Collected thoughts about Gran Torino

**Maybe don’t read this if you plan to go see the movie and don’t want the whole plot ruined for you**

Last weekend we ended the Detroit Summer retreat by going to see Gran Torino.  From where we were on Detroit’s East side, we just had to drive due north 13 miles, across 8 mile, to the mostly white, working class suburb of Sterling Heights.

Sterling Heights borders Warren, the third largest city in Michigan, a former manufacturing stronghold and the place where, two years ago, police shot and killed18 year old ChonBuri Xiong in his basement bedroom with a round of 27 bullets.

When we– a large, mixed, mostly weird-looking group of people of color walked in (late) to the theater– we were surprised to find the entire theater was packed! We couldn’t find any open seats except for the first three rows.  I split from the group and found a seat amidst the sea of people (almost entirely white), where I didn’t have to tilt my neck at a 90 degree angle.

When the movie ended, we all chatted our initial reactions and then turned our attention to the always-elaborate process of finding rides home for everybody.  But even in that brief exchange it was clear that there was no simple way to put into words the feeling that the movie left us with.

Since then I’ve had several in-depth conversation / arguments with people about the movie, read a good piece of analysis about it and concluded that I think the movie was “good” and “important.” But beyond that, my feelings about it are inconclusive.  I want to collect the variety of thoughts and conversations I’ve had about it here, in the hopes of drawing something useful out of it.

The first thing we all said to each other, walking out of the movie was, “wow, the audience really laughed at all the wrong jokes.”  Every gook, wetback, coon, dragonlady, that dropped from Clint Eastwood’s lips sent the audience into a fit of giggles.  The giggles seemed to come from a place of “I can’t believe he said that taboo thing which we all think, but is no longer cool to speak outloud.”  People will point out that he says wop, pollack, mick and other derrogatory terms for white ethnic groups just as often.  Ultimately, the racism of Clint Eastwood’s character didn’t bother me.  It was honest, and at certain moments, when he seemed to be mocking white working class racism it was actually funny.

The laughter of the audience was disturbing because it revealed a set of assumptions– one, that there wouldn’t be any Asian people in the audience, two, that there shouldn’t be any Asian people in the audience because Sterling Heights is a white working class community (despite the reality of recent demographic shifts of such inner-ring suburbs, with substantial numbers of Black and Hmong families moving in), and three, that we are far enough removed from racial violence against Asian people and other communities of color that we can comfortably laugh at it, in the same way that we can look back with a sense of humor at the days when Polish people were oppressed in this country.  It obscures the reality of ChonBuri’s death only a few miles away and less than two years ago, and it reinforces the idea that our country can heal from it’s legacies of racism with a good sense of humor.

But that dynamic with the audience was juxtaposed with the fact that the movie itself takes a much more serious and nuanced look at what the multi-racial future of America will require.

L.A. Weekly called Gran Torino the first movie of the Obama Generation.  My friend Scott went on to say:

” I think it is a film that will serve to define the transition from Bush to Obama as the end of one era (of American exceptionalism–an age defined by racism, materialism, and militarism) and the beginning of a new one filled by possibilities (e.g. liberation from an industrial order, singularities and multiplicities
rather than dogmas and masses, humility over hubris).”

I totally agree.  And for that reason the film is exciting. It captures the feeling (rightly or wrongly) that so many people had on election night– that huge unimaginable shifts are possible.  That we are not just the victims of a static history.  That history can move.  It also hints at the process of truth and reconciliation that will be necessary for this country to actually move forward.

One of the most compelling statements Gran Torino makes (and one which is fascinating to think about the Sterling Heights audience grappling with) is that the America represented by Clint Eastwood’s character will have to die in order for a new America to live.  The new America is the Hmong immigrant family, displaced by colonial wars and settled into the rapidly de-industrializing city of Detroit.

The children of the new America are split between allegiance with the traditions of their homelands and desire for the symbols of old America — the Gran Torino.  The pressures of their experience, and all the challenges of growing up in a city like Detroit breed the possibilities for intra-community violence represented by the Hmong gang (as one-dimensional, and ridiculous as the film portrays them), but it also carries the potential to restore the best parts of old America (shown through the gardening and house-rehabbing scenes).

Thao’s sister shoulders much of the burden of rehumanizing Clint Eastwood’s character.  Adrienne wondered if she was believable — would a teenage Hmong girl really be so accommodating of such a huge asshole?  It’s true she veers close to the stereotype of the angelic Asian girl, but she also manages to seem real in a lot of ways.

Sterling thought she represented the greatest hope for humanity– that when people refuse to acknowledge the hateful aspects of the world, as threatening as they may present themselves, and operate on the basis of faith in the buried human decency inherent in all people, then we have the ability to radically transform our relationships with each other.

Within that reading, what do we make of the rape scene?  It reflects a reality of serious gender violence within the Hmong community,  but the urge to simply root for Clint and his heroism in avenging her attack, denies the reality of widespread sexual violence perpetrated by the U.S. military.  Conceiving of transformative justice in the context of rape is one of the hardest ideas to wrap ones head around.  This movie doesn’t even try to go there.  But then again, it is Hollywood and it is Clint Eastwood.

Mike had a deep reading of the ending:  that ultimately, Clint Eastwood’s character sees more hope in a future America represented by Thao and his family, than in the America represented by his own children.

Rolling with this interpretation, it’s interesting to think about the legacy of the actual Ford Gran Torino.  My friend Kevin says the car was known for being unreliable.  They only made them for a few years and his friend who drove one, had to replace a bunch of parts and basically rebuild it from scratch.  The movie ends with a feel-good scene of Thao driving around Belle Isle in the Gran Torino.

I can imagine a sequel, where Thao finds himself stranded on the side of I-75 after the engine goes out and he has to hitch a ride on the back of some tricked-out low-rider bike to get wherever he’s going.  Or maybe he re-builds the engine to run on vegetable oil and starts a cooperative business to hack-up classic cars and build robots.

Whatever the scenario, the point is that it’s not enough to inherit the Gran Torino — to ride out the glory of what old America represents in our imaginations.  The work of our generation, of the new multiracial America is to re-shape what America means, from our systems of transportation, to the economies of our “dying cities”  to the power relations that govern our lives.  I hope the next movies of the Obama Generation tell those stories.

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22 Responses to “Collected thoughts about Gran Torino”


  1. 1 adrienne maree January 13, 2009 at 7:26 am

    jenny
    i love this review! gets at all the little complexities and the particularly stretched feeling of sitting in that theater feeling the awkward racism whisping all around folks and evidenced in the laughter, which felt nervous and relieved and anticipatory in some way – “ooh you said dragonlady – what else you gonna say clint??”.

    one thing to add on here that has stuck with me was the way, in the barbershop and other places, the use of racist terminology was a way for folks to find a lowest common denominator way to connect and laugh – at their own people, at race and culture assumptions, at the world. this reminds of certain funny intimate moments with close friends of color, and this reminds me of the unique feeling of post-race-denial i often get when i am in the south. i have been in the south in a waffle house where a black family walked in, and the white host was like, “oh y’all niggers?!”, and laughed, and then the black father responded, “best cracker pancakes in town.”

    its by no means universal, but there are a lot of spaces in the south where races with a violent and complicated history coexist respectfully, having kind of given into the fact that they have to, that the future is side by side.

    this also pulls up my memory/experience of growing up in post-holocaust germany, where the small neo-nazi community that made downtown bamberg kind of scary was greatly outnumbered by the folks who had a shameful acceptance of the fact that they’d hit rock bottom, and were 60 years sober from the death camps.

    so, onward we move to the shameful, accepting, coexisting, side-by-side future, and beyond that, to the truly collaborative community we know in our bones we are meant to build. love and miss you, and see you this weekend!

  2. 2 coffee January 15, 2009 at 6:50 am

    Clint Eastwood did a great job of using his outward crankiness to come across as mean as well as somehow heroic this newest film of his

  3. 3 joe January 31, 2009 at 12:35 am

    awesome review jenny!!!!
    i like ur review more than the movie, and i really liked the movie!
    i think what is most amazing is that a film like this, that encompasses so many issues, can be the top grossing movie in america. especially when you compare it to the current #1, paul blart mall cop.

    maybe this will open the door for more, better equipped, films that tackle serious issues, showing producers that most people ARE interested in watching films with substance.

  4. 4 Ernest Beuthien February 2, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    I think the ride at movie end wa on Lake Shore Drive near the Grosse Point Yaute Club

  5. 5 mxmartinez June 11, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    yeah- i left with a pretty inconclusive feeling about that movie. it left me constantly thinking about how whiteness and the dominant notion of american masculinity are irrefutably welded together. clint’s character struggles with that identity cluster by taking thao under his wing. he simultaneously resents the family and loves them and shows this through demoralizing Thao his name, language culture, accepting his servitude, calling his family weird, but realizes the Hmong experience more genuine-loving and caring- than his own experience.

    drawing the lines around his own masculinity seemed like his redemption; but to me as an amerikkkan man was not redeemed. clint could have went in to fulfill his last penitence by asking god’s forgiveness for brutally murdering civilians in war, but instead asked forgiveness for not speaking with his son. suddenly it all made sense, he thought thao could be his perfect son because he has made self-repentent mistakes as a father, and was willing to sacrifice himself, as you say, for the path of a new foundation. but not necessarily for a new multi-cultural and peaceful family in america, but for a new masculinity in amerika. perhaps one that could be assimilated into the hate-speak racially negated interface that possibly still depends on war and gender violence. what he engages in to resolve the problem.

    the movie’s end leaves the viewer to equally imagine multiple scenarios: one being that thao’s car is busted on I-75 and starts a bio-commune, OR, thao also becomes a good amerikkan man, a soldier in Afghanistan, paying his dues for refugee status in our godly country.

  6. 6 j August 12, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    I was thinking about this movie after i watched it, i dont dont understand why he didnt just kill those thugs, I am not sure if i would trust the justice system enough to provide justice. but thats just me.

  7. 7 Fowler May 19, 2010 at 11:06 pm

    If you were given the chance to experience what it is like to be deaf (provivded you arent already) for a day, would you take it?

  8. 8 nicole September 24, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    You’re an idiot if you think it represents a transition between bush and obama.

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