Gran Torino Revisited

By Ryan Rodrick Beiler 10-30-2009

I had starting writing this post last night, before receiving Gareth Higgins' latest post, which makes extensive references to Gran Torino. But now that my reflections will seem less out of the blue, I want to lift up some contrasting reactions to the film from God's Politics contributors Brenda Salter McNeil and Soong-Chan Rah. Like them, I saw Gran Torino long after it was released. I generally reserve my movie theater dollars for visual feasts worth the $10-plus dollar admission, and save character-driven films for Netflix. In this case, I caught Clint Eastwood's last film on a flight -- thrilled at the option of something I actually wanted to see.

I had Gareth Higgins' original endorsement of the film vaguely in my memory as I watched:

Agreeing with the philosophy outlined in a film is not, of course, enough of a reason to think it's a great movie. And perhaps if I watch it again in a week or a year or two I'll be disappointed (even on first viewing there are some obvious wrong notes) ... This film knows that the future of humanity depends on people being able to live together in diversity, putting up with cultural difference, and defending vulnerable members of the community. But it also knows something that The Man with No Name and Dirty Harry didn't: violence begets violence, and only nonviolence is powerful enough to neutralise its opposite. How Gran Torino presents the terms of conflict, or how it ultimately addresses them, may not be a textbook example of Gandhian resistance, but it's a far cry from "Go ahead, make my day." On first viewing at least, it's a heartbreaking, beautiful film.

Brenda Salter McNeil had a similar, if more powerful reaction:

I am wiping the tears from my eyes as I finish watching the Clint Eastwood film, Gran Torino. I am moved because Clint Eastwood presents a poignant example of the racial reconciliation process that moves beyond the typical black/white (and occasional Latino) paradigm of race relations that the media often clings to. I am touched because Clint Eastwood accurately portrays an unapologetic racist who is transformed by the efforts of a determined "bridge builder" who, by giving Clint Eastwood's character a literal seat at the table, also gives him the opportunity to identify with the family next door, but who had been a world away. I am crying because Clint Eastwood brought complex, global issues around race and politics and history and 'white flight' front and center without pandering or overstating. I am weeping because the film accurately depicts the truth that peace cannot be born from violence, but it can only come from sacrifice. "Dirty Harry" moments aside, Clint Eastwood made a powerful statement with Gran Torino and he absolutely moved me to tears.

(Spoiler alert: Reading much further will reveal a major plot twist.) I had wanted to experience Gran Torino in this powerful and moving way. That was my expectation. But for me there were too many "wrong notes." I found the dialogue by the teenage Hmong characters wooden and forced. I found the visceral satisfaction of the "Dirty Harry" moments undermining the nonviolence of the dramatic climax. And ultimately, I was troubled by the portrayal of a helpless immigrant community entirely dependent on rescue by a white savior.

The best statements Gran Torino makes are about the Eastwood character being saved from his own bigotry by his Hmong neighbors. But this element gets completely overshadowed by his ultimate sacrifice -- a powerful but problematic symbol.

Soong-Chan Rah expands on this point better than I could:

I try to interpret this movie from the lens of my experience in urban ministry. I greatly appreciate the concept of relocation that is espoused by many who move to urban neighborhoods from places of privilege and affluence. I think a great sacrifice is being made by those who are urban relocaters. However, I worry a bit that this idea of relocation is misunderstood by whites (and others of privilege and wealth) who may have the best of intentions, but end up ultimately harming the community they hope to reach.

I found it uncomfortable, that once again, the white male is portrayed as the Savior in Gran Torino -- that the immigrant community needs a white Messiah to rescue them. Our Savior is a Jewish Messiah, who ultimately empties himself of the heavenly places in order to save us. However, no human can play that role nor should one aspire to that role. Is Gran Torino glorifying a white Messiah to save those needing help? Instead, could a downtrodden, marginalized community rise up from within? Could the Hmong teenagers figure out a way to work within the community to bring about transformation and renewal? Maybe Eastwood's character could have worked with them towards that goal rather than doing all the work for them (again, a Messianic reference)? Would it be more powerful if instead of Eastwood being a Christ figure / Messiah for the immigrant community, Eastwood walked Hmong them (okay, now I'm pushing it). But that wouldn't make for a good Hollywood movie.

A key question when confronting these questions is what a viewer takes away from a film. Would white viewers be more likely to place themselves in the shoes of the Hmong symbolizing all of helpless humanity in need of a Savior? Or are they more likely to identify with the Eastwood character's "white man's burden" -- further reinforcing socially constructed identities of racial superiority? I don't believe that reaction would be conscious on the part of most white viewers -- but that's the problem with contemporary racism: it's subtle, pervasive, and shows up in the most righteous and well-meaning of places. Even in films trying to make important and positive statements.

So yes, Gran Torino is better than Dangerous Minds, but if you needed any more evidence that this is a pattern in need of critique, I present to you a more recent and obvious example of what Hollywood has to offer on this theme (though it's based on a true story, so what could be wrong with that?):

It's great that white folks reach out to people different from them and have their lives changed in the process, but can't we tell more empowering stories of people who made a difference from within their own communities? If you have good examples of that kind of film, please share in the comments.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the Web Editor for Sojourners and a photographer whose work can be seen at www.ryanrodrickbeiler.com.

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