December 24, 2008

How Clint Eastwood did it

Eastwood’s Next Film Features Hmong American Cast: Exclusive Interviews From the Set of ‘Gran Torino’Not since Anne Fadiman’s bestselling 1997 book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down have Hmong Americans had the chance to be so visible in mainstream pop culture: Director Clint Eastwood’s next film Gran Torino, shot in Detroit in August, will feature an almost all-Hmong leading cast.

After holding open casting calls attended by hundreds of Hmong in the communities of Saint Paul, Fresno and Detroit, Eastwood settled on ten Hmong leads and supporting players, all but one of whom are first-time actors. Hmong crew, cultural consultants and dozens of extras were also hired.
Unfortunately, it seems Gran Torino still has mistakes and stereotypes:A blog ( has even sprung up, critiquing the movie and its cultural accuracy with comments on everything from implausible Hmong names to skewed rituals and customs. Costumes are also up for ridicule. A photo of the gangsters bears the caption: “What is the wardrobe department thinking? A Hmong gangbanger accessorizing! Hmong gangbangers everywhere, u should be upset!”

The actors struggle, too, with their culture being made into spectacle. Even though a real Hmong shaman was cast to play a ritualist, his expertise was overridden by the screenplay and the filming, which distorted the ceremonial scenes by making them inaccurately exotic.
But the Hmong actors and audiences realize that it's more than just a movie:This emphasis on “getting it right” can be understood as coming from immigrants who have had more than their share of negative media images. Media coverage recurrently portrays Hmong as a poor fit for American society, focusing on sensationalized stories of Hmong murderers, gang conflict, teen marriage and cultural rigidity. The American populace is more likely to know about Lia Lee’s parents “failing” to comply with Lia’s doctors in The Spirit Catches You than about the Hmong woman Mee Moua, who has been elected more than once to the Minnesota state Senate.

Ever hopeful, actor Doua Moua, who also plays a gangster in Gran Torino, anticipates that the film will open the door to more opportunities for Hmong producers and directors. Thinking of the dozens of small production companies that make videos in Hmong language for community entertainment, he envisions giving back to his people by working with up-and-coming Hmong directors. The future, for Doua and many other Hmong, is not only to be cast by the Hollywood heavyweights but to also take a shot at becoming heavyweights themselves.
Comment:  Notice what's missing in Eastwood's approach. No nationwide search for Hmong actors that failed to turn up a single candidate. No claims that he "really" wanted to use the Hmong but was "forced" to compromise. No ridiculous assertions that Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, or white actors who look Hmong or have a bit of Hmong blood are qualified to play Hmong.

No, Eastwood understands that authenticity matters. As a consummate professional, he probably realized he had a responsibility to depict the Hmong accurately. No quick 'n' easy choices based on box-office considerations for him.

This is why his movies are a critical and (I believe) a financial success. He doesn't pander to Hollywood's tastes (or lack thereof). He doesn't add "hotties," car chases, or explosions just to spice up his movies.

I bet he never considered casting non-Hmong actors to portray the Hmong. I can just imagine his response if someone had suggested using Taylor Lautner, with his pseudo-Asian look. He would've fixed the interlocutor with his steely gaze and said, "Are you insane?"

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.

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