Clint Eastwood’s new film, Gran Torino, is the story of Walt Kowalski (played by Eastwood), a veteran of the Korean War and a retired automotive worker, who becomes caught up in both the culture and struggles of his Hmong neighbors. The film has managed to generate a fair amount of controversy, due to Kowalski’s pervasive racism (Kowalski, in all fairness, is eventually shown to be more of a misanthrope than a racist).?Most reviews of the film will lead you to believe that his racism is the driving force of the film, but Gran Torino is about racism in the same way that Twilight is about hair gel: it may be present in every scene, but focusing on it is sort of silly.?However, the bigotry portrayed in the film does function as a troubling and accurate litmus test of our culture’s attitude towards racism.

While the focus of mainstream media coverage of the film is primarily the racism of its protagonist, this is not entirely surprising; it’s much easier to market a film as “Clint Eastwood hates immigrants!” than it is to describe it more accurately as a thoughtful rumination on the dark side of the American spirit and the death knell of a generation (See? It sounds boring).?What is far more troubling is the general audience reaction to such a film.

During Gran Torino’s relatively comedic first half, Kowalski spends most of his time cantankerously chiding his children (and grandchildren) for being lazy and shallow; “Dirty Harry on a pension,” as Roger Ebert calls him.?Kowalski eventually spreads his ire to his Hmong neighbors, referring to them as “gooks,” “chinks,” and enough epithets to make Mel Gibson want to donate to the ADL.

Having seen the film twice now, I would be lying if I said that Kowalski’s delivery of these insults did not make me laugh, and my own laughter was matched, if not exceeded, by that of the audience. However, there was a cruelty to the cackles of the majority of the audience members; most did not seem to be laughing at how pitiful Kowalski’s dated prejudices were, but rather, out of amusement, or relief, that such brash, hurtful language was being used so freely without any signs of remorse.

So many headlines regarding Obama’s election indicated that our country had undergone so much “change,” and that word has been more overused than Prozac. But feeling the overwhelming undercurrent of racism in an audience that viewed Kowalski’s own wounded abrasion as some kind of sick release is sobering, and shows us just how much further we have to go. Racism hasn’t disappeared or even lessened; it has just taken the form of raucous hilarity at a grossly interpreted masterpiece.