Recently, I saw Clint Eastwood’s extraordinary new film, 'Gran Torino' in Hollywood. Set in a declining Detroit neighborhood, the movie chronicles the unlikely relationship retired auto worker Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) forges with his new Hmong neighbors.
Walt is cranky, surly, and bigoted while still possessing a certain rough-edged charm. His dialogue is laced with racist terms and stereotypes that would mandate a lengthy “sensitivity training” seminar if he came of age in a different era.
And yet, the audience laughed and laughed loud. Here, in one of the nation’s most multi-ethnic cities with a history of racial tension, blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos were chuckling as Walt bemoaned “gook food” and cringed at his neighbor’s ways. Twenty years ago, Walt’s language would have appeared less ironic, perhaps being interpreted as a sign of how a sizeable percentage of white Americans viewed minorities. To laugh at Walt then would appear to be laughing with him rather than at him.
But in 2009 America, on the cusp of a black president arriving in the White House, a character like Walt feels safely anachronistic – his views seem fringe like. What seemed funny to the audience is that people like Walt still exist. What is so satisfying about 'Gran Torino' is how it eschews political correctness and decides to speak to an audience that it figures will laugh at Walt rather than with him. It assumes that Americans watching the film are smart and tolerant enough to get the joke. And they do.
I’d be curious to know how audiences reacted to the movie across the country.