We all might now know that Terry Jones is the Florida minister, or cult leader, who got his time on our electronic stage by proposing to burn the Quran on Sept. l1. Regardless of supposedly changing his mind, Jones may not be cured of his drooling bigotry. But renting a DVD of Clint Eastwood's 2008 "Gran Torino" could be a big help. It is a cinematic act of public service, not an exploitation of stereotypes and violence.
Eastwood cinematically asserts that one can claim "my people" in two ways, either by genetics and cultural background or by choice and identification. In this country, if we are not afraid to address what we actually see and actually live, we can set aside preconceptions about other ethnic groups in the interest of human individuality.
We have done this better than any other country on the planet, but have moved forward almost in the terms of a celluloid fantasy. At least since World War II, we have had to grow up in front of the cameras, with the whole world looking on -- fascinated, disgusted or inspired by how we step up on, or avoid, our problems.
We can sometimes move more effectively through the bondage of cliches when mass media bring focused discussion. Television was essential to the success of the civil-rights movement, and it continues to make us aware of what is learned in the military, especially under the pressure of battle -- that every type and every ethnic group produces people who range from the heroic to the ordinary, and, at the very bottom, every group produces the despicable.
Walt, the protagonist of "Gran Torino," is a Korean War veteran who eventually finds himself in a domestic situation where life calls upon him to fight for the freedom of Asian immigrants against Asian gangbangers.
While cynics might find the situation contrived, it has profoundly American meanings. They are about community and how its inescapable changes can demand humane responses from us all -- once we recognize the humanity of those who have arrived in what was once a community more limited in its ethnic or religious scope.
In surprising but plausible ways, Walt learns this through experiences that reshape his perspective.
A far-from-pleasant retired Detroit autoworker, he is somewhat irritated as he watches his neighborhood changing from Caucasian to Asian. Walt is a widower so lonely and bitter that he incorrectly considers his two grown and married sons totally useless, self-obsessed nerds and bothers. This opinion remains constant throughout the film. They are not his kind of people.
To his surprise, he finds that the Asians can be his kind of people once he comes to see them as human beings adhering to customs born in the universal quest for civilized living. He befriends them reluctantly after breaking up a fight between the neighbors' son and a hoodlum cousin, who, along with his knucklehead buddies, has drunk the poisoned Kool-Aid of American anarchy.
In older American stories, the country boy or girl was always at risk of being corrupted by urban evils. That story now applies to immigrants from foreign countries.
The way Walt tries to get the Asian kid to "man up" by learning to curse, complaining about being bilked and harmlessly insulting one's friends is hilariously accurate. Every group in the country seems to have a version of that sense of disguised good will and humor. Becoming an American means learning the way to do it while neither starting a fight nor provoking bitter responses.
As we all know, more than a few accurate American stories must make sure there will be blood spilled. So does "Gran Torino."
The complexity of the film is worthy of popular entertainment intended to strike the deeper chords of American feeling, which so often include the willingness to go beyond the thin covers of huge things frequently understood. That is what makes it an act of public service and bravery. It is a heartfelt and perceptive celebration of the heroism at the center of American culture.
Stanley Crouch can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.