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Gran Torino Actor Reveals Behind-the-Scenes Racism

January 25, 2011 Arts & Entertainment, Other Reviews 42 Comments
BVang

Krissy Reyes-Ortiz
Staff Writer

The Multicultural Center put on a program that opened the audience’s eyes to the racial stereotypes portrayed in Hollywood films in addition to the unfair treatment that minority actors receive backstage. The program was held on Tuesday, January 18.
Bee Vang, actor and second-year student at Brown University, and Dr. Louisa Schein, Hmong media expert, discussed the truth of what happened behind the scenes of the movie Gran Torino.

Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino is about a racist old man named Walt who overcomes his prejudice by helping his teenager neighbor Thao. Thao is part of the Hmong community, a small ethnic Asian group.

Though many of the people who have seen the film may have gotten a sense of satisfaction and joy from seeing that Walt overcame his racism, the people who acted as the Hmong members in the movie did not. They were offended by the traces of racism that were included in the movie and that they experienced themselves on set.

Vang, who played Thao in the film, said he and the other Hmong actors were treated unfairly. Eastwood would not allow them to tweak their lines (even though he claimed that he did allow them to when asked in interviews following the release of the movie) and would not give them any tips on character building.

The actors felt degraded when they were told to “make noise” by rambling words in their language. The Hmong actors were also left out by their fellow cast members who were white.

The cast members excluded them from cast events because they immediately assumed that Hmong actors were exactly like their character counterparts—unable to speak English clearly or to understand anything “American.”

Vang also mentioned that he was upset by the way the Hmongs were portrayed in the film. He did not want the Hmong community—his own community—to be seen in a negative light by the audience. He pointed out that tea ceremonies were not performed correctly, that some of their important political lines in the script were not subtitled into English, and that these inaccuracies led to misconceptions of the community.

UCSB first-year Jen Greenfield was surprised to hear about these truths.

“When I first saw Gran Torino, I thought that it was really good because I didn’t know about the whole background,” she said. “This discussion has made me realize that I do approach things with a white supremacy point of view. It was interesting to hear a different perspective.”
The movie itself contained many racial slurs about Asians that the speakers found insulting.

In the scene in which Walt takes Thao to his friend’s barber shop, Thao is called names such as “pussy kid,” “dick smoking Guk head” and “chink.” These degrading words imply that Asians are feminine and homosexual.

Vang explained that he accepted this role because he wanted to make changes to the script in order to get his view across that this discrimination was wrong.

“When I read the script, I thought that it was messed up,” he said. “I wanted to get the part and do something about it, but when I got there, I couldn’t.”

Unfortunately, no one can do much about the stereotypes because they go beyond Gran Torino.

The speakers note that many movies in which the original characters are supposed to be played by Asians are played by white people. These stereotypes are shown in movies so often that viewers may not even notice them or take them seriously.

UCSB English graduate student Ly Chong Janau recognized this observation and hopes that more people do, too.

“People pretend that they are in a society past racism, but that is not the case,” Janau said. “A lot of these stereotypes exist, but they are not acknowledged enough. It’s there all the time but there is a lot of resistance.”

In order to stop these racial stereotypes from being portrayed in movies, Vang and Schein propose that minority directors should get behind the camera and make movies to expose Hollywood, using the master’s tool against the master. They also suggest that people should speak out, both individually and in groups.

Vang wrote and directed his own parody of the barber scene in order to portray the stupidity of stereotypes. His spoof, which is on YouTube, switches the roles of Walt and Thao to exaggerate how ridiculous the situation is and to show that a dominant person cannot have power without having someone to oppress.

Schein thinks that videos like these are a good way to speak out against the media.

“Spoofs are effective even though they’ll take a long time to circulate through YouTube and create political intervention,” she said.
On the other hand, East Asian Studies Professor Mayfair Yang believes that speaking up in groups rather than by oneself would be a better way to get the message across.

“Each one of us has the opportunity to speak up. If we speak up together in organized groups, we can make a better difference over time,” said Yang.

MCC associate director Viviana Marsano, who is in charge of planning the MCC’s various events, was incredibly enthusiastic about providing this particular program.

“The content of this workshop is exactly what the MCC is about—breaking the stereotypes of colored communities and addressing the issues of sexuality and gender. It fulfills the mission of the MCC,” she said.

Photo By: Holly Keomany

Currently there are "42 comments" on this Article:

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by zefred, Julie C. Valladolid. Julie C. Valladolid said: Gran Torino Actor Reveals Behind-the-Scenes Racism http://t.co/iZX93d7 [...]

  2. Linda says:

    I feel this is great issue to surface the racist, dominate white washed media, but could you elaborate more on: “These degrading words imply that Asians are feminine and homosexual.”? I agree that negatively calling someone “chink” and “dick smoking guk head” is degrading, but you also come across like being feminine or “homosexual” is negative in it self.

  3. Linda says:

    Also, thank you for this article.

  4. Mark says:

    I think the intention of the article is good, and I agree that the portrayals in the movie offended me a lot as someone with “Asian heritage”, but I don’t think that the script of the movie is the problem here and should not be the focus of an article about racism in hollywood. Clearly the movie is about a racist white man, he’s going to say offensive racist things. I hated his character and was glad to see him die in the end, but the problem that Vang and other Asian actors in this film faced had nothing to do with the film itself but the other actors and director who clearly had no respect for their fellow actors belonging to visible minorities. I’m in the same boat with Linda about the words chink and gook… How are they at all feminizing and relating to homosexuality? Unfortunately trying to connect those ideas actually weakens your argument, as the offensive language is only showing Walt and the barber to be bigots, discriminating against Asians and gays…
    The bottom line is that acting is acting. But I do believe that if Vang and the other Asian actors had felt that they were being respected as equal Americans, the sting of being called a “gook” would not carry beyond the set.

  5. Krissy says:

    Hi Linda! What I meant to say when I said that those words imply that Asians are feminine is that the way in which these words were presented in the movie cast a negative light on ALL Asians. I did not mean that being homosexual or feminine is a bad thing, but rather that making generalizations such as these are bad. The Hmong community felt as if their masculinity was in question because of this stereotypical language. I hope this clarifies it.

    Thanks for your input and thanks for reading TBL! Please share the word of it’s awesomeness. ?

    P.S. Here is the link for Bee Vang’s spoof if anyone is interested. I forgot to add this link in the print version :( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMaIOFMg64M

  6. __ says:

    I’ll have to agree with Mark. This is perspective. The content of a movie (fiction) is not up to the actors to decide. You get hired to do a job, act, and if you take offense you shouldn’t do the job.

    The blame of Clint if hogwash, this is a very one sided argument that in agreement we are about negative portrayals, it fails to provide a credibility factor because the basis is unjust. Mostly.

    Perhaps it could be said that it was deliverate to hire untrained actors and directorially use those tactics to get a performance reality and fiction collide when you’re making a film. This yound actor is burning his bridges being outspoken like that, go be an activist if you desire.

    Sorry while the arument is sound, the basis is not. Acting is acting.

  7. molly says:

    If a person decides to make a movie about a small Asian group he or she would really research the history and the culture before making a movie. It was wrong for him to direct these Hmong actors/actress to do “make noise” “rambling words in their language”. EDUCATE yourself first then make a movie.

  8. Nam says:

    This is a very interesting article for three reasons.

    1. While I agree that some of the stereotypes are very bad, part of it is the point of the movie. And it is very naive of Vang to think that because he was hired to act in the movie he could change the script.

    2. In terms of the character building comment, I’ve read that Eastwood is very trusting of his actors. He doesn’t strike me as the type of director that gives too much direction, and expects his actors to find their own way.

    3. This article directly contradicts screenwriter Nick Schenk who stated ” “He didn’t change a single word,” said Schenk. “When I met him just before they were going to shoot, I had three tiny changes I wanted to make, but when I mentioned them to Clint, he said, ‘I dunno, I kind of like the script just the way it is” ” (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/the_big_picture/2008/11/rookie-screenwr.html)

  9. Let’s see: A racist white man first has to save the Hmong people from Latinos. Then he has to save them from blacks. And in the end, he must save them from themselves by making the ultimate sacrifice – his own life. I would say more, but I’m trying to keep my language clean.

  10. [...] I haven’t seen Gran Torino, and I’m probably not going to, but I did just see this article (via [...]

  11. luckycat says:

    What about Dr. Louisa Schein, who in addition to being a “Hmong media expert” is also a white anthropologist who has profited immensely in her career as an orientalist academic? Does anyone else find it funny that a white woman “expert” is coming to the rescue here to approve of the whole discussion? If she is taking a colorblind stance, then I really don’t see much difference between her and Walt. White liberals just have a different way of expressing patronizing racism. It important to have white people n this discussion–as allies, not “experts” (I’m white, BTW)

  12. dan says:

    White people gonna do what they always do.

  13. Jasmine says:

    I am officially done with Clint Eastwood. He has stuck in my craw since he and Spike Lee got into it over the portrayals of Black servicemen in WWII. When this movie came out, I just couldn’t fall in love with it like so many others did. Yes, it’s a movie about a racist white man; but to me it seemed like many of the racist lines were unnecessary or just piling on. Also, I felt that the Hmong characters lacked the complexity that Eastwood’s character had which was a shame. I wanted to know more about them and their experience. Eastwood should have consulted with the Hmong cast members about the script considering he knows little to nothing about Hmong culture and is not Hmong himself.

  14. Joua says:

    This film is an example of the classic shallow, lazy film that exploits minorities for content value. Unfortunately, the storyline of white man saves colored people is very common in Hollywood. This is because this storyline is proven to be a big money-maker, and in capital-driven Hollywood, money is what matters. The issue here is larger than just the portrayal of the Hmong, it encompasses the portrayals of all minorities. It is even evident in fantasy films like Avatar (a main reason as to why I do not like that film). It makes sense that Bee and the other Hmong actors had no power to change the script or subtitling of the film; they were only actors after all. The power lies outside of the Hollywood bubble; it lies in the education of the masses, a change in the film-making and producing process, and the growth of a counter-Hollywood cinema.
    –Does anyone have a link to the parody Bee Vang has on youtube? If you do, please email it to me! Thanks.

  15. Paul says:

    Great article. Also, great points made in response.

  16. donald says:

    Very wonderful article. Thanks for sharing!
    acid reflux wedge

  17. Toshi says:

    It’s a stupid film from the Hmong community. The old men in the movie were soldiers fighting Vietcongs and Clint made them like little puppies. Little Gang Bangers wouldn’t stand a chance against these warriors.

  18. N says:

    Great article, however I don’t think the racist terms are offensive in this movie. Clint is not saying that the Hmong people are those names, he is playing a racist character. It’s part of movie making, it’s supposed to make it more real.

  19. Mark M says:

    Great Article man!
    Solution towards racial slurs:
    1) Just point smilingly at them and say: I am richer than you (doesn’t matter if you are or not)
    2) Just say: At least my parents aren’t divorced
    3) Don’t spend money at places that are known for outing racial slurs.
    4) If it wasn’t for the West, the East would have been a prosperous place of peace
    5) Accuse them of Un-Christian behavior…always works! (especially when in the US)
    Have fun with these tools (often used in Europe by Asians to “battle” verbal injustice!!!
    Mark M

  20. Lo says:

    All I remembered was Bee Vang mumbling.

  21. Yeej Xiong says:

    Hey, Clint Eastwood is to make money and to do what he believe. He could careless about a real Hmong tradition is correctly perform or not. Hmong actors just got lucky to get into the film. I don’t think Eastwood will attemp to make another film about Hmong. Thats all I can say.

  22. Kevin says:

    I obviously wasn’t there so I can only speculate, but it occurred to me while reading this article that Eastwood could’ve been purposefully alienating the Hmong cast members on set to create more realistic tension onscreen.

    Also, Vang trying to get cast in the film with the intent to change to script is kind of idiotic. Racist, homophobic characters say racist, homophobic things. Did he want Eastwood’s character to like, not insult him because that would be like, offensive?

    That all being said, the Racist White Man Learns To Accept (insert minority group) And Saves Them From (insert threat) storyline is as old as it is condescending. And the tea ceremony screwup is troublesome.

  23. exo says:

    After reading the article then the opinions on the thread, I only see the same one sidedness from the comments that they are complaining about. I do not know why Clint Eastwood, an old white male would make a movie from the view of anyone other than the main character. I think the female character in the movie represented the only other strong view point. Not the boy or the mother but the woman. And I think if it tried to show all these sympathetic views the uncomfortable racist character would not have come through. I do not think the movie was trying to represent a culturally accurate portrayal of the Hmong people. Just as the character of Clint Eastwood and the other white males in the movie are NOT like white males and does not accurately show white males. I am a white male and none of my white male family or friends act this way. And it is just a movie, a story and it was good in my opinion. I also have no idea why Clint Eastwood would ask for opinions of the other actors who are not known actors, and their roles were not even a real part of the story. If you want to see this type of story “Any Main Character” saving another, then make it and don’t complain that, “that guy is not making movies for me”. That is a silly argument. I did not hear anything other than his side of the story about the treatment of the actors, so I have no idea about that.

  24. exo says:

    Sorry I forgot to point out that the character C. E. played did not have any respect for any of the white characters including his own family. Instead he felt more respect and admiration for the culture that was not his own and entirely new, because they were better people. Similar to White Hunter Black Heart.

  25. Acid Reflux says:

    While empathising with the Vang, it is a bit naive when he says “When I read the script, I thought that it was messed up,” and “I wanted to get the part and do something about it, but when I got there, I couldn’t.” It just seems to me as if he accepted the role at any cost and then counted the cost later.

  26. KingSampson says:

    All i hear is bitching and moaning,

    1.”Eastwood would not allow them to tweak their lines” like any self respecting director or writer is going to let some no name actor tweak their lines give me a break.

    2.You cared so much about the negative light in which this movie portrayed the “hmong community” that you made a stupid youtube video that reinforces all the negative stereotype of asian’s with broken english. GOOD JOB!

  27. sup bro says:

    movie makes money ching chong

  28. Ly Chong Janau recognized this observation and hopes that more people do, too

  29. gary says:

    I love dirty harry!!!!!

  30. This just shows the different faces of discrimination. . People up until now could not accept that all human beings are created unique and equal. Employment discrimination is slowly creeping under our noses. The first thing that Vang should have done is to seek the help of attorneys who specialize in employment laws and formally file a complaint.

  31. What? says:

    The only problem I had with the article is when Vang referred to himself and the other Hmong people as actors. Clearly they weren’t.

    I applaud Mr. Eastwood for pushing forward with this film and giving the world a view of the Hmong people. I had never heard of Hmong before this.

  32. Billbank Youva says:

    TaKeshia Brooks/Inda Lauryn said: “Let’s see: A racist white man first has to save the Hmong people from Latinos. ”

    That didn’t happen. In the movie there were some Latino gangbangers who hounded Thao as he was walking home. It was the Hmong gang that forced the Latinos to go away. Then the Hmong gang tried to co-opt Thao into their schemes. Walt saved Thao from the Hmong gang the first time. Then it was sue vs. the black gang.

  33. Joe Bloggs says:

    lol its all on wikipedia now

  34. Billbank Youva says:

    Under “10 Dumb Donts To Dodge In A Job Interview”:
    “Don’t complain about a past job or previous employer. If you criticize, the interviewer may think that in two years, you’ll be bad-mouthing the job they give you or trash-talking the company, Levit says.
    “People don’t appreciate that,” she says. Instead, speak respectfully and act like a positive person in the interview — someone that anyone would love to hire as part of a team.”

  35. Jose says:

    Im black and latino non american human and i think this movie is great in the sense it potray old white people see how their country is changing for the bad. I see it on mine and don´t like it either.On the movie the only frontyard in good shape was Walt´s also it brings to mind the time people of words honor´hard working people that pay their bills… A time that st some point we´ll need to rescue.. And for hmong culture i had no idea thwy wvn existed before

  36. thomas thumbler says:

    I hate to burst anyone’s bubble here but to any Hollywood depiction of any culture or country not their own is cringeworthy, lazy, stereotypical and often highly offensive! Not to mention that no matter what colour, creed, ethnic group or region set in it is always going to be the good old american character(s) to the rescue as if the foreigner hadn’t the brains to fend for themselves.

    I speak as an Irishman who has long suffered horrible attempts at our accent (Tom Cruise especially overpaid for NO research or practice), drinking stereotypes and references to ‘Lucky Charms’ a product never sold on Irish shelves.

    My point, I suppose is that Hollywood is a sort of ridiculous dreamland anyway. People like Clint have spent a lifetime in Fiction not only in work but in living a lifetime of having everything they want. I grew up in Ireland on a diet of films where Russia was the villain and the USA were the hero. Even rocky for God sake got the Russians chanting ”USA”. Things haven’t changed much only now communist Russia are no longer the popular villain. No matter what happens my friends, rest assured that the white american charracter with a swinging chair on his deck, an American flag on his house and that drives a 5 gallon petrol truck to the office will always smell of roses in these films. Often at the expense of the Hmong, the Russian, the German, the Gay or the woman who couldn’t possibly get on without uncle Sam. I used find it difficult tell the difference between George Jnr winking + talking about God at press conferences + one of thes crap movies. The germans invented propaganda through film. Americans perfected it.

    I think the key here is if you think you’re going to be offended by a movie, don’t watch it.

  37. King Ghidora says:

    Wow what a bunch of white people haters here. Do you people realize how racist you sound? How typical of the loonie left to think that “only” white people are racists. You sure proved that myth wrong. I’ve never seen so much racial animus. Here Eastwood goes out of his way to prove how wrong racism can be and you bash him anyway claiming some special knowledge of what went on behind the scenes. Guess what? I don’t believe you. And I wouldn’t believe a bunch of whiney “he’s a racist” liberals either.

    Unlike you I do know something of the role the Hmong played in the Vietnam War. They were and are a fiercely antagonistic and independent bunch that showed it by fighting against the Communists in the strongest communist held region of the entire war. In short, they don’t like anybody. They were recruited to fight against the commies by the CIA which they gladly did because they didn’t want yet another group telling them how to live. The French go so tired of trying to control (and tax) them that they gave them a special dispensation after the so called, “War Of The Insane” (named that because of the habit of the Hmong of climbing trees to get their prayers answered regarding the war). In plain terms they were essentially so far out of the mainstream of all cultures and they fought so hard to stay that way that the French decided it wasn’t worth it trying to keep them under control. That’s the same attitude the Hmong brought to the Vietnam War. They resented all outside interference thinking all other people’s to be inferior to their own. So it sure looks like they have a strong current of racism running through their own culture. If you aren’t one of them they don’t want you around. Sounds like racism to me. But of course to brilliant minds like yours there is no racism in the world except for what whitey creates.

    You people make me sick. I belong to a race of people that has suffered more persecution than maybe any other in history. Genocide was practiced against us from outsiders and even from some of our cousins. You might call us Native Americans but that alone is a racist term since we do have specific names for our people. Cherokee is part of my heritage. Blackfoot is another part. And include Europeans in my genetic makeup. In your eyes I’m sure that makes me white just like it makes Obama white. Wait – that’s not right. You pick and choose who fits into the peg hole you want them in. I’m pretty sure that makes YOU the racists.

  38. John says:

    Testing

  39. Walt says:

    Stereotypes exist for a reason and they’re funny because they’re true

  40. writersbloq says:

    Just watched this movie again. It must’ve been the Director’s Cut because I don’t remember some of the ending scenes. I like this movie. If you only scratch the surface, then sure it looks racist. But it’s not. Racism is really besides the point. The point is that here’s a widower, a war hero, who’s been living with a simmering, unspoken guilt about things he did as a soldier. Without his wife as a distraction, all his personal demons and failings become stark. He’s been a poor father. There is a chasm between him, his children, and his grand-children. We’re given no clear reason why this is other than his surly temperament.

    When fate throws Thao and Walt together, Walt gets an unlikely opportunity to be the parent he should have been to his own children. He teaches Thao discipline, how to take responsibility for his actions, the virtue of being skilled, and how to act like a man and assert himself. Thao needed a father figure, or at least someone against whom to model himself. Before Walt intervened, Thao was a constant target for his gangster cousin and his crew. In a sense, they each needed each other.

    Now, to reduce this movie to a racist parable misses the actual racial dynamic. Walt and all his friends speak openly about race. In the barbershop scene, Walt and Martin (the barber) greet each other affectionately with derogatory racial language. When Walt gets Thao a construction job with his buddy, Walt calls his buddy a “mick.” For those who may not know, this is what still passes for “guy talk.” The language is racist but the associations are deeply affectionate. To the uninitiated, this may prove terribly confusing.

    Besides, if Walt is indeed irredeemably racist—as in the style of ‘south of the Mason-Dixon line and the War of Northern Aggression’—then he would not have bothered to develop any relationship with Thao or his family. In fact, at the end of the movie, Walt leaves his most prized worldly possession, the much coveted Gran Torino, to Thao; Walt leaves nothing to his children nor their children (thereby emphasizing one last time, the fracture that could not be mended).

    As an aside, this is not necessarily a comment on the masculinity of Asian males. There are Hmong gangsters in the film who act as macho as any other male in society after all.

  41. AS says:

    The Hmong were probably left out by the cast not because of racism, but because they aren’t real actors. Most were off the street, without any acting experience, as I recall. It’s like asking successful chefs to hang out with fast food fry cooks. Not gonna happen.

    Besides, why is this coming up now, years and years after the movie’s theater life.

  42. binan says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Exo’s comments.

    anti-racists’s racism is all over the place and yet to be addressed by academia.

    If anyone dares to, she/he will be labeled as “racists” themselves…how mindless is that?

    Great movie a with great subtle arguments. Period

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