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Many people assume that in order for a movie to be worth watching a movie a hero must come and save the helpless. In many cases the savior has to be white, young, handsome, likeable and masculine. Such an assumption can be dismissed in the movie Gran Torino. The movie depicts not only the very apparent differences between races, but in cultures as well. In Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski defies a person’s expectation of a white savior. He is an old man who is offensive to everyone since his wife died, especially those who are not the same race as him.
Hollywood has this idea that in order for a movie to be desirable, the savior has to be a young handsome man that is likeable throughout the whole movie. Yet, in Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski and the Hmong defy the traditional definition of the white savior and manage to maintain a successful relatable character even though he is an angry, racist white grandpa. Gran Torino (2008) is set in Detroit. The plot of Gran Torino revolves on Walt Kowalski (played by Clint Eastwood), a Korean war veteran, a retired ford autoworker, and a tremendously distrustful and intensely bigoted man. The movie starts at the death of Kowalski’s wife.
His grandchildren are selfish and egoistic, and Kowalski has no interest in them. Kowalski two adult sons are not the usual representations of a savior: controlled by their money-oriented wives, ineffectual men, weak. He shows no interest in attaching with the community priest, an extra depiction of the weak white savior. Kowalski is a lone wolf and he loves it that way as he sits on the front of his house, drinking can after can of beer and growling at people. Kowalski appears that he is not able to socialize with a non-white person without the use of racial portrayals, and his racism is mostly for the laughs.
One day a Hmong adolescent, Thao, tries to steal Kowalski Gran Torino and Kowalski is given the task to improve him after he becomes friends with Thao’s family; he even sacrifices himself for Thao’s family. His beliefs towards persons from a different race were altered throughout the film. .In “Race Relations Light Years from Earth,” Mitu Sengupta, an associate Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, responds to the claim that Avatar is racist by making a much more qualified one about the “white messiah” narrative.
According to the text, “Another story where the ‘white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color, and become leaders of the people they once oppressed’ ” (Solomon and Maasik 413). In other words, American culture has defined the heroes as a young white male with strong hearts that desire to help minorities they once oppressed. With influential points, Sengupta points out that if James Cameron had think about casting Worthington as the main protagonist, he might have created an incredible revolutionary film, a movie worthy of all the controversy.
But he did not; instead he casted a handsome white man. To put differently, if Cameron had casted let’s say Will Smith in the role or even had someone from the Na’vi population save his own people everything would be different, there would be a hero that for once is not a young white male. And they would have someone to look after of the same race. The main point is that movie producers have a bigger interest in the tales of white heroes helping colored people than tales about colored people helping their own societies or even minorities helping white people out of trouble. Is it racist to enjoy these films?
No, it’s not. Many people can still feel free to watch and like these movies, but these films are part of a line that decides to ignore the viewpoint of minorities, and feed into the hero complex that shows what Hollywood is about. Walk Kowalski complicates the traditional definition of the white savior. He is nothing as a typical male hero instead it invites the viewer to sympathize with a man who begins as the personification of a racist man. The reason I say Kowalski complicates the definition of the white savior is because he breaks out his expected behaviors and appearances.
For example, he is the main character and he is an old man; for many people he is going to be unattractive. This shows how this character tries to change the idea of a savior, but still manages to be the hero of the Hmongs. One point that supports my claim is Kowalski aggressiveness through the whole film. For instance, in one part of the movie one gang member asks Kowalski, “What are you looking at old man” and he replies, “Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have fucked with? That’s me. ” And even on the cover of the DVD he holds a gun with an angry face.
Again this is to show that he is not your typical savior compared to Avatar or Superman. One author named Stephen Garret, a film producer, writes about how we are starting to like heroes that try to be different and at the same time get the viewers to like them. For example, the TV series Dexter, this show is about a Miami police forensics expert that kills those who he believes has escaped justice. For some people he might be a hero or an anti-hero and he is an aggressive person, yet at the same time the show focus around him.
He is different about the typical hero, instead of sacrificing himself for the people; he kills the bad guys, which is not typical for the main character to kill at a show. Numerous people may argue that in this part of time Hollywood casts Asians that look similar to a part of Asia still exist. I argue that this is false because the Hmong people portrayed in the film are actually Hmong American actors. Casting Asians just to represent an Asian country may have happened in the past, but this is the present.
Actors are actually supposed to represent that specific part of Asia. Another point that supports Senguptas claim is that Kowalski saves Hmongs even though he dies. In the last scene he walks up to the main antagonists house and provokes them to shoot him by insulting them and making them believe that he was about to take out a gun out of his jacket. The whole point for this scene says it all; he is the savior of the Hmongs. He sacrifies himself basically to save the whole Hmong community from getting their male teens to join gangs.
Despite all the differences that I have been pointing out, they are mostly focused on one character. This movie still needs the hero to save the helpless. The portrayals of the Hmong people in the movie Gran Torino are closely unified with the stereotypical views of Asian Americans. Thao and Sue Lor, neighbors that live next to Kowalski, and the Hmong people, are represented as persons who are not able to protect themselves and badly need Kowalski’s support. This brings me to a specific part of the movie Sue Lor was being harassed by some gang members and later on was protected by Kowalski.
There is not a single Hmong character that tries to organize the community to battle against the gang who intimidates them. There is also not a single Hmong character who attempts to take the responsibility to defend his or her community. Simply put, all the Hmong people in the movie remain weak and require protection, or they are debauched crooks. By portraying the Hmong people through these two stereotypical extremes, Gran Torino characterizes the Hmong as weak, needy, and require the manliness of
Kowalski’s white hero to defend the people from their dishonest opposites. In conclusion, Walt Kowalski does not obey the rules of the expected savior. He does not follow the behaviors and appearances of a man like Jake from Avatar, but this does not affect the relationship between him and Thao. Kowalski still manages to save the family. However, instead of surviving and being praised as the hero; he dies. This scene changes what is supposed to happen on the role of the white messiah. White male characters in movies are often characterized as the heroes of colored people.
They are popular and handsome; the savior usually shows his bravery with the typical scene of him saving a group of colored people. Minorities are described as too fragile to protect their people from danger. In Gran Torino, Kowalski takes the role of the white messiah to a new stage. For example, how he sacrifices himself with the Christ-like pose of the final scene and his personality. Walt Kowalski character represents a specific form of overt racism. Whether or not trying to be different is a new feature to the traditions remains to be seen.