Making Peace with Changing Communities

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 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, befriending the teenagers who live next door 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 great picture of the grudging respect he is gaining for these neighbors.

As I have watched areas in Massachusetts change, I have seen a lot of Walt Kowalskis and a lot of ‘Wanda’ Kowalskis who are at odds with neighborhoods they have deep ties to.  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 often they are fearful.  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 sacrifice as Walt serves as a human shield to protect his neighbors.  He gradually accepts, and dare I say loves the community that surrounds him.

Communities in the United States are, and 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 just a 6-month time period and that is just one of many examples. As the world continues to move closer, and our interactions become more diverse, the transformation process that Walt Kowalski undergoes in the two-hour film is worth watching and, if needed, modeling.