March 5, 2021

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‘Gran Torino’ star Bee Vang criticizes film’s racial slurs, ‘mainstreamed anti-Asian racism’

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It’s been more than a decade since Bee Vang starred alongside Clint Eastwood in the 2008 film “Gran Torino.” But Vang is speaking out now about the film’s role in furthering discrimination. 

Amid the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans across the country, Vang, 29, who played the lead role ofThao Lor, denounced the film’s repeated use of racial slurs — as well as the audience reaction to harmful stereotypes — in an opinion piece for NBC News published Wednesday. Directed by Eastwood, “Gran Torino” tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a racist Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) and a Hmong teen (Vang). Hmong people are a Southeast Asian ethnic group, mainly coming from southern China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.

“At the time, there was a lot of discussion about whether the movie’s slurs were insensitive and gratuitous or simply ‘harmless jokes.’ I found it unnerving, the laughter that the slurs elicited in theaters with predominantly white audiences,” Vang wrote. “And it was always white people who would say, ‘Can’t you take a joke?’ “

Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) and Thao (Bee Vang) form an unlikely friendship in "Gran Torino."

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Vang says that anti-Asian rhetoric “disguised as good-natured humor” is the reason he is unsurprised by the recent uptick in racist incidents against Asians, including the death of 84-year-old Thai immigrant Vicha Ratanapakdee in January.

Violence against Asian Americans sharply increased in March as COVID-19 began spreading across the country. In New York City, police data shows there were 24 anti-Asian hate crimes related to the coronavirus between Jan. 1 and Nov. 29, 2020, compared with just three anti-Asian hate crimes in the same period in 2019. 

“‘Gran Torino’ may have elided the crisis in Asia that birthed our diaspora and many others across the Pacific. But more concerning was the way the film mainstreamed anti-Asian racism, even as it increased Asian American representation. The laughter weaponized against us has beaten us into silent submission.”

He reflected on how the socially acceptable nature of these “jokes” harms him and the Asian-American community. 

“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,” Vang wrote.

“And I no longer wonder what people mean when they ask me why I can’t take a joke. COVID-19 has removed all doubt.”

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Contributing: N’dea Yancey-Bragg

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