One time, someone accused my wife of being anti-Semitic based on a silly joke about money she had made. In response, my wife pointed out that she is married to a Jewish guy. To me, that is an ironclad defense. Actions speak louder than words.
Clint Eastwood tackled this topic with heart and verve in “Gran Torino,” his last truly great film.
78-year-old Eastwood stars as Walt Kowalski. Walt is a Korean War vet and recent widower. Now he lives alone in a Detroit neighborhood where he is suddenly a minority of one.
Walt hates the priest who is trying to get him to go to church. “I think you’re an overeducated virgin who likes to hold the hands of old ladies and promise them eternity.”
Walt hates his children and especially his grandchildren.
And Walt hates his neighbors. He can hardly get through a sentence about them without using an anti-Asian racial slur.
Most of Walt’s neighbors are Hmong. The Hmong are a Southeast Asian mountain people who sided with the US during the Vietnam Conflict. Facing persecution after the war, they fled to America by the tens of thousands.
The action begins when a car full of Hmong gang members show up to force Walt’s next door neighbor Thao to join them. Armed with a steely fearlessness and his M1 Garand rifle, Walt scares the ruffians away.
To his dismay, the brave act makes Walt Kowalski a hero among his peace-loving neighbors.
To his surprise, he discovers that he actually likes Thao and his plucky sister Sue. He ends up spending most of his time with them. The relationship between Walt, Sue, and Thao is sweet and heartwarming. And to his credit, Mr. Eastwood never gives in to the White Savior narrative. The teens save Walt every bit as much as he saves them.
Walt never stops spouting racial slurs. And he never stops calling Thao’s girlfriend “Yum Yum” because he can’t be bothered to learn her actual name. But to my ears, the slurs begin to sound more affectionate and less vicious as the film goes on.
To be sure, Walt would have been a better man if he had stopped using racial slurs altogether. Words can be hurtful even there is no hateful intent behind them. But this isn’t a Disney movie. In real life, there is a limit to how much a person is likely to change. And Eastwood is arguing that you can be an insensitive old jerk without being an unforgivable racist.
The only people Walt loves in the whole world are Hmong-Americans. How racist against Asians can he be?
Even back in relatively un-Woke 2008, some of Clint Eastwood’s showbiz colleagues accused him of making a racist movie. It’s a truly absurd accusation. Mr. Eastwood made a film that features mostly non-white actors and has a plot that centers on issues that affect the Hmong community.
Hollywood had a solid century to make a movie about the Hmong but no one got around to it until Mr. Eastwood. I have a sneaking suspicion that most of the Hollywood haters had never even heard of the Hmong people until “Gran Torino.”
If a man should be judged by the most offensive slurs that he uses, Walt Kowalski is a monster. If a man should be judged by his actions, he is a hero. When he gives his life to help his Hmong friends, Walt certainly won me over. Actions speak louder than words.