What happens when a bitter racist is transformed?
In the movie Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski (played by Clint Eastwood) is a bitter old man living out his years in a neighborhood that has changed from working-class white to Hmong and Chinese. He does not like it and makes no pretense of civility and no apology for being an open racist. No one is safe from this behavior, particularly the Hmong mother who lives next door and who is victim to Kowalski’s growling and racial slurs every time they happen to be on the porch at the same time.
In the course of the movie, his character changes and he gradually makes peace with the neighborhood, getting to know the teenagers who live next door and becoming both friend and protector. A scene showing him at a Hmong feast eating food he has never seen before (and still makes no pretense of liking) is a beautiful image of the grudging respect he is gaining for these neighbors.
As I have watched areas throughout the United States change, I have seen a lot of Walt Kowalskis and a lot of ‘Wanda’ Kowalskis; men and women at odds with neighborhoods in which they have deep ties. They grieve for a neighborhood that was and struggle with the neighborhood that is. The words ‘us and them‘ are present in their speech and they are angry and fearful. The world is a scary place to them. Some of them move through a slow process of change; for others it’s too difficult. The movie initially portrays the tension and hatred of a man at odds with his changing neighborhood, moves on to the slow process of change and ultimately brings the audience to an act of deep love and ultimate sacrifice as Walt serves as a human shield to protect his neighbors. Walt gives up his life in the process of protecting people that he used to hate. He gradually accepts and, dare I say, loves the community that surrounds him.
Communities in the United States have changed and they will continue to change. A community health center that I work with saw three thousand patients from 40 different countries and 60 different language groups in a 6-month time period. That is just one of many examples of our changing world. As the world continues to move closer, the transformation process that Walt Kowalski undergoes in the two-hour film is worth watching and modeling. He changes because he gets to know the people who surround him, he begins to see beyond visual differences to what is underneath. He begins to see the “other” as human.
Although the movie is eight years old, I have thought about it a lot in past months and I want to watch it again. Just below the surface in America is a deep fear and dislike, often hatred, for the one who is other. The campaign of a presidential hopeful is built on promoting these fears across the country. Over and over, we hear people say that they like Donald Trump because he “tells it like it is.” But what he “tells” is deeply troubling. His rhetoric is about walls and isolation, about spewing racism and bigotry, about hating anything that is not like him.
Consider this from a NY Times op-ed piece by Timothy Egan: With media complicity, Trump has unleashed the beast that has long resided not far from the American hearth, from those who started a Civil War to preserve the right to enslave a fellow human to the Know-Nothing mobs who burned Irish-Catholic churches out of fear of immigrants.When high school kids waved a picture of Trump while shouting “Build a wall” at students from a heavily Hispanic school during a basketball game in Indiana last week, they were exhaling Trump’s sulfurous vapors. They know exactly what he stands for.
Donald Trump is Walt Kowalski and he has found favor with many. Would that he would sit down and watch the movie so he can learn what transformation looks like, what it is to learn to love people and ultimately give your life for them.
I have little hope that Trump will do that. Nothing so far has touched his conscience and moved him to apologize for anything he has said. But what about those thousands who have the same thoughts but are not as high profile? In the character of Walt Kowalski we see hope for transformation and change. Is it just Hollywood, or can we hope for the same redemptive stories in our own neighborhoods? I hope with all my heart we can.
Note: Some of this content comes from one of my earliest blog posts. I revisited it as I was thinking about much of what I have heard in past weeks.