Actor Bee Vang is speaking out against the 2008 movie Gran Torino, his acting debut directed by his co-star, Clint Eastwood, saying the movie "mainstreamed anti-Asian racism."
Vang, 29, made his comments in an NBC News opinionIessay published on Wednesday, Feb. 17. Eastwood, 90, who plays a bigoted Korea War veteran in the film, has not commented. In recent weeks, many celebs have used their social media platforms to raise awareness about the increase in harassment and violence that Asian-Americans have faced in the United States since the coronavirus pandemic broke out in March 2020. The COVID-19 virus originated in China.
Vang said in his essay that he remains "haunted by the mirth of white audiences, the uproarious laughter" when Eastwood's character growled an anti-Asian slur. He wrote, "At the time, there was a lot of discussion about whether the movie's slurs were insensitive and gratuitous or simply 'harmless jokes.' I found it unnerving, the laughter that the slurs elicited in theaters with predominantly white audiences. And it was always white people who would say, 'Can't you take a joke?'"
"Today, I shudder at the thought of what that meant," he continued. "More than a decade later, the anti-Asian racism that was once disguised as good-natured humor has been revealed for what it is, thanks to COVID-19...once again, in this pandemic, anti-Asian sentiment has turned us into a faceless, invasive peril to be extruded from this country."
In Gran Torino, Eastwood's character, Walt Kowalski, lives next door to a Hmong family, which includes Vang's character, teenage Thao Vang Lor. A Hmong gang pressures the boy into trying to steal Kowalski's 1972 Ford Gran Torino. After Kowalski catches him, the teen's mother sends her son to work for the man and the two develop a friendship. The film earned more than $148 million in North America and $269 million total worldwide.
Vang was 16 and a high school junior when he made his acting debut in Gran Torino. The actor was born in Fresno in Northern California in 1991, about four years after his parents immigrated to the United States. In his essay, Vang describes his parents as "Hmong refugees from the Vietnam War, though from Laos."
"Gran Torino may have elided the crisis in Asia that birthed our diaspora and many others across the Pacific," he wrote. "But more concerning was the way the film mainstreamed anti-Asian racism, even as it increased Asian American representation. The laughter weaponized against us has beaten us into silent submission."
Vang called on Asian-Americans "to demand recognition" and to "help steer the world toward healing and social renewal," adding, "In times of crisis, solidarity requires a collective commitment to justice. We cannot lose sight of this, or it will become impossible to imagine a new and better world."
E! News has reached out to Eastwood's production company for comment.
(E! and NBC News are part of the NBCUniversal family.)