Even without knowing that he is a classic scumbag, it can be hard to know what to do with Quentin Tarantino. From where he began as an indie-darling ‘auteur’ to now, his films have developed an undeniably unique voice, primarily with the aid of ‘chapters’ segmenting the film (also common to Wes Anderson) and most recognizably, highly stylized violence (Wes Anderson, not so much). The ease and lightheartedness that Tarantino brings to blood and gore make it difficult to distinguish if you’re enjoying yourself or if you’re disgusted. And perhaps the point is that he lures you into both.
I first watched a Tarantino flick (Pulp Fiction) in the dorm room of a group of boys I knew in college. I enjoyed it, but I knew immediately that this was a film not only not targeted to me, but I would go so far as to say that it is a film that indulges everything masculine and makes that the point from which the world unfolds. (Is this the way that straight white men see things by default? Because – oh god, that’s a terrifying thought.) Odds are, even 23 years later, you can walk into any odd dorm room inhabited by a man (a boy?) and find Uma Thurman staring off mysterious and lustful on a poster.
The second Tarantino film I saw was Django Unchained (2012), for a history class focusing on violence in pre-Civil War America. We were meant to watch it and explain our thoughts as they related back to the course, particularly in relation to Tarantino’s revenge narrative. I remember watching it with alternating confusion and horror in the library on the 3rd floor, totally baffled by what I was supposed to be getting out of this. With due respect to Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington, (and a little to Leonardo DiCaprio’s dedication in that one scene, I guess) I hated the whole thing. I had a hard time articulating why, other than the feeling that movies about slavery are supposed to be somber and important. Especially as a white American, I knew that slavery is the thing you are supposed to hang your head and be quietly sad (or, actually, sadly quiet) about.
The reviews raved that Django was a slavery revenge fantasy. We could all delight in Foxx destroying the unquestionably evil Calvin Candie and his plantation because we know slavery was wrong and bad. No moral gray area means you can get on board with the blood and guts with no qualms.
On the one hand, this is totally legitimate. Slavery is and has been and will always be an incredibly heavy part of American history. What one can argue Tarantino is doing here is providing a recourse, an alternative history, wherein the enslaved recoup the power and literally take back the agency denied them in real life. By making it over the top and unthinkingly, amusingly violent, it can be said Tarantino takes that pain and translates it into power, confronts the traumatic past and owns it, sort of like the idea that if we can face our suffering, we can overcome it and tackle it into place in a narrative of our choosing.
I don’t mean to say on some level this isn’t true, or that there are no redeeming qualities to Tarantino’s depictions of slavery and the South, or whatever fantastical, exaggerated facsimiles he created thereof. But for me, it rings hollow.
The reason is because Tarantino is a white man.
It’s one thing to have and to create a revenge fantasy, but it is another entirely when the revenge is not your own.
Tarantino’s Trio of revenge
Tarantino’s politics are another thing that make him a bit of a slimy character. I recently rewatched Resevoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), and I was admittedly taken aback by the language that he used – not just the prolific amount of f-bombs, but also the liberty he took with using the n-word and the word ‘bitch’. He has argued in the past that his lexical freedoms are a way of representing historical accuracy, which, maybe he could get away with in Django (although please call up Steve McQueen for a lesson on tact, pronto), but really doesn’t hold water for Resevoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, set as they are in the present (or, now, the 90s).
Some have accused Tarantino of wanting to be Black and/or acting it out, somewhat farcically. But the truth is, Tarantino is not black, and Django is a revenge fantasy appropriated to earn him nearly $450 million worldwide.
I have a problem with Tarantino, a white man, making a slavery revenge film because (and do I really need to say this?), he has never had to deal with the cultural baggage and the historical trauma inherent in this period of American history. It means almost nothing for him, again, as a white man, to make light of the past. White people have been trying to claim slavery ‘wasn’t that bad’ since before slavery even got going. Tarantino can disregard the complex systems that have continued to oppress African Americans in present times and make up a slave revolt that is more ‘bloody romp’ than ‘righteous revenge’. And the really skeevy thing, of course, is that he is making money on this, selling shallowly entertaining, ultra-violent, surface recreations of stories that are not his own.
Additionally, Tarantino is neither Jewish, nor a woman, and yet we have Kill Bill (2003) and Ingloious Basterds (2009), another set of revenge narratives. (Full disclosure, I actually liked Inglorious Basterds and in light of recent news, do not ever see myself watching Kill Bill).
What I mean to say is, there is a double-edged sword to a white, Gentile man making a film that not only avenges the Holocaust, but in its insular timeline, erases it altogether. Punching Nazis is good. Assassinating Hitler is great. Alternative histories are tricky because they’re just that, raising the question of how much of reality we can eschew without disrespect to the past. Can violence and alternate narratives, then, be cathartic? And if so, does it matter who the retelling is coming from? Can Tarantino trim the narratives of others (specifically, marginalized groups to which he does not belong) to fit in his spaghetti western package and sell them back, whether or not they’re fulfilling/cathartic to watch?
I don’t know. And obviously, many of these are experiences I can’t really speak to. I do believe it’s a problematic little set-up though. Especially now, with TimesUp and #MeToo, and literal physical violence Tarantino committed against Uma Thurman on the set of Kill Bill. Or the comments resurfacing in which he defended Roman Polanski’s assault of a young girl, claiming that statutory rape isn’t real violence (see the link to Jezebel above).
Oh, Mr. Tarantino.
Have you considered that the villains in your films are really just you?