Gran Torino star Bee Vang criticizes film's racial slurs amid surge in anti-Asian violence

More than a decade after the release of Clint Eastwood's drama Gran Torino, actor Bee Vang is speaking out about the damage caused by the film's racist dialogue.

In a new op-ed, Vang writes that he's 'still haunted by the mirth of white audiences'

Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), left, confronts a group of gang members harassing neighbourhood teenager Thao (Bee Vang) in the film Gran Torino. (©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Bee Vang was 15 years old when he starred opposite Clint Eastwood in the 2008 film Gran Torino, about an unlikely friendship between a racist Korean War veteran and a Hmong teen.

The drama marked a historic cinematic moment for Hmong people and Vang was thrilled to act alongside a Hollywood icon, but his joy quickly deflated when he went to see the film in theatres and heard white audiences laughing at racist slurs in the dialogue. 

"I went to theatres multiple times with friends and family … and what I saw was just a lot of laughter at the jokes and at the slurs," Vang told guest host Talia Schlanger in an interview on CBC Radio's Q. "As it kept happening, I began to [feel] more uncomfortable and began to find it even more disturbing because those were the very same slurs that I grew up hearing."

Clint Eastwood and Bee Vang in Gran Torino. (©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection)

It's been more than 10 years since Gran Torino was released, but in a new op-ed for NBC News, titled The Covid-19 era's anti-Asian racism isn't new. I learned this the hard way., the Hmong American actor writes that he's "still haunted by the mirth of white audiences."

"The idea that the use of these slurs is only a function of a character in a script — that's just so far removed from a world that has not yet come to grips with itself, with its racism and its inequalities," he told Schlanger.

Vang felt prompted to speak out after seeing the recent surge in anti-Asian violence in the U.S. and Canada over the last year, including the Jan. 31 murder of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai American.

The actor said that anti-Asian racism has largely been ignored because of "the model minority trope" — a stereotype that praises people of Asian descent for their perceived economic success and hard work, but also denigrates them as being "reticent, deferential and even obsequious."

"This is why anti-Asian racism will continue with impunity," Vang explained in the interview. "Because it gets perpetrated by those who do not perceive Asian Americans as enough of a threat." He added that there's a need for more substantive and nuanced conversations about Asian American identity.

As for whether he now regrets his role in Gran Torino , Vang noted that just because he was a part of the film doesn't mean he can't critique it.

"I don't regret it because it's given me the opportunity to be able to speak about the things that I have learned and that are part of my life."

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Chris Trowbridge.


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