DEVLIN: How the Film Gran Torino Explains Trump Isn’t A Racist

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Monday, July 22, 2019


I’m struggling to recall a week since the last presidential election that’s involved such cheap and disingenuous politics. Accordingly, my friends and I needed a break, and on Thursday night, we decided to watch Gran Torino. Lo and behold, this movie proved an apt and relevant summarization of the current political climate as it analyzes gender roles, generational differences, the true definition of masculinity, and the decline of American culture and values.

If you haven’t seen Gran Torino before, I advise you to stop reading this piece and watch it right now. If you ignore my advice, though, here’s a quick rundown of the film. The movie takes place in modern-day Detroit where Clint Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski a hard-nosed, blue-collar, racially insensitive, Korean War vet whose wife just died. In recent years, a large group of Hmong people and various gangs moved into the area. Walt’s new neighbors have a son, named Tao. Tao is pretty much a weakling whose gang-banger cousins try to bully him into joining their gang. Through an interesting turn of events, though, Walt and Tao develop a relationship that softens Walt’s prejudiced heart and teaches Tao how to be a man. 

The film’s aptness to describe the ongoing debate around racially inflammatory statements caught me off guard. The way Walt treats race resembles some of Trump’s recent comments on race, albeit Walt’s offenses are much more intense.

Some claim Trump’s political career has been riddled with what they consider to be racially insensitive comments. As an example, they point to when, in 2016, Trump argued a Mexican judge could not be impartial due to Trump’s hardline immigration policy in a case completely unrelated to immigration. Of course, we have his most recent comments that call out AOC, Ilhan Omar, and the other members of the squad:

While it’s rather clear AOC and Ilhan Omar hold unjustified contempt for the American founding, and an immense amount of ingratitude for our great nation, the inconvenient truth for the president here is that all of these women are citizens of the United States. It’s a step in the right direction, then, for Trump to disavow the “send her back” chants that broke out at his North Carolina rally the day after.

Returning to Gran Torino, Walt calls his Hmong neighbors, especially Tao, almost every slur imaginable even after he develops a caring relationship with them. In fact, he uses racially insensitive terms to describe nearly every person he comes into contact with regardless of race. But, interestingly enough, Walt isn’t a text-book racist. Despite his crude and condemnable use of racial epithets, Walt is neither animated by racial animus, nor seems to believe that another race is inferior by default of their skin color. If Walt was racist through and through, he wouldn’t have bothered to mentor Tao or protect him and his family from gang violence. What prejudices he does have for other peoples and cultures continue to subside as his relationship with the Hmong community deepens. 

To reiterate, I’m not equivocating Trump’s statements with Walt’s flippant use of slurs. Walt’s statements are much worse. This only adds to my point. It’s undeniable that Trump engages in speech that is insensitive. That type of conduct is objectionable on a moral level, but what concerns me more is that it may be undesirable for the president’s re-election—something I look forward to wholeheartedly. However, it isn’t proof that Trump is motivated by racial antipathy.

Even those who detest Trump will find it impossible to argue with the Administration’s criminal justice reform, an economy that has benefitted minority groups through employment, wage growth, tax cuts, and international aid programs to help minority communities better their economic conditions. The rhetoric of both Walt and Trump falls harshly on contemporary ears, but in both, their actions show a concern for minorities that extends beyond what they may have said prior.

What makes Gran Torino such a powerful film is how Tao and Walt void in each other’s life that challenges both of their prejudices. Not even Walt, despite all of his faults, was beyond reevaluating his prejudices and changing how he treats other people. Yet, cancel culture, which demands we eliminate anyone or anything with the slightest whiff of insensitivity, leaves no room for stories like Gran Torino. Maturation, repentance, and redemption are gone. So if you’re unhappy with the president’s comments, point out his wrongdoings, but leave room for atonement.

Bradley Devlin is a student at the University of California Berkeley studying Political Economics and serves as the President of the Berkeley College Republicans.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.


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About Bradley Devlin

University of California, Berkeley

Bradley Devlin is a student at the University of California Berkeley studying Political Economics and serves as the President of the Berkeley College Republicans.

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