Bee Vang, who starred opposite Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, says the film “mainstreamed anti-Asian racism” in the United States.
Vang says he remains “haunted” by audiences laughing at the racist jokes said by Eastwood’s character in the 2008 film.
The American actor played Thao Vang Lor in the film, a teenager who befriends Walt Kowalski (Eastwood), his racist neighbour.
In a new essay for NBC News, Vang credited the film with leading greater Asian representation on screen, but also a rise in anti-Asian racism in America. In the essay, he discusses the Asian American family that were stabbed at a club in Texas and a Thai American who was murdered in San Francisco last month, showing a rise in anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Back in 2008 I starred opposite Clint Eastwood in ‘Gran Torino’ playing the lead Hmong role in a tale of two people transcending their differences to form an unlikely human bond,” Vang wrote in the essay. “It was a historic cinematic moment for Hmong people around the world, despite its copious anti-Asian slurs.
“At the time, there was a lot of discussion about whether the movie’s slurs were insensitive and gratuitous or simply ‘harmless jokes’. I found it unnerving, the laughter that the slurs elicited in theaters with predominantly white audiences. And it was always white people who would say, ‘Can’t you take a joke?'”
He added: “Today, I shudder at the thought of what that meant. More than a decade later, the anti-Asian racism that was once disguised as good-natured humour has been revealed for what it is, thanks to Covid-19.”
Vang adds that while the film “may have elided the crisis in Asia that birthed our diaspora and many others across the Pacific,” what was more concerning to him was “the way the film mainstreamed anti-Asian racism, even as it increased Asian American representation. The laughter weaponised against us has beaten us into silent submission”.
“To this day, I am still haunted by the mirth of white audiences, the uproarious laughter when Eastwood’s curmudgeonly racist character, Walt Kowalski, growled a slur. ‘Gook.’ ‘Slope head’. ‘Eggroll’. It’s a ‘harmless joke’, right? Until it’s not just a joke, but rather one more excuse for ignoring white supremacy and racism.
“For Asian Americans, this is the time to demand recognition, not to recoil into a cocoon of model-minority pusillanimity. Showing ‘our American-ness’ was never enough. This is a deceit of multiculturalism.”