While trying to write my review of Gran Torino, I keep coming back to what other critics have said about the movie. Since I’m reviewing the film and not the reviews, I figured an Advocate was the best place to touch on one aspect of the film that seems to be troubling many of my colleagues: they think Clint Eastwood’s character is a racist.
In Gran Torino Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski does use terms like spook, gook, zipperhead, slant, beaner, dago, mick and even eggroll and Dragon Lady. His choice of colorful language is what really confuses many of my colleagues about Walt’s racism, but what they’re not getting is that he’s simply prejudiced.
We live in a day and age when the lines between prejudiced and racist have become blurred. In our popular media there are only three kinds of characteristics when it comes to dealing with race: you are either heroically colorblind, you are virulently racist or you are a racist who has the color scales fall onto your eyes by the end of the movie. But there are other gradiants in the real world, and Kowalski falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
I was able to roll with Walt’s language for two reasons: I find racial slurs to be inevitably hilarious, and he reminds me a lot of my grandfather. A World War II veteran and a New York City street kid who never got an education past grade school, my grandfather knew a fascinating variety of ethnic insults. Stereotyping was second nature to him. But he wasn’t some kind of cross-burning lunatic; as I grew up there was a variety of different ethnicities seated around my grandparent’s dinner table, especially as the tenants of the apartment building they owned changed with the neighborhood. Sure, the 70s saw an impenetrable block of Italians seated around that table, but by the time we got to the 90s there would be Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and West Indians. Much like Walt in Gran Torino, my grandparents stuck out their old neighborhood in the face of white flight, and my grandfather (who wouldn’t take a ride anywhere he could walk to within a couple of hours) would wander the streets of the Cityline area (where Brooklyn and Queens meet), chatting with shopkeeps and workers and young mothers the old guys who hung out on the corner. Of any and all races. And he’d rarely modulate his language when talking with them.
When I was a more politically correct teen, my grandfather’s ways would embarrass me terribly. I’d be hesitant to bring some friends by their house because I knew that they’d be called polacks or niggers; he (half-jokingly) told one of my girlfriends that she had to wait outside the house because she was a Jew (she was actually an Italian with a Roman nose). Maybe I was right to bristle at it, but there’s something adorable about a curmudgeonly old man saying things that are beyond the pale, and maybe my grandfather’s final years have colored my memories.
But what’s interesting about Walt (and my grandfather) is the way that these slurs are also used as a way of displaying affection. Walt has a series of hilarious back and forths with his Italian barber, and the way they insult one another’s heritages plays as a sign of respect. This is going to polarize many of my readers, but I think there’s more respect in saying something to a person’s face than being polite and then dropping a slur behind their back. Walt never spits the words out hatefully, and my grandfather certainly had a playful tone of voice when he would call a German cousin by marriage ‘Nazi son of a bitch.’
I would argue that beyond some possibly unpleasant language (and we let ourselves get way too hung up on language these days), the worst that these kinds of prejudiced guys do is practice a separate but equal policy – you stay with your own kind and I’ll stay with mine. But as Walt remained in his neighborhood as it became a Hmong hood, and as with my grandparents and the changing ethnicity of their Brooklyn neighborhood, he was forced to rub shoulders with new types of people. And he didn’t try to break their windows or scare them away; at worst he just kept to himself.
That’s maybe where the dividing line comes between a racist and a prejudiced person. A prejudiced person is more likely to be highly irritated with all kinds of people, even his own kind of people (‘Black nigger’ and ‘faggot’ were essentially my grandfather’s pet names for me). A racist hates other people. They’ll couch it in loving their own kind of people, but the truth of it is hate.
Walt’s probably the last prejudiced main character we’ll be seeing in popular culture, at least in a leading, non-comedic role (although he’s quite funny). Thirty years ago we maybe understood Walt a little more – he’s essentially a very old version of Archie Bunker, and All in the Family was a phenomenon in its day. Like Gran Torino, All in the Family played Archie’s prejudice for laughs, and like Gran Torino it understood that at the heart of this prejudiced man wasn’t racism but curmudgeonliness forged in a very different time. Like Walt, Archie was prone to dropping slurs at the drop of a hat, but he’d also deal with people of other races and ethnicities as individuals, not as representatives of a monolithic group.
There’s something urban blue collar about this sort of prejudice. It’s not that rural white seething hate, and it’s not that suburban white polite facade over a fearful hate. All three of the guys I talked about here – the two fictional and the one real – were blue collar urban guys. And I think there’s something about that urban blue collar prejudice that really bugs some of my more ‘dignified’ colleagues. Maybe because these people aren’t colorblind (as I suppose we’re supposed to all try to be) but also aren’t frothing with hate – there’s something threatening to a certain class of white liberals about being aware of the differences between racial and ethnic groups.
I wonder how the rest of the population will take to Walt. Is it just the white liberals who make up the movie intelligentsia who will find him distasteful, or have we all moved on from loving and laughing at Archie Bunker?
Walt’s not a racist, but he’s not a guy who has any place in our world today. That’s especially true now that Obama has been elected president; my friend Matt Kiernan noted how interesting it is that this film is being released after that historic event. Walt, Archie and my grandfather were sort of transitional fossils in the evolutionary history of white people, and we’ve moved on beyond them (and the world obviously moving beyond them is a problem for both Walt and Archie, who try to cling on to a dead way of life). Gran Torino makes the argument that for all the bad things we’re leaving behind with Walt Kowalski, there are also a bunch of very good things. Maybe I shouldn’t be looking back at Archie Bunker with nostalgic fondness, but I just can’t help it.