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Anti-racist Western from Quentin Tarantino

By: 
Faline Bobier

January 5, 2016

Tarantino’s new movie has many of the features that mark it with the typical Tarantino brand: the over-the-top violence, the American vernacular, the striking soundtrack (including original music from Ennio Morricone who scored many of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s), and the fast-paced and funny dialogue. However, the release this December of The Hateful Eight has gained new significance because of the political context in which the film opens.

It is no doubt by now common knowledge that Tarantino has come under attack from various police unions inside the United States because of a short speech he made at a rally in NYC for Black families who had had a family member killed by the police.

Black Lives Matter

What did Tarantino say? He can be quoted word for word since the moment was captured on video:  “What am I doing here? I'm a human being with a conscience ... When I see murders, I do not stand by ... I have to call a murder a murder, and I have to call the murderers the murderers."

Immediately after his speech Patrolman's Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch called the director a "purveyor of degeneracy" and called for a boycott of his movies. Lynch’s statement continues: "It's no surprise that someone who makes a living glorifying crime and violence is a cop-hater, too. The police officers that Quentin Tarantino calls 'murderers' aren't living in one of his depraved big-screen fantasies – they're risking and sometimes sacrificing their lives to protect communities from real crime and mayhem."

It’s a little rich that police officials are calling for a boycott of Tarantino’s new film by decrying the violence in his movies. The violence in Tarantino’s movies, like the violence used by many other filmmakers (Scorsese and Peckinpah come to mind), is a cinematic device, not real violence meted out on the bodies of living human beings.

For that kind of real violence one need look no further than the many murders of Blacks at the hands of the same police that Tarantino was talking about in his speech. Just recently it was announced that there will be no charges laid in the police shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year old Black boy who was playing in a park with a toy pistol on November 22, 2014.

It’s the death of Tamir Rice and countless others like him at the hands of racist police forces that has sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. In spite of the wrath visited upon Tarantino by police officials, the calls for a police boycott of his new movie, and the veiled threats of a ‘surprise’ they are planning for him, Tarantino hasn’t backed down.

Tarantino rejected the hypothesis of ‘a few bad apples’ being responsible for police violence: “And I completely and utterly reject the bad apples argument. Chicago just got caught with their pants down in a way that can’t be denied. But I completely and utterly reject the “few bad apples” argument. Yeah, the guy who shot (Laquan McDonald) is a bad apple. But so are the other eight or nine cops that were there that said nothing, did nothing, let a lie stand for an entire year. And the chief of police, is he a bad apple? I think he is. Is [Chicago Mayor] Rahm Emanuel a bad apple? I think he is. They’re all bad apples. That just shows that that’s a bulls— argument. It’s about institutional racism. It’s about institutional cover-ups that are about protecting the force as opposed to the citizens.”

Hateful Eight

And in like manner, The Hateful Eight is not just another violent romp by Tarantino. Like his previous movie, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight is set in post-Civil War America for a reason. It’s about the power of racism in the US, the roots of that racism in the institution of slavery, but it’s also clearly a comment on the persistence of that racism today.

Of course it’s also a movie with a strong narrative since it’s a Tarantino film. The film is divided into chapters and in some ways it’s a very literary movie-a variation on the locked-room mystery that mostly takes place in one room-Minnie’s Haberdashery-a saloon/rest stop on the way to Red Rock where ‘the hateful eight’ of the title take refuge in the middle of a huge blizzard.

Major Marquis Warren, a former soldier in Abraham Lincoln’s army, played to great effect by long-time Tarantino collaborator Samuel L. Jackson, is a bounty hunter transporting the bodies of three outlaws to the town of Red Rock. On the way he hitches a ride on a stagecoach occupied by John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), who is escorting gang member Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock to be hanged and to collect the $10,000 prize on her head.

On the way they pick up Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), a former Southern militiaman, who claims he is going to Red Rock to be sworn in as the new sheriff. When they arrive at Minnie’s Haberdashery they find Minnie and her husband Sweet Dave have gone to the other side of the mountain to visit Minnie’s mother. There is a motley collection of characters already there, waiting out the storm.

The next three hours are like a cat and mouse game where the audience try to figure out who are the good guys and who the bad. But the whole point is that there are no innocents. As Major Marquis Warren says at one point to former avowedly racist Confederate general Sanford Smithers (played by the great Bruce Dern) “People get killed in war. That’s what happens.”

Jackson’s character is in some senses the moral centre of The Hateful Eight, although he is also not above seeking revenge for the murder of captured Black Union soldiers by Smithers during the course of the war. Major Warren is someone who has learned that to survive he must play the white man’s game. When Hangman Ruth discovers that Warren has lied to him about something, feeling betrayed, Warren responds by saying that the only way Blacks can survive in a white world is by playing the role that whites expect: “You don’t know what it’s like to be a Black man facing white America.”

If Major Warren is the moral centre of the movie then Daisy Domergue is the immoral centre. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays to great effect the mysterious cipher who is responsible for the chain of events that will lead to blood and mayhem. She is in no way the ‘feminine’ character, but someone who can give and take with the rest of them. She suffers much violence at the hands of her captors but she is more than their equal in returning the same.

Tarantino will no doubt be criticized for his use of the ‘n’ word throughout the film. I would argue that here it is used as a hammer blow against the very racists who use the word to attack Jackson’s character, a Black man who proves himself to be definitely the most intelligent and canny survivor (of sorts) of Tarantino’s Hateful Eight. Tarantino has used this word repeatedly through all of his films, regardless of their content, and some, such as director Spike Lee, have been legitimately vocal with their disagreements with his choices, although Lee has also refused to see Django Unchained and is therefore not familiar with the content. There are others, such as Samuel L. Jackson himself, who disagree with this viewpoint. What is clear is that Tarantino is being influenced by movements around him like Black Lives Matter, and it's without a doubt these movements that offer the strongest challenge to racism.

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