Wrestling with Clint

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?

Sherry Linkon

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8 Responses to Wrestling with Clint

  1. Jeanne says:

    Perhaps your uncertainty on what to think about the film is much more a reflection of you than the film.

    I grew up working class, and my mother grew up poor in Appalachia. She was and still is profoundly racist, as were many people in my childhood neighborhood and schools. Still, she voted for Obama.

    The film is almost as complex as people are.

    I actually hope that lots of white working class people identified with Eastwood’s character because his change over the course of the film is believable, and hopefully changed some people’s hearts around race and racism and xenophobia.

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  2. workingclassstudies says:

    Jane asks about whether the audience response changed over the course of the film, and that’s part of what I’m wondering about, too. I didn’t notice a clear shift in response patterns, but I wasn’t really tracking that, either. What I’m questioning about the film really is what the “take away message” is for other viewers.

    My stepson, who studies media history, tells me that studies of All in the Family back in the 70s showed that about half of the viewers found Archie Bunker to be a validating character — they saw him as the right-thinking person on the show and everyone else as having the wrong views. The point isn’t whether viewers read a representation correctly, but the fact that multiple readings are so clearly possible. That makes a film rich, on the one hand, but it also leaves me unsure of how to think about it.

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  3. janevangalen says:

    I saw the movie in downtown Seattle. I’m inferring from dress and general “presentation of self” that the audience was far more economically diverse than is the audience for many of the other films that I’ve seen in this same cineplex, but of course, I’m only guessing at that.

    There was a fair amount of laughter in places that I sometimes found surprising, and I thought at the time that this was at least in part the audience’s appreciation for Clint being self-referential about any number of prior Clint roles. But I wondered if was part of his intent, to try to make some sort of meta-statement on how his prior characters might now engage the world in which Clint finds himself in at the end of his career.

    But Walt shifts so much in this movie, so Sherry, I’m curious about whether the audience shifted with his transformation (or rather, his revelation to us of more layers of himself).

    Did the Niles audience shift with him at all after that the “man up” scene in the barbershop? Or at the end, when the prior racist posturing was rendered pretty meaningless? (trying to avoid a spoiler here ….)

    There was pretty much stunned silence at my show and laughter seemed to take a whole different tone in the final scenes when others affectionately make fun of Walt’s complicated harshness.

    (Incidentally, an acquaintance saw the movie in a neighborhood where many Asian (including Hmong) immigrants live, and he said that the crowd laughed hilariously at the parts of the Hmong family dialogue that weren’t sub-titled while the white folks remained quietly clueless about what was going on. I wish I’d seen it there.)

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  4. Clint Eastwood is an artist, not an academic. Artists interpret the life they see around them and that is what he did in Gran Torino. If he portrays racism, so what? Is anyone shocked that it exists? To ignore it is to commit a bigger crime, that of not operating in reality.

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  5. geewhy says:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. Eastwood’s later films always leave me in a quandary. In some ways, they rely on stereotypes and predictable plot devices. At the same time, they always seem to raise all kinds of big issues — race, class, what America really is — in a way that other big Hollywood movies do not. So I never fully embrace them, but I’m still thinking about them weeks later.

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  6. Michelle Tokarczyk says:

    Yes, Walt’s racism is defensive; partially, it comes from realizing that he is devalued along with the Hmong who move into his neighborhood. (His granddaughter complains about the “ghetto”). I was also struck by the way Walt and his barber friend threw ethnic slurs at one another; my working-class dad and his best friend did that, and as a college student I never understood it.

    What I appreciated about the movie though was that Walt, in the end, was no vigilante. He sacrificed himself rather than shoot it out or, more importantly, see a young man commit murder. In our post 9/11 culture, this is an important message.

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  7. Jane Adams says:

    I didn’t find Walt “racist” in the sense I think Sherry means it. Rather, Walt — the son of Polish immigrants — lived in a world in which ethnic divisions were a major way people encountered each other: ethnic attributions are used affectionately (as between Walt and his barber — an Italian) and in a wide variety of other ways. His elderly Hmong neighbor spits out hostile epithets (in Hmong), wishing that her white neighbor would move out like everyone else. Walt is just as comfortable pasting the wannabe white kid who was escorting the Hmong woman Walt rescues as he was their black assailants, using racial/ethnic/gendered terms. And he instructed the Hmong boy in when to use ethnic terms and when not to when he takes him to his Italian barber friend to “man him [the Hmong boy] up.” The film could be read as a series of lessons in how to navigate the complicated terrain of cross-cultural interactions — not tip-toeing around it with a pretense that everybody is the same (and thereby denying difference and assuming a singular norm), as in “polite” society, but fully aware that people form solidarities based on ethnic affiliation and yet that human relationships transcend those boundaries. I loved the movie, partly because I’m so sick of the constipated, up-tight way that race is dealt with in the academy and among “helping” professionals that make up most of my community.

    I also read it as a film that made the circle from the immigrant generation of the last century who raised the “greatest generation” to those who are coming now. It’s core message is anti-anti-immigrant, fully acknowledging the complex issues that the new immigrants bring with them and create here. A brilliant film.

    I agree with Sherry that Maggie’s family in Million Dollar Baby were terribly mis-drawn. They were Ozark hillbillies, not urban ethnics, and Eastwood seems to have a tin ear for rural white folks. In fact, hillbillies are the only people left that Hollywood stereotypes as embodying everything mean and degraded, a scummy sub-proletariat, not members of the working class — a characterization Eastwood perpetrated. Then there was his excessive haste in helping Maggie pull the plug, which disability rights folks have rightfully criticized him for. It made the ending mawkish and unreal. Grand Torino had none of those flaws, though Walt’s kids and grandkids seemed to me a bit over-drawn in their self-absorption.

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  8. leonardcrist says:

    I think the key to understanding the problem of racism in Gran Torino is the scene in the barber shop where Walt uses long since out of fashion ethic slurs against the white barber. Walt treats the white guy no different than he treats people of other races. He’s a mean, ignorant, but warm-hearted old man who doesn’t really believe the things he says. I believe the movie deftly deals with the ideas and prejudices behind racism while rejecting “PC” culture and the concept of racism as a solely linguistic sword.

    It’s an idea that is quite popular in the culture of today, manifested in the acts of Carlos Mencia, a latin comic, Dave Chapelle, an African American comic, and Louis CK, a white comic.

    Louis CK’s most recent stand up special on HBO, for example, addresses the idea that words don’t mean so much as intention. After an extended duration where certain words are labeled taboo for one group but not another, a growing urge develops to shout those taboo words — at least into a pillow when you are all alone, as CK jokes — to scratch that itch.

    I think a lot of people relate to that. And that’s why some people (though I’m sure not all), laugh during Walt’s racist, but arguably innocuous, diatribes.

    I think it’s an elitist stance to say I, a college educated individual, understand what Eastwood means, but regular working people might miss the nuance. Whether than can articulate it well or not, I’m quite sure that working class people “get it.”

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