With anti-Asian racism increasingly in the news, a Clint Eastwood movie from 13 years ago might be the next major cultural artifact on the chopping block.
Eastwood’s Gran Torino co-star Bee Vang wrote an NBC.com op-ed on February 18 denouncing the legendary conservative actor/director’s film because it incorporated anti-Asian slurs during some of its scenes. Those slurs made white audiences laugh, Vang alleged, and he personally apologized for contributing to the racism with his role.
Sure, that accusation on its face makes it sound like the film is racist. But anyone who remembers the movie knows that it portrayed a problematic old man – who used racial slurs and demonized Asians out of anger for people he fought in the Korean War – growing past his racism and giving his life for his young Hmong friend, played by Vang. It is literally a moving story of overcoming racism, but because there were racial slurs (for the sake of necessary character development, mind you), it’s now condemned. Is this really where we are at now?
In his essay for the website, Vang confirmed, “Back in 2008 I starred opposite Clint Eastwood in ‘Gran Torino’ playing the lead Hmong role in a tale of two people transcending their differences to form an unlikely human bond,” Oh, ok. Nice story, right? Mostly. He added, “It was a historic cinematic moment for Hmong people around the world, despite its copious anti-Asian slurs.”
Right. So again, it was good for Vang’s particular Asian diaspora, but not good enough. He wrote, “More than a decade later, the anti-Asian racism that was once disguised as good-natured humor has been revealed for what it is, thanks to Covid-19.” Of course, Vang was referencing and rightfully complaining about recent racism against Asians in the wake of COVID-19 coming from China.
Yes, that is tragic, but trying to punish Eastwood and his film – that again was about two people overcoming perceived differences in the most moving, friend-affirming and sacrificial way possible – is not the answer. Still, the laughter that Vang saw from “white audiences” when they viewed Gran Torino stuck with him all these years later. He surmised that the movie made it OK to hurt and demonize Asian people.
“To this day, I am still haunted by the mirth of white audiences, the uproarious laughter when Eastwood’s curmudgeonly racist character, Walt Kowalski, growled a slur.” “White audiences,” eh? Did Vang see every single person in those theater seats? Perhaps he could relax on the profiling. Back to the “slurs,” he recalled Eastwood’s lines: ‘Gook.’ ‘Slope head.’ ‘Eggroll.’ It’s a ‘harmless joke,’ right? Until it’s not just a joke, but rather one more excuse for ignoring white supremacy and racism.”
Right. Again, Eastwood’s character was written to be complicated and flawed. He overcame his bias against Asian-Americans. It’s called the story. The fact that the old man beat that particular character flaw made the moral of the film all the more poignant, not too mention that it really showcased the humanity of the Hmong people. Vang’s essay was ridiculous and his same logic would have to apply to Remember the Titans, or Django Unchained, for example. Should those films not exist because they showed nasty historical reality? Even if the point was to show it being overcome?