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Sensitivity and 'Gran Torino'

Posted: Thursday, January 08, 2009

Clint Eastwood has had it up to here with sensitivity. "A lot of people are bored of all the political correctness," he recently told the New York Times. "... The country has come a long way in race relations, but the pendulum swings so far back. Everyone wants to be so" ... and here, he gave a make-my-day grimace ... "sensitive."

As it happens, Eastwood was talking about a fellow for whom sensitivity is not a problem: Walt Kowalski, the retired Detroit auto worker he portrays in his latest film, "Gran Torino." Kowalski is the unlikely hero of a tale of redemption and sacrifice ... unlikely because he is a cantankerous cuss with a mouth full of bigotry and invective, a guy who has it in for the "dagos," the "micks," the "hillbillies" and, most pointedly, the "slopes" ... i.e., the Hmong refugees, an influx of which has left his once white, working-class neighborhood unrecognizable.

In the years since he stopped acting opposite orangutans, Eastwood has become a fascinating filmmaker, willing like few others to confront the nettlesome gray areas of human existence. "Gran Torino" is a worthy addition to that canon but for all the nettlesome grays it illuminates, the most nettlesome might be one it suggests only obliquely: the notion that we are drowning in our own sensitivity.

Here in the United States of the Aggrieved, there is no malady, mark, mannerism, mindset or malformation too miscellaneous to have its own support group, along with a cadre of lobbyists and lawyers hyper-vigilant for any suggestion of mistreatment or actionable discrimination. Largely as a result, American English has become a morass of compound constructions and newly invented terminologies designed to leave no one out, give no one cause for offense. Sometimes you wonder if, in so radically revising the way we communicate, we have not compromised our ability to do so.

A few years ago, I showed one of my college classes an episode of "All in the Family." The students were offended. Nor were they persuaded by my protestations that the show was: (a) hilarious and; (b) a satire that condemned bigotry by making it ridiculous. They are children of a different era where you simply cannot say the things Archie Bunker did, even to ridicule them.

Sometimes, I think that's progress. Sometimes, I call it something else entirely.

Archie Bunker and Walt Kowalski are icons of a white America that is fading away ... meaning not simply one that was freer with ethnic insult, but one where it was possible, among friends, to speak those insults in good humor, with no malice intended or imputed.

Indeed, Kowalski gets as good as he gives from his barber, an Italian, each slurring the other's ancestry with good-natured brio. Yet when Kowalski confronts a group of black street punks, the script has him calling them "spooks" ... not the more obvious epithet that rhymes with "trigger." Eastwood doubtless knew using that word would have rendered the character irredeemable.

That the script allowed Eastwood to fire at will at his Italian friend but required him to pull up short in dealing with black thugs is telling. It speaks not simply to script dynamics, but to dynamics of American history and culture, to the question of who has assimilated enough that we deem them fair game and who has not.

It's not difficult to appreciate the nostalgia Eastwood ... and, likely, many white Americans of his generation ... feel for the easy banter between Kowalski and his barber. It bespeaks a less touchy time where friendly insults helped pass the time of day.

But for there to be friendly insults, there must first be friendships, with all the reserves of trust and affection that term implies. The "sensitivity" Eastwood deplores is stark evidence that all too often, there is not.

• Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.



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