A New York writer of Hmong heritage who has been published by Minnesota Historical Society Press is alleging that local screenwriter Nick Shenk got the portrayal of the Hmong wrong in the new mega-buzzed-about Clint Eastwood drama, Gran Torino.
This Friday, Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino opens nationwide. Already released in New York and Los Angelas, I had the advantage of previewing this movie prior to the rest of the country. As a Hmong American writer from Minnapolis/St.Paul, I offer my take on this highly-acclaimed gritty urban fable. The story centers on a Midwest racist who grows to love and defend his Hmong neighbors. The film's director and star, Clint Eastwood, and newcomer writer, Nick Schenk are both being showered with awards and acclaim for the script's brute honesty and originality. An admirable tale with an unexpected ending, no one can deny Eastwood, a true film legend, the respect he deserves for elevating a blue-collar story into a personal mea culpa aimed right at the heart of his aging baby boomer audience. With its Oscar buzz and Hollywood funding, Gran Torino is indubitably the largest mainstream introduction to Hmong culture ever. As the attention focuses on this seemingly obscure community it is important to observe the risk of getting the story wrong and the advantages of getting the story right.
When the film was announced this past summer many speculated that this was Eastwood's return to the Dirty Harry genre with a culturally motivated revenge story twist. The Hmong community held their collective breath in anticipation of what could potentially become their own "Miss Saigon;" a controversial musical criticized for patronizing the Vietnamese culture. The hope that a sensitive, contemporary writer would handle the material responsibly was quickly shaken with the notice of Nick Schenk's few previous writing credits to be exclusively comedy based. Yet as the filmmaker responsible for "Letters from Iwo Jima," Eastwood's reputation seemingly assured the project's integrity. In the end, he made it half-way there.
The film does offer a sympathetic view towards the Hmong in its depiction of their struggle to survive in a violent urban landscape alongside the aging protagonist, but it is the thoroughly stilted dialogue and mixed cultural references that distracts from the story-telling the most. The exchange about the Hmong's history was seemingly lifted straight from a high school social studies report and ignored the over 5000 year old Hmong history beyond their involvement as allies to the US during the Secret War in Laos. Many of the Hmong actors were amateurs and the awkward dialogue punctuated this fact even further. Schenk, admittedly not an anthropologist, did not appear to research this complex community beyond consulting a few Hmong people among the largely Hmong populated St. Paul/Minneapolis metro area. An early draft of the script even had names misspelled and referenced Chinese surnames, a sloppy mistake that was easily corrected, but what remained unchanged was the confusion of Asian customs. For the record, Hmong people do not use favors as a method of atonement nor do they endlessly shower individuals with gifts out of gratitude.
These may be minor mistakes made for the sake of storytelling, but they do raise the question of why Schenk would use the Hmong in his script if he did not want to accurately research and portray them in his movie. The exploitation of this relatively unknown community seemed like a convenient twist to an otherwise straightforward story. It reveals a certain cutting-edge trendiness that big names like Burger King has even caught on to with the use of Hmong and other ethnic minorities in their "Whopper Virgin" campaign. The trendiness factor has always been an important marketing strategy. But why when several professional Hmong filmmakers, actors, and writers exist, do they continue to get passed over when these projects are created? Convenience perhaps, but most likely it is a numbers game. There are simply too few Hmong script writers out there to compete against the thousands of western writers. Western writers and artists are happy to borrow and distort their stories to create the illusion of originality, but in the end, they simply want and will receive the credit.
However, to the minority community, it is critical that these storytellers get their facts right. Take for instance, the Hmong's religious and medical belief in the spirit world. In 1991's Doogie Howser M.D. episode, "It's a damn shaman!" and more recently in 2005's Grey's Anatomy episode "Bring the Pain" the Hmong's religious beliefs became a key plot point exemplifying the east-meets-west conflict as it pertains to medicine. While these episodes focused on exaggerated cultural practices, it was Anne Fadiman's 1997 National Book Critic's Award winning nonfiction book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, that made the Hmong people a household name among the western medical community. Through a sincere case study of a Hmong child with epilepsy, Fadiman's pivotal book did more to explain and understand the Hmong's religious beliefs than either programs could have ever hoped to do. Their audiences may have been bigger and their story played for greater drama, but in the end, Fadiman's book benefited both the Hmong and mainstream community by creating a true bridge for understanding.
In the absence of a true voice from within the community, it is with this level of expectation that artists should uphold themselves when referencing any minority community. Rather than allowing a minority community to take part in your project, it may be better to consider your responsibility to contribute to their community. Unless this level of respect for both the creative and cultural communities can be achieved, we, the audience, should not accept any tokenizing stories as fact either.
-- Sharon Her, a Hmong American writer from New York whose work has appeared in San Francisco's Asian Week, New York Press, and Object Magazine and has also been published in the Hmong American literary anthology, Bamboo Among the Oaks, (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002).
Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments. Though you may not have been able to see the movie like Sharon Her has, you can at least see the trailer: