Eastwood, Gran Torino, And Hmong America

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Whitney Her (Sue) and Doua Moua (Spider) on Gran Torino's set (eastwoodmovie-hmong.com)

So AsianWeek has a really good and in-depth article on the new Eastwood film Gran Torino, spotlighting the fact that there will be a huge Hmong American cast but also making sure to point out that not everyone is so keen on the idea, some waiting to see if the film will either help to break stereotypes or rather put more force behind them:

Not since Anne Fadiman’s bestselling 1997 book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down have Hmong Americans had the chance to be so visible in mainstream pop culture: Director Clint Eastwood’s next film Gran Torino, shot in Detroit in August, will feature an almost all-Hmong leading cast.

After holding open casting calls attended by hundreds of Hmong in the communities of Saint Paul, Fresno and Detroit, Eastwood settled on ten Hmong leads and supporting players, all but one of whom are first-time actors. Hmong crew, cultural consultants and dozens of extras were also hired.

The screenplay by Nick Schenck, a white Minnesotan, features Walt, a cantankerous Polish American man, played by Eastwood, who has just lost his wife and is estranged from his children and grandchildren. Disgruntled that his urban neighborhood is being populated by more and more Hmong arrivals, he keeps a cautious distance until the nerdy teenage boy next door, Tao, tries to steal his vintage Gran Torino car to prove himself to a Hmong gang. Walt extracts work from Tao as payback, and in the process, becomes friendly with Tao and his family. He is tutored in Hmong culture, and his racist stance gradually chips away.
I gotta be honest - on one hand I think it's fine to tell a story from a white POV and writer in the sense of education and learning - because everyone goes through that; there has to be an evolution - no one comes out of the womb enlightened.

But at the same time I think it's concerning when you hear statements like this (from eastwoodmovie-hmong.com):
Credit goes to the Eastwood people for putting in the extra effort to find Hmong actors and taking a leap of faith to cast them for the roles. This is good news, but we are still disappointed by the careless cultural mistakes and use of stereotypes for the Hmong characters in the script. Until we see something better, our thumbs are still down.
As well as this (from the original AsianWeek article):
Even though a real Hmong shaman was cast to play a ritualist, his expertise was overridden by the screenplay and the filming, which distorted the ceremonial scenes by making them inaccurately exotic
I do have hope for this movie and although Eastwood is white and this film was written by someone who's white - it doesn't mean they don't have something important to say, or that we can't all still learn from it, or that it's just going to be bad - and to be honest from what I've seen, Hmong Americans who play the majority of roles in this film are cast as every single different type of character - and that's a good thing.

But I'll still have to see the final. I'll have to see if there's a line that's crossed between exotifying Hmong American culture as outsiders, or helping to represent it as a part of the American story, and I'll have to see if the characters that are Hmong American aren't taking a back seat in the script and in the ending (will it just be a white character who comes in and saves the day or will it be with the help of his new found friends, or does it matter in the context of the story?) -- and then also thinking through the amount of Hmong Americans who are helping behind the scenes making sure things are culturally accurate in the end (and from what I'm hearing right now it's not a lot but it doesn't mean that can't change).

I guess in the end I'll be waiting to see, learning more, and crossing my fingers that Eastwood and everyone involved gets this right.