He SAID: Deconstructing Tarantino

Scott F. Evans

Quentin Tarantino is not a racist.

He can’t be.

Just glancing at his filmography provides factual evidence proving this. Of course, he’s been called a racist for much of his career. There have been (literally) hundreds of articles, think pieces and forum postings making this accusation. On the surface, that may be an understandable claim. The director does spread the N-word liberally throughout many of his scripts. But looking beyond the surface, it’s fairly easy to disprove that allegation.

Hang on, we’ll get there.

With the recent release of his new film, The Hateful Eight, Tarantino is also being accused of misogyny. This is also a surface level observation and easily disproved. To be clear, I haven’t interviewed Quentin Tarantino. I don’t know him personally and can offer no anecdotal evidence to back up my thesis. What I can offer is physical evidence backed up by logic and something of an understanding of how the Hollywood system works.

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Tarantino hit the scene with 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, a crime thriller about a group of hardened thieves and the undercover cop who has infiltrated the gang. Right of the bat, all of the main characters are white with Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth and Steve Buscemi as our de facto leads. The N-word gets dropped early on during casual conversation amongst these characters who also happen to be lowlife killers. Is there any doubt that a group of men who would shoot up a jewelry store during a robbery would also be, surprise, surprise, racists? There’s only two good guys in this film. One is the undercover cop Mr. Orange played by Tim Roth and the other is his commanding officer Holdaway, played by black actor Randy Brooks. Now if Tarantino was in fact a racist, why even bother casting a black actor in this role? By 1992, Brooks had had a long career stretching back to the mid 1970’s. He’s a strong actor, but not a marquee name and therefore of little value to potential financers (that was Keitel’s function). Holdaway is a small but pivotal part, helping Orange perfect his undercover role. If Tarantino’s a racist, why not just cast a white actor as Holdaway?

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The writer/director follows Reservoir Dogs with 1994’s Pulp Fiction, another convoluted crime film with an ensemble cast of memorable characters who also happen to be criminals. The closest you’ll get to a “good guy” in this film is the boxer Butch played by Bruce Willis. But that’s even questionable as he kills his opponent in the ring. Of all of Tarantino’s films, this one may have the most egregious use of the N-word. There’s no real context for it here as it gets casually tossed around by white and black characters alike. But maybe that casualness is the underlying point. By the mid-nineties, the word had become normalized in nearly all forms of black popular culture. One could argue that perhaps Jules, Marcellus, Jimmy and Lance were just a reflection of the casualness that may have been a direct result of hip hop’s (with it’s over reliance of the term) acceptance into the mainstream. Or more likely Tarantino just likes the way it sounds coming out of his characters mouths. He is indeed in love with the word, but no more than any of our most popular rappers who export the N-word all over the globe. But here’s where it gets complicated. Pulp Fiction may be an ensemble film, but Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winfield is the only character here who gets a real arc. Even though John Travolta’s Vince Vega may get more screen time, he’s the same from the beginning to his brutal end in Butch’s toilet. The counter argument is that Ving Rhames’ Marcellus Wallace gets raped by an insane redneck. Tarantino emasculates the largest, strongest black man in the film. True, however, Wallace gets his revenge and one of the most oft-quoted lines in the film. Wallace is a feared crime figure in Pulp Fiction. Even though he’s not in many scenes, his presence looms over every vignette. By having this powerful, fearsome character get raped by the smaller, weaker, poorer rent-a-cop Zed, played by Peter Greene, Tarantino is making a statement about white supremacy. No matter how physically and financially imposing a black man may be in America, all it takes is one mistake, one wrong turn and a white man – rungs below on the socio-economic ladder – can take it all away. As it is Butch, his former enemy, that saves Wallace, Tarantino also seems to be saying something about whites and blacks putting aside past differences to overcome common obstacles. Not really typical racist rhetoric, huh?

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Tarantino returns in 1997 with Jackie Brown, the film that single-handedly disproves the claims of racism and misogyny. Adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch, Tarantino changed the lead character’s last name, and more importantly, race for his film. In the book, Jackie is a middle aged white woman. In the film, she’s changed to not only to a black woman, but Pam Grier is cast in the role. Jackie is no victim either. She’s strong, smart and always one step ahead of every other character in this film. Jackson returns here as chief villain Ordell Robie. Is the N-word present? Absolutely. Is it necessary? No. But neither was switching the lead’s ethnicity. Pam Grier was huge in the ‘70’s but her career had slowed to a crawl since the end of that era. By ’97, she was almost the answer to a trivia question. Tarantino took a huge gamble by casting her as his lead.

What racist does that?

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In 2003 and 2004, Tarantino presents his Kill Bill duology. Neither of these films feature any major black characters. However, in part one Vivica A. Fox, as Vernita Green, gets into a brutal, show stopping fight scene with lead Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo. In part two, Tarantino manages to slide a fun little part in for Jackson as Rufus, a musician. These are small and inoffensive parts. Green may be one of Fox’s most memorable roles. She handles the fight scene like an expert. I would think that a racist wouldn’t even bother casting black in either of these roles.

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Death Proof comes out in 2007. Like Jackie Brown, it flies in the face of the idea that the director is somehow both a racist and misogynist. Death Proof is, for the most part, an ensemble piece with Zoe Bell as the de facto lead. Kurt Russel plays the vile, homicidal Stuntman Mike. The rest of the cast is populated primarily by women of various races with three of them being black. Sydney Tamiia Poitier plays DJ Jungle Julia, Rosario Dawson plays Abernathy Ross and Tracie Thoms almost walks away with the movie as stuntwoman Kim Mathis. The foul mouthed Mathis drops gratuitous N-bombs throughout and it does grate on the viewers nerves. But again, she’s one of the leads, which seems the exact opposite of something a racist would typically do.

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The WWII action drama Inglorious Basterds is released in 2009. Like Reservoir Dogs, it’s his least diverse film to date, but given the time period and location, a mostly white cast is expected. But Tarantino does something no die hard racist would ever do. He cast Jacky Ido, a black actor of French descent, as Marcel, the lead character Shosanna’s lover. Again, this is mostly a bit part, but why even bother casting a black man in this role if the director was, indeed a racist?

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Django Unchained is released in 2012. This controversial, R-rated Antebellum South set western allegedly holds a record for how many times the N-word is used in a screenplay. Here’s where looking deeper than the surface comes in handy. Yes, the word nigger is racist. But this film is filled with racist characters and set in a harshly racist environment. Sure, he could’ve softened it for our racially sensitive ears, but that would be dishonest, particularly considering the amount of violence on display throughout. It’s a tough film to watch and hear. And that’s kind of the point. There’s an abundance of humor in Django Unchained, but Tarantino pulls no punches with his depiction of slavery and racist ideology. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable. You’re supposed to get mad at the Southern gentlemen who refer to all black people as niggers. They’re villains and therefore designed to be hated.

With a budget of over 100 million dollars, Django Unchained was Quentin Tarantino’s largest film to date. Not only did he gamble with his career, he spent a huge chunk of The Weinstein Company’s money on a film with a strong, proactive black lead. Jamie Foxx’s Django Freeman is part of a long line of laconic gunslingers. He’s nearly superhuman with a revolver, exacting ferocious, bloody vengeance on his enemies…most of them white. He’s also one of the few black action characters in recent history that is married to a black woman, Brunhilde, played by Kerry Washington. Since the 1980’s most black action heroes have been rendered asexual, rarely given love interests and even more infrequently, love interests who share a racial heritage with them. They never “get the girl”. Django breaks that chain. It’s a shame that it took a white guy to create such an iconic black character as Django Freeman.

But is it racist?

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Finally, we get to The Hateful Eight. Like his earlier work, there’s nary a hero among them. Brutes, thieves, murderers, and yes, racists, “nigger” flies out of these characters’ mouths with alarming frequency. Which, like Django Unchained, is exactly the point. But The Hateful Eight’s lead character is not only a black bounty hunter named Major Marquis Warren, but he’s also the smartest, most perceptive character in the film. He’s no good guy in the traditional sense. No, Warren is complicated. Deeply emotionally scarred by his past as a slave, then as a trooper serving with the Union in the Civil War and then as a bounty hunter, Samuel L. Jackson is perfect in the role.

Some critics have now begun accusing Tarantino of misogyny due to the harsh treatment of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character of Daisy Domergue. This is not only short-sighted but also seems to suggest that they weren’t paying attention to the film. She’s punched, and knocked around throughout the film’s nearly three hour run time. To say she’s treated poorly is an understatement. We cringe at the amount of violence heaped upon this woman. But Domergue’s a vile savage who just happens to be a woman. Tarantino seems to be playing with our perceptions because if it were Donald Domergue and played by a male actor, we wouldn’t bat an eye. On the contrary, we’d cheer every time this miscreant took a shot to the face. But Daisy is a strong character and serves as the film’s focal point of villainy. She takes the punishment, laughing and spitting at her captors even as she plots her revenge.

The Hateful Eight presents us with an unflinching, gutsy meditation on race relations, oppression and the price of revenge. But despite the film’s cruelty, it’s also one of Tarantino’s most hopeful messages yet. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s definitely not something a racist would present.

I’ll close with a few words about a film that Tarantino never made. After Django Unchained, he mentioned a desire to do another WWII film called Killer Crow. It was to be about a band of black soldiers who get severely mistreated by their white superior officers and go on a mission of revenge across Europe into Switzerland.

What racist comes up ideas like this?

 

 

 

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