|"Get off my lawn" -- conservative viewers experienced a little death during this scene.|
I was reminded recently of the 2008 film Gran Torino, which starred Clint Eastwood and received high marks from critics and viewers alike. I would like to preface my comments here by acknowledging up front that Gran Torino is a very effective and well-made film, and on many levels I enjoyed it. I also want to make clear that I do not assume that the aspects of the film I am about to discuss were so crafted purposively – I highly doubt, actually, that anyone involved in the production of the film participated for the sake of pushing a conservative agenda, or even had any consciousness about the fact that the film is, in many ways, a profoundly conservative one.
I would also like to acknowledge that the film is far from all bad. Indeed, its core message - that we can be inspired to be our better selves through a human connection with someone who previously, we might not have even recognized as fully human - is a good one indeed. So I feel a little bad going after a film whose heart is actually in the right place.
However, the enthusiasm with which the conservatives in my life – we can assume I am related to them and leave it at that – embraced this film told me from the beginning that something was amiss. Upon viewing the film, my suspicions were confirmed – for rather than a film that confronts Americans with the realities of structural racial and economic inequality, Gran Torino is a film that panders to the comforting clichés of boot-strap and colorblind ideology.
At first glance, Gran Torino appears to pull no punches with the reality of racism in America. Walt Kowalski is a bitter old man who deploys racial epithets, particularly when referring to his Hmong neighbors, freely and without shame. That Walt is eventually cured of his xenophobia by opening his heart to several of these Hmong neighbors seems, to most reviewers, to be the main point of the film, and surely that aims to be the primary message. However, as the film progresses Walt’s fondness for racial epithets serves to desensitize us to the legacy of racism implicit in racial slurs – Walt’s use of them becomes an almost quaint, endearing foible, rather than a character flaw that forces viewers to address the implications of racist attitudes. Because, as we soon find out, Walt is not personally racist – he is relatively quick to recognize that Sue and Thao, his young Hmong neighbors, are Good Kids dealing with Bad Kids. His racial epithets morph into merely a playful hazing, nothing more than a working-class slang that others mistake for racism.
The pivotal scene which makes this argument takes place when Walt takes Thao with him to his local barbershop. Walt instructs Thao to notice that he and his barber, who he has known for years, roughly and playfully exchange old-style ethnic insults such as “polack.” The lesson here is clear – racial epithets have nothing to do with racism, they are actually just a very manly and working-class way of saying “I love you.” Therefore, to object to such language is to overreact, to have the mindset of a victim – or, if you are white, the groveling and unmanly guilt of the politically correct. Conservative culture warriors could not have said it any better.
Of course, what this scene overlooks is the very real difference between calling an old white friend a “polack,” and calling an Asian neighbor a chink, or calling a black person who heckles your comedy a nigger. That all prejudice and discrimination are alike – that there are no clear, very consequential differences between say, the historical experience of Eastern-European immigrants in America and the experience of black people in America – is one of the most basic arguments in the colorblind arsenal. This is the argument given by second, third and fourth generation descendents of Italians or Irish, who insist that their families were discriminated against as well – and for sure they were - but they worked their way out of it. How this argument ignores the historical reality that even the lowest of the whites were spared the type of discrimination and exploitation endured by blacks and other non-whites cannot, of course, be reiterated here. But it should not require much more than common sense to recognize that while the term “polack” is by no means harmless in all situations, the terms “chink” or “nigger” cannot be separated from the discrimination and bigotry that inspired them. This bigotry is not merely a matter of words, and those who object to them are not merely being “politically correct” – the violence of racial epithets tells the story of concrete discrimination and actual, physical violence – it tells the story of exclusion laws against Asian immigrants and strange fruit in Southern trees.
Do not read me wrong – I am not arguing that we get fixated on these words as words. The claim that when liberals or those on the left talk about issues of language and rhetoric they are merely reacting to phenomena disconnected from any larger infrastructure is simply wrong. And words are slippery things – in one context they mean one thing, in a different one something quite different. And yes, it depends on who is saying what to whom. But the problem with a film like Gran Torino is that it actually invites us to think about racism as simply nothing more than words; as something shallow that can be easily overcome. White audiences are not, therefore, challenged by Walt’s character to rethink their own assumptions about how racism is built into our society. Thus we can use these words without any serious reflection about their origins, because the infrastructure of racism has been so nicely papered over with a comfortable narrative about a virtuous suburban cowboy.
While Gran Torino makes racial epithets and the grumpy old men that employ them seem rather harmless, it also caricatures the type of effete, well-off liberals who might take issue with Walt’s more racist behavior. The family of Walt’s son is entirely composed of prototypical privileged suburbanites – his son is getting a little heavy around the waist, while his wife lacks patience and grace, and his grand-daughter is completely self-absorbed and spoiled. There is much truth to these stereotypes – and it is good to keep in mind the fate of the working-class Walt, who feels totally alienated and left in the dust by the materialism of his son. However, when contrasted with Walt, his son’s family makes it too easy for the audience to correlate Walt’s brusqueness and disdain for “the politically correct” with Walt’s virtue, which consists primarily in being a decent human being capable of remarkable self-sacrifice. The argument is that true American virtue means never having to say you are sorry – if someone else is hurt or bothered by your lack of empathy, the problem lies not in your ignorance or callousness but in the weakness of the one offended. And finally, as others have pointed out, Gran Torino continues the grand film tradition of white men somehow saving the non-whites from the chaos of their own culture.
It is unfortunate that such a good film could have so many bad messages embedded in it, most likely unintentional. But ultimately, Gran Torino is yet another argument for solving poverty and racism through the redemptive power of individualism – if all we had on hand to understand American race relations was this film, we could confidentially conclude that almost no Americans are really racist, and that overcoming the crime and hopelessness endured by the brown and the black is merely a matter of personal character and willpower. Indeed, that is exactly what millions of American conservatives tell themselves every day.