Leonard Pitts of The Miami Herald wrote an article about Clint Eastwood’s latest flick Gran Torino. Gran Torino is about Walt Kowalski, a regular guy who is a retired assembly line worker from one of the Ford assembly plants. It’s a fair bet that judging from the title of the film Mr. Kowalski worked in the plant that used to make the Gran Torino and its Mercury counterpart, the Montego. Mr. Kowalski is a man with as much racial sensitivity as a klan member at a klan rally. He has no problem wearing his racism on his sleeve and holding it up for all to see.
Mr. Pitts appears to admire Mr. Kowalski for his natural talent to buck the trend for political correctness and public sensitivity. Mr. Pitts remarks that “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.” And this is supposed to be a bad thing.
Reading the article I get the impression that Mr. Pitts, an African American, sometimes longs for the era where racial prejudice and discrimination was more in your face, openly practiced by more people. In his article he told the story of how he showed a class of college students an episode of All in the Family featuring Carroll O’Conner as the over the top bigot Archie Bunker. The classroom of students was offended. I’m assuming that they didn’t find the episode the least bit funny. Mr. Pitts admitted that his assertion that the show was hilarious and a satire of bigotry were unable to convince the students that the program had qualities of redemption. To paraphrase Mr. Pitts, sometimes he thinks it is progress but other times it is something else entirely.
The movie features an exchange between Mr. Kowalski and his Italian barber. The two trade insults about each other’s ancestry in a good natured slur exchange. Black people have a history of doing the same thing with yo’ mama jokes and other insult exchanges done for jest. There is nothing offensive here. Mr. Kowalski will still come to his Italian barber friend for a haircut and the Italian barber would go to his friend Kowalski whenever he needs that which Mr. Kowalski can provide. Mr. Pitts refers to this white on white banter as a nostalgic reference to a less touchy time where friendly insults helped to pass the time of day.
But I wonder how friendly those insults would be considered if they were uttered from a black man. Would Mr. Kowalski be ready to look at a black man’s insulting his family with the same sense of humor? Somehow I doubt it. Like Mr. Pitts explained before these insults can be accepted as nothing more than jest there must be some reserve of trust and affection that makes the insult harmless and without malice. How much malice would there be from a white person with a serious superiority complex over minorities in the heart or vice versa. Imagine someone like Archie Bunker trading friendly insults with a black man. Nothing humorous or satire like even comes close to mind. All I can imagine is Mr. Bunker getting his buddies together and making some black person pay or a lot of black people pay for the crime of some uppity nigger having the audacity to think he’s as good as white people.
I used to love those cars. My oldest brother had a white 1974 Gran Torino Elite two door coupe with a black vinyl top and a 5.7 liter Windsor V8. And watching the most famous Torino of all, that red and white Gran Torino Sport weave through streets and chasing criminals in Starsky and Hutch was pretty cool to a young and impressionable adolescent whose mom drove a 1968 Pontiac Catalina Executive station wagon with a whopping 6.6 liter V8 but something like four tons of sheet metal to motivate into any semblance of locomotion while dad drove a 1972 Dodge Dart with a woefully underpowered straight six that would have trouble outracing a freshly napped five year old on a Big Wheel. Other than that big engine on the wagon and air conditioning my parents’ cars were void of any factory options. I lived vicariously through shows like Starsky and Hutch.
But that was more than thirty years ago. Cars have gotten significantly better over the years. Now that I have a more sophisticated appreciation for what makes an automobile great I can say without a doubt that the only thing a Torino would have for me is that it represent a time when I was much younger and dumber. Would I like a classic Gran Torino in perfect condition sitting in my driveway? Not really. I’d prefer a nice little Honda Fit or a Honda Civic coupe. I can feed my nostalgia for classic cars by going to an automobile museum or a car show. A Gran Torino wouldn’t have much of a place in my life right now.
I think I’d prefer the nostalgia for white people’s crassness the same way. I suffer from no allusion that somehow things were better back in the day when white people were much freer to run roughshod over black people and their rights. If I ever become nostalgic to see white people insult black people with impunity I’ll get a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird or watch Gone With the Wind or the virtually unlimited supply of movies where black people do nothing but cheesing for the camera or dancing a jig with Shirley Temple or getting a whip to their backside because some white person needed to release their frustration. But to go back to a time when white people are free to insult black people without controversy? I don’t need such strife in my life right now or ever.