I saw Gran Torino, the latest in Clint Eastwood’s series of films about working-class American culture, a few weeks ago, at a movieplex in Niles, Ohio a few weeks ago. Niles is one of several largely working-class communities that connect Youngstown and Warren. Niles is home to a number of small metals factories, including scrap yards and specialty mills, as well as a typical suburban strip of big box stores, a shopping mall, and a minor-league baseball stadium. Its residents include some workers from the GM Lordstown plant, and probably even more people who once worked for Delphi Packard, which provided electrical components to the auto industry but has all but closed the local plant recently. Niles is also part of the greater Youngstown Metropolitan Statistical Area, designated in 2000 as the fourth most segregated metro area in the U.S.
In other words, I – an upper-middle class professional who specializes in but has not lived working-class culture — saw Gran Torino in a theater full of people who identified with Walt Kowalski. More than once, the people around me laughed and cheered at moments when I found Walt’s behavior uncomfortable. The film invites laughter at times, and it encourages us to view Walt as an aged version of Dirty Harry. At one point, while challenging one of the Hmong gang members, Walt even utters the first half of Harry Callahan’s famous phrase, “go ahead.” Everyone in the theater probably mentally added “make my day.” Watching Gran Torino in Niles was an unsettling experience, and it left me unsure of how to think about the film.
But that’s been my experience with all of Eastwood’s working-class series. Despite stereotypical and problematic race and gender relations in Million Dollar Baby - consider how the most threatening opponent is portrayed as very dark skinned and animalistic as just one example – Eastwood had me in that film until we met the boxer Maggie’s family. They are portrayed as not merely uneducated, undisciplined, and excessive, but also greedy and uncaring – all the worst stereotypes of the white working class. The film’s narrow focus on Maggie’s struggle to succeed as a boxer puts the emphasis on the middle-class value of individual success, but that is balanced with other values — toughness, loyalty, dignity, and the hard work ethic that are among the strengths of working-class culture.
In Mystic River, Eastwood takes a more typical working-class turn by focusing on a community responding to crisis rather than on an individual’s effort to succeed. While some of the characters and situations could be read as stereotypical, by examining multiple characters that represent different attitudes and responses to the same background, the film reveals the complexity of Irish-American working-class experience. In other words, it manages to balance attention to the group with development of individual characters, each of whom seems both virtuous and flawed in their own way. While I cringed at some scenes, my concern was more about what Eastwood was revealing than for what I thought he was misrepresenting. I remember thinking when I saw Mystic River that it redeemed Eastwood as a working-class filmmaker.
In Gran Torino Eastwood focuses more clearly and tightly on race as a source of both belonging and conflict than in Million Dollar Baby. Walt’s racism is real, but it is also shown to be defensive rather than offensive. Yes, Walt is suspicious and resentful when an Asian family moves in next door, his distrust of them fades as he realizes that, as a working-class family, they are more like him than his own now middle-class adult children. His distrust and resentment is not indiscriminate but rather targeted at those who violate his working-class ethic of self-control and hard work. He only acts on his racism in response to other people’s actions, as when he challenges three young African-American men who are harassing a young Hmong woman. When he talks about his prized car or his collection of tools, and when he teaches his young neighbor how to do repairs and interact with other men, we see his pride in working-class expertise, the kinds of knowledge that Mike Rose described in his book The Mind at Work - knowledge that too often goes unrecognized or is ridiculed. Walt’s actions and words often made me squirm, yet I also had to acknowledge their realism.
But the laughter of other people in the theater made me uncomfortable about my own prejudices and assumptions. Was my privileged, educated reading of the film as an exploration of the complex intersection of race and class “correct,” or was the film really a largely-approving portrait of a white working-class male challenging the incursions of African Americans and new immigrants? As I said to my husband as we left the theater, I’d be curious to see how the audience in a place like Palo Alto, which has plenty of diversity (at least in terms of race – not so much in terms of class), a highly-educated, largely professional middle-class population, and little connection with the ravages of deindustrialization, might respond. What are we to make of a film that reinforces the views of both those who view Walt critically as embodying the tensions between class and race and those who cheer him on as a white working-class vigilante who accomplishes what they wish they could – vanquishing the bad guys and helping the “good others” become more like themselves?