Walt Kowalski is a widower who holds onto his prejudices despite the changes in his Michigan neighborhood and the world around him. Kowalski is a grumpy, tough-minded, unhappy an old man, who can't get along with either his kids or his neighbors, a Korean War veteran whose prize possession is a 1972 Gran Torino he keeps in mint condition.So Walt is pretty much a dried up racist and ignorant as heck but his core values are solid and he goes on to make great sacrifices for people who he calls every derogatory name in the book. I grew up in New York and met many folks like Walt, people who would offend others easily by embracing terms that really no one should but at the same time they would be the most steadfast people to have as friends.
When his neighbor Thao, a young Hmong teenager under pressure from his gang member cousin, tries to steal his Gran Torino, Kowalski sets out to reform the youth. Drawn against his will into the life of Thao's family, Kowalski is soon taking steps to protect them from the gangs that infest their neighborhood.
When I was living in Seattle, which seemed like the whitest major city ever, I met amazing people who generally sported a lot of impressive inclusive, anti-racist ideas. The problem was that there was little opportunity to really live these ideals as often I was responsible for the most interaction they had with black person on a daily basis and when opportunities arose for them to put their ideas into action, they folded like origami. Sometimes knowing all the right words to say does not mean you understand the meaning behind them nor that you are ready to live those words. Those words just become a modern way of branding yourself like a product - all packaging no substance.
No one wants to be viewed as racist and in my view that has curbed a lot of honesty. People listen carefully for how they can say things to avoid the dreaded accusation of racism, sometimes even incorporate anti-racist language while holding on to racist ideas that are only revealed in actions.
In Gran Torino, Walt is racist, no doubt but that is not all that he his. He is regardless a good neighbor and friend. He is complex, like all of us. We live in a world that does not accept complexity in human character. People are defined by one action to be a good guy then the next action to be a bad guy. The truth is somewhere in between these to judgement and far outside the confines of fairy-tale thinking.