The trouble with Quentin Tarantino, an unquestionably brilliant and iconoclastic director, is that there’s often a regressive undertone to his superficially progressive imagery. A self-proclaimed champion of the underdog, his brand of empowerment rarely comes without what Tom Waits might have termed “a little drop of poison.”
Still his most memorable film, Tarantino’s cult-classic “Pulp Fiction” elevated black star Samuel L. Jackson’s career by presenting him as an epitome-of-cool hitman who becomes an ambiguous force for good. But look just past Jackson’s righteous swagger, and you’ll spot a host of more troubling imagery behind it. For instance, there are putatively two interracial relationships in the movie, but neither is presented on camera, or in a positive light. Instead, Tarantino’s queasiness-inducing cameo as a N-word spouting white schmuck is given cover from charges of racism by giving his character a black wife (glimpsed only long enough to establish her existence). Meanwhile, black drug kingpin Marsellus Wallace’s hot white wife barely shares a frame of film with her husband, and instead strikes romantic sparks with a white hitman played by John Travolta. Finally, Wallace himself, while presented as the film’s locus of money, power and respect offscreen, is on screen largely as the recipient of the ultimate in cinematic humiliation, being raped and sodomized by a pair of backwoods fetishists, before being rescued by a white man he had planned on killing. Stripped of the paper-thin offscreen backstories, the dominant racial images of the film are of a white man repeatedly saying “nigger” and a black man cuckolded, raped and ultimately rescued by white men.
Skip forward fifteen years, and we enter the historical revisionism phase of Tarantino’s career. His revenge-on-the-Nazis flick “Inglourious Basterds,” spins a yarn about an alternate history in which a group of Jewish freedom fighters successfully kills Hitler and a host of other Nazi leaders. “And what’s wrong with that?” one might ask. The problem lies in the fact that it’s a pure fantasy that obscures the real history. The true story is that millions of nonviolent German citizens –scientists, artists, teachers, doctors, parents and children –were stripped of their citizenship, forced into concentration camps and brutally murdered, solely on the basis of their religion or ancestry. Presenting them as armed combatants, capable of engineering their own rescue through violent resistance, is an easy way to make people feel less guilty about what actually happened to them. The narrative is superficially a feel-good narrative, but it’s an utter fake.
The problem is sharpened in Tarantino’s follow-up, the similarly themed revenge flick “Django Unchained” which casts Jamie Foxx as an escaped slave reshaped into a cold-blooded killer by his mentor, a German bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz, and then unleashed on the brutal slaveowner who owns his wife. The film is probably best summarized by Foxx’s description of it from his appearance on Saturday Night Live:
I play a slave. How black is that? And in the movie I had to wear chains. How whack is that? But don’t be worried about it because I get out the chains, I get free, I save my wife, and I kill all the white people in the movie. How great is that? And how black is that?
Like “Inglourious Basterds,” the film is utterly and dangerously ahistorial. And, in case you missed it, it’s essentially the same plotline as D.W. Griffith’s infamously racist film “Birth of a Nation,” except from the point of view of the psychopathic former slave who is the earlier film’s villain. Tarantino probably doesn’t personally have any ancestors or relatives who were murdered and lynched because people believed in such race-baiting myths, but Jamie Foxx, at least, should have known better. The spectacle of Django gunning down unarmed white women and children might have been good popcorn entertainment for people for whom racism is an abstraction, but the persistent, media-driven image of the murderously violent and dangerous black male continues to be a latent death-sentence all across the nation. The continued execution of black men whose only actual crime is to “fit the description,” by police officers who truly do believe themselves in justified fear of their own lives, is in no way unrelated to how black men are consistently portrayed in popular culture. If anything, Tarantino’s little drop of poison is made even more potent by the fact that Django is an intelligent and charismatic figure who makes the conscious choice to kill people based solely on their race, and who the film instructs us to celebrate for that choice. You can bet the film is required viewing in the offices of the white nationalist “National Policy Institute.”
Also likely on that list are films like the recent “Birth of a Nation” which recounts the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion. At least, however, that film was based in fact. Another, more surprising entry into this new “race-war” filmography is the remake of the classic miniseries “Roots,” in which Alex Haley’s account of his long-suffering but noble family’s eventual triumph over the institution of slavery is juiced up by a series of invented incidents in which the enslaved Kinte family is responsible for the consequence-free killings of a startlingly large number of white people. Again, it’s a faked-up fantasy that takes the sting out of the humiliations of slavery while slyly letting white people off the moral hook –and this time it’s even worse because it’s a lie presented as part of a true story.
But Tarantino, let it be said, was there first. With friends like these, who needs enemies?