When Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino hit theaters in 2008, it smashed at the box office, bringing in nearly $150 million in the US, per People. One person, however, isn't looking fondly back on the movie: Eastwood's co-star, Bee Vang, who portrayed a Hmong teen who befriends Eastwood's racist Korean War veteran character. In an essay for NBC News, Vang, now 29, says the laughter from mostly white viewers in reaction to the racist slurs thrown around in the film was "unnerving" to him. "To this day, I am still haunted by the mirth of white audiences, the uproarious laughter when [Eastwood's character] growled a slur," he writes, noting that that laughter has been "weaponized against us" and "beaten us into silent submission." "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—who notes his parents are Hmong refugees from Laos, part of America's "secret war"—places his movie beef in the context of recent attacks across the US against Asian Americans, which spiked after the pandemic struck and some people starting blaming China in specific, and Asians in general, for the disease. "A microscopic virus was replaced with a recognizable target," Vang writes. "And once again, in this pandemic, anti-Asian sentiment has turned us into a faceless, invasive peril to be extruded from this country." He takes issue, though, with the assertion by some that racism is a "novel thing" Asians are contending with, noting "US history is peppered with precursors—outbreaks of anti-Asian antipathy, sometimes enshrined in law." As for simply shrugging off ignorant racial slurs, Vang doesn't think that's possible. "I no longer wonder what people mean when they ask me why I can't take a joke," he writes. "COVID-19 has removed all doubt." His essay here. (Read more Clint Eastwood stories.)