Gran Torino Actor Reveals Behind-the-Scenes Racism

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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

6 COMMENTS

  1. Keep seeing racism in everything like the blacks do and Hmong, Lao, Thai, Vietnamese Americans will continue to be regarded as the low class Asians by the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans.

    • As if the Chinese-, Japanese- and Korean-American communities have never protested against racism, racial discrimination and racist portrayals in Hollywood films. Try googling Redress and Reparations, Yuri Kochiyama, “The Year of the Dragon,” Jonathan Pryce and “Miss Saigon.” I could go on, but you can start there.

  2. Totally disgusting, kid. If he didn’t feel comfortable with the way the things were going, why didn’t he give up on the project and quit the whole thing? He wanted to do something? Sorry, but I won’t believe that, he wanted to act in it and see if he could become famous, but obviously he didn’t because his performance was mediocre to say the least, Sue’s (Anhey Her) acting was way better.
    I am not even white and I can’t see the so called ”racism” in the film, those guys (Walt, the barber guy) are obviously racist, that is the point of their characters!!! Did he really read the script? Based on his performance and this nonsense I’d doubt it.
    Walt’s American family and friends are portrayed as lazy, disgusting, trashy white rednecks and no one seems to be offended, why? Because it is normal and fine to mock at white people.
    Such Hypocrisy. A movie is not an statement, let’s all stop assuming it that way!

    • I don’t know how much experience you have with actors, Cocorossa, but my father was a theater professional for over 30 years, appearing in shows on Broadway, Off-Broadway, as a college visiting professional and touring Europe with A-List stars and directors. Bee Vang was not the first actor or the millionth who took a job hoping to improve a script, nor was he the first or millionth to keep the gig even if the script was still a dog. Actors have been trying to massage their lines for artistic, religious, political, moral and egotistical reasons but have still gone on with the show since Sophocles and Aristophanes were wowing the crowds in ancient Athens. My dad was able to get away with it when he was in his 50’s and had been in the business for 30 years, or because he was running the theater company or adapting the play in question. Bee Vang was a teenager from a minority community working for producers and a director with vastly more power AND consultants who, he claims, were willing to soft-pedal their concerns about the script. Again, if you have any knowledge of consulting in the business, political, artistic or technology worlds, the idea that a consultant might tell the people who are paying them what they want to hear would not exactly come as a shock to you. Charging Vang with speaking out only because his acting career has not taken off is childish, like some fan of One Direction claiming that someone else isn’t a fan only out of jealousy.

      I liked “Gran Torino” a lot and don’t really have an issue with the barbershop scene, but some of the other points about it, or the film, TV and theater industries as a whole, ring true, including inaccurate depictions of minority communities, casting white actors to play non-white characters, the prevalence of stereotypical people of color characters (the officious, black, female and usually fat civil servant or worker is the one that most often gets my goat), inaccurate or selective subtitling, unrealistic scripts and characters, and an unwillingness to treat professionals of color with the same respect accorded white professionals.

      By the way, of Walt’s family and friends, I thought the only two portrayed in a truly negative light were his daughter-in-law and granddaughter, both of whom were grasping and uncaring. The “racist” barber seemed to just be playing an old and comfortable game with Walt, the priest could have been a stereotypical “bleeding heart liberal” but got deeper as the film went on, and Walt’s sons were just completely alienated from him and arguably too soft on their kids (shorts and tee shirts at a funeral!). I don’t remember any of them being presented as lazy, trashy or especially redneck.

  3. You totally missed the whole point of the barbershop scene. That’s the way American men teased each other back in the day. I grew up in a Brooklyn housing project, in the ’60s. We were Irish, Italian, Jewish and Black. We teased each other using racial stereotypes. Sometimes we laughed, sometimes we got pissed and had an argument. We discussed things and stayed friends.

    We weren’t pussies who went to workshops and whined about things behind each other’s backs. I think the Hmong were portrayed positively in the movie as family oriented immigrants. Every movie about immigrants going back to the ’30s shows the conflict between gangs and going straight. The moral of the movie is that Walt learns to overcome his racism, and learns to love his neighbors.

    • I tend to agree with most of this comment, although I’m not sure American men teasing each other across racial and religious lines was that common in the 60’s and 70’s. Ethnic hostility within the white population was breaking down, for a variety of reasons – Who cares if you’re Irish and your neighbors are Italian or Polish when the first black family wants to move into the neighborhood? – but your points about the movie are otherwise well-taken.

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