‘Gran Torino’ Actor Draws Parallels Between 2008 Film, Anti-Asian COVID-19 Racism

Bee Vang, the actor who co-starred alongside Clint Eastwood in the director’s 2008 film “Gran Torino,” offered up a mixed view of the film in a Wednesday NBC News editorial, arguing that it “mainstreamed anti-Asian racism” in the U.S. and indulged in a form of prejudice now prevalent in the age of COVID-19.

Vang wrote that the movie ― which focused on the unlikely camaraderie between his character, a Hmong teenager, and a cantankerous Korean War veteran (Eastwood) who owns a Ford Gran Torino ― was a “historic cinematic moment for Hmong people around the world, despite its copious anti-Asian slurs.”

Those slurs, uttered by Eastwood’s character, were often chuckled at and dismissed by predominantly white audiences in the theater, Vang wrote.

“The film mainstreamed anti-Asian racism, even as it increased Asian American representation,” he wrote. “The laughter weaponized 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.”

Such racism often goes unignored, Vang argued, noting that discrimination against Asian Americans surged last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic and has resulted in hate crimes ― including the death of 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee, a Thai American who was knocked to the ground in San Francisco in an apparently unprovoked attack in January.

“What the pandemic has epitomized is an abject failure to assimilate Asian humanity, much like the disastrous wars fought across Asia (the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Afghanistan and more) that were underscored by the racist military ambitions of armed white supremacy,” Vang wrote. “For Asian Americans, this is the time to demand recognition, not to recoil into a cocoon of model-minority pusillanimity.”

Vang concluded by emphasizing that Asian Americans “don’t owe anything to the perpetrators of this anti-Asian zeitgeist,” but do need to “help steer the world toward healing and social renewal.” 

The actor ― who was 17 when he starred in “Gran Torino,” his first and most prominent role ― was also critical of the many slurs in the film at the time of its release, saying that they disturbed him greatly in a 2009 interview with MinnPost.

He joins a number of other actors, including Olivia Munn and Daniel Dae Kim, in condemning recent violence against Asian Americans.

Read the full editorial here.

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