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Eastwood's Gran Torino
Class, Race and Clint
by KIM NICOLINI

Gran Torino is a heck of a last hurrah for Clint Eastwood. It is Eastwood’s ode to himself and his role in films while also being an ode to a dying breed of Americans – the union autoworker. It manages to combine rioutously fun self-reflexive humor with a scathing critical critique of America’s exploitive practices in war and the economy, the dismantling of union labor and the consequences of the insipient plague of global capitalism.

On the entertaining side, the entire movie consists of Clint Eastwood performing himself as Clint Eastwood with brilliant and hilarious self-reflexivity. Playing Walt Kowalski, a retired racist Polish-American auto worker in Detroit, Clint Eastwood rips out all the stops and reflects on every scene he has ever played in every movie and parodies himself along the way. In a number of vigilante revenge scenes he is an old and decrepit Dirty Harry. In others, he is the Man With No Name living his life in isolation in the foreign setting of Post-Reagan, Post-NAFTA Detroit (a new kind of vicious wilderness). Eastwood is a living tribute to himself inside his own body. Every twitch of his face, every clench of his fists, every grunt, every finger on the trigger, and every bitter cynical sneer is played with just the right dose of comic exaggeration. The grand total presents an accumulation of Clint Eastwood being Clint Eastwood, and the performance is priceless.

The movie walks an interesting line between self-parody and social seriousness. The movie centers on racism and redemption. Walt Kowalski is a die hard working class racist. A veteran of the Korean war, he has been well indoctrinated in intolerance. The movie takes us through Walt’s path of redemption and ultimate saintly martyrdom, and in so doing it operates in a heck of a lot of clichés and a good heavy dose of Catholicism. A lot of people of criticized the movie for its simplicity of plot and its overt invocation of racial slurs. But it is the simplicity of the film and its bare bones approach to race, class, and redemption that allow Eastwood to address a lot of complex issues. The seemingly superficial surface of the film and its reduction to basic stereotypes allows us to dig deeper and find the depth lurking below the surface. The movie isn’t just about the struggle of race on the superficial level of skin color and nationality, but it is also about learning to survive in a global economy that is shutting out the traditional working class.

Walt is an icon of an endangered species in the United States – the blue collar, union, auto worker. But the movie is not called Walt Kowalski. It’s called Gran Torino. The movie is not named after the man, but his car. That is important to note because Walt’s car, his 1972 Gran Torino, is as rare a species as Walt himself. Not only does Walt own a Gran Torino, but he installed the steering column on his car himself when he worked at Ford plant. As he tells his young neighbor Thao, “I put the steering column in this Gran Torino in 1972, right on the line.” This detail is critical to the political position of the film. In my opinion, the failure to follow the Fordist model of capitalism played a huge role in bringing down the economy. In the Fordism model, industry keeps a solid base of workers who are paid a good wage and are kept economically stable enough to support the capitalist system and to buy the products that they themselves produce. Otherwise the system fails. The workers produce the products, and then they buy the products of their labor with their wages, making them perpetually beholden to the system. They make enough money to survive and participate in a consumer economy (feed themselves and the system), but not enough to elevate them to any position of economic power and autonomy. People cannot afford to feed a system that doesn’t feed them. Walt Kowalski (a retired Ford autoworker) is the living breathing symbol of Fordism, and he is dying.

That Walt is at battle with Asian gangs driving Hondas isn’t just racial stereotyping. It is an allegory for the battle between classic union labor and global capital, an insidious system that has eliminated the American working class, killed off labor unions, and outsourced its working class jobs to foreign countries. Much of the tension in the movie is derived from the fact that we are looking at both “sides” (the Asian and the American) and we see that both sides are equally exploited by a global system that doesn’t give two shits for anyone other than those on top collecting the big paychecks and bonuses. Race is invisible to global capitalism because all ethnicities are equal fodder for exploitation. Thao and his Hmong family were as exploited by American global economic interests as the disenfranchised autoworkers in Detroit. As Sue explains to Walt, the Hmong fought on the American side during the Vietnam War, but then they were abandoned and forgotten when the war ended. The Hmong and Walt were equally used and exploited by American imperialist interests. This is the ultimate lesson that Walt learns in the movie. His journey through the movie brings him to an understanding of his own attitudes toward race and his practice of “patriotism” as products of his indoctrination by the system of American imperialism. It is in the system’s interest to promote racism and intolerance because then the Walk Kowalskis of the world can go fight wars and kill innocent people justifying it with their racist indoctrination. Hate makes hateful things seem justified.

Some critics, especially amongst the White Politically Correct, have criticized the movie for its overt racist content.  They say the Asian characters are stereotypes and the racist slurs are egregious. It is important to remember that you cannot interrogate racism and its sources if you hide it under the rug. It has to be exposed to be understood, addressed, and hopefully rectified on some level. The whole point of the movie is to show how racism is bred by a culture that promotes division and intolerance as a means of keeping the underclass at war with each other and beholden to the system. Division doesn’t allow for solidarity. I also must note that if the movie were truly racist, the racist slurs would not be so overt. They are presented with candid matter-of-factness so that we can examine how racism operates. By exposing racism, the movie defuses its power. Gran Torino isn’t a movie about being politically correct. It’s a movie about looking a horse in the eye and calling it a horse and then seeing how the horse relates to the whole system in which it labors, a system which is lethal.

Speaking of the lethal system, this brings me to the mortality of Walt and the passing of his legacy to his young Hmong neighbor Thao. Walt’s disease is not just lung cancer but a cultural cancer. As he drinks his beer from his cooler and smokes cigarette after cigarette, Walt tries to live his life in orderly containment while suppressing the horror of the murders he committed in Korea. From the blood on his hands to the blood in his lungs, Walt has been diseased by a system that first exploited him and is now killing him off. The true redemption in the movie doesn’t come from the fact that Walt martyr’s himself by getting gunned down by the gangs, but the fact that he breaks free from his rigid racist indoctrination and understands how that system worked against him and against his Hmong neighbors. When Walt leaves his 1972 Gran Torino to young Thao, it truly is an act of rebellion because it refuses to engage in the divide that global capitalism and American imperialism promote amongst workers and the underclass from different ethnicities. Walt understands that the steering column has no chance of survival if it stays locked inside an obsolete ethno-centric racist body. Walt passes the Gran Torino onto Thao in the hopes that by obliterating racial divides, the steering column, the car, and the body of the worker contained inside it will have a better chance for survival in a world where the exploited are united by common interest rather than divided by racism and hate. 

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. Her work has appeared in Punk Planet, Berkeley Poetry Review, Bad Subjects, and Bullhorn. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.