Fans of Clint Eastwood will probably head to Gran Torino because the previews promised a growling Dirty Harry wielding a firearm. As an avowed Eastwood skeptic, I came to the theater curious about the first mainstream American film to represent the Hmong. I think the film had plenty to offer both of us—as Walt Kowalski, Eastwood spends nearly half the movie with his lips pulled back in a snarl and emerges from the movie a wizened hero, and the actual Hmong who are cast in the roles of Kowalski’s new neighbors are an endearing, charming lot.
Given the relative invisibility of the Hmong in American media, minus a few news items about Hmong hunters and the 1997 bestseller The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, I worried that the film would treat the Hmong community too glibly in service of Eastwood’s celebrity. But the film takes its educational responsibility seriously, offering up cultural tidbits on how to survive a Hmong BBQ, historical reasons for why the nomadic hill tribes ended up in the bleak Midwest, and even details about their current sociocultural difficulties (“the girls go to college and the boys go to jail”).
While some of these expository details are offered up a bit dryly, I thought it was important that they were included at all, and they do serve the story. It is also refreshing to see racism in different forms—here we see Kowalski’s overt and cringeworthy slurs, interracial conflicts erupting as a result of class and gender difference, and even the bourgeois indifference of Kowalski’s white family members who avoid the neighborhood altogether. Kowalski’s epithet-hurling does grow weary, however, in the same vein as Sawyer from Lost—both of whom are pegged as “equal-opportunity offenders”, which somehow gives them a free pass. It’s a trope that brings genuine laughs because it is so ridiculous, but I don’t like being asked to cheer for the lovable racist or to trivialize the issue of racist terminology. Aren’t we ready to say something more sophisticated where racism comes from and how it rears its ugly head, and shouldn’t we admit that outdated mockeries still sting?
The movie tries to tell us that what really matters are actions, but reminders that veterans of the Pacific wars still categorize all Asians as the enemy are hard to take, even with a teaspoon of sugar. Much has also been made of the fact that the white man ends up saving the neighborhood, which is a valid critique. But what really bothered me is that the white hero is seen over and over to save the Hmong community from not only those mean African American gang members, but from themselves. Kowalski’s new neighbors seem to need help with everything, from cleaning up their yards and fixing their sinks to getting jobs and staying out of trouble. When the ultimate enemy is not only a Hmong gang but one that is ostensibly blood-related to Kowalski’s helpless neighbors, we can’t help but ask, what is wrong with these people? It would be nice to have seen a modicum of self-sufficiency, or a hint of the systemic factors that have lead to these troubles.
Despite these grievances, the movie is compelling and earnest, and it tells a story about one of the most underrepresented groups in our country that leaves us hoping for a brighter future. The few moments of intercultural overlap are priceless—Walt being out-spit and out-grumpied by the Hmong grandmother, and finding a spitfire to match his own in Sue—and are perhaps indicative of a new trend in American filmmaking where we realize that we are not, in fact, part of a post-racial society, but one that is ready to embrace and confront our differences in all their ugly, magnificent tangles.