Playing Thao Vang Lor in the film alongside Eastwood, Vang said the lead role was a historic cinematic moment for Hmong people, a Southeast Asian ethnic group, around the world. While the story is about two people from different backgrounds that came together to form an unlikely bond, the film featured a many anti-Asian slurs.
“At the time, there was a lot of discussion about whether the movie’s slurs were insensitive and gratuitous or simply ‘harmless jokes,'” Vang wrote. “I found it unnerving, the laughter that the slurs elicited in theaters with predominantly white audiences. And it was always white people who would say, ‘Can’t you take a joke?'”
Before his role in “Gran Torino,” Vang did not have any known acting experience, initially planning on enrolling in a premed program before being cast in Eastwood’s film. Two years after the film’s debut, Vang began collaborating with activists and filmmakers on multimedia projects that promoted social justice. He also held public speaking events around the country, criticizing the way the Hmong community is portrayed in “Gran Torino.”
In his op-ed, Vang also discussed how anti-Asian racism that was once mistaken as good-natured humor has shown its true colors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A microscopic virus was replaced with a recognizable target,” Vang said. “And once again, in this pandemic, anti-Asian sentiment has turned us into a faceless, invasive peril to be extruded from this country.”
Vang said the number of heinous attacks towards Asian Americans has only continued to spike around the country, pointing out a few examples such as the Asian American family being stabbed at a Sam’s Club in Midland, Texas, as well as the death of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai American who was murdered in San Francisco.
Vang said that Asian Americans need to demand recognition during these times and help steer the world towards healing and social renewal.
“And I no longer wonder what people mean when they ask me why I can’t take a joke,” Vang said. “Covid-19 has removed all doubt.”