s Kowalski takes the trope of the white messiah to a new level with the telegraphed ending and the Christ-like pose of the final scene.
Eastwood’s creation of the growling Walt Kowalski character effectively captures a particular form of white masculinity that relies on overt racism as a constituitive feature. Whether or not this is a dying form or a core feature of our culture remains to be seen.