Quentin Tarantino is one of the most respected directors of our time. He boasts an impressive knowledge of film-history and much of the auteur’s works are heralded as modern classics. Yet, as adept as Tarantino is at subverting conventions of plot and telling engaging, complex stories rife with tension, he has never known how to deal with issues of race. That ignorance is startlingly present in his newest — and most Tarantino-esque — film, “The Hateful Eight.”
The film does a lot well. The cinematography is amazing, with long, wide shots of the snow-covered Wyoming mountainside. The music, composed by Ennio Morricone, is phenomenal. The cast is, of course, talented. But similar to “Django Unchained,” the film is tone-deaf in its approach, twisting the aftermath of slavery into a revenge fantasy western. The film is grossly irresponsible in its depiction of violence, sexism and race relations.
“Hateful Eight” is a three-hour long frontier justice feature broken up into five chapters, with the first few unfolding at a languid pace. Violence seems inevitable, as two of the characters, Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren and Kurt Russell’s John Ruth, are bounty hunters. The film gets a slow start, but once the first bullet is fired, a deluge of blood, gore and (literal) brains ensues.
One understands racism was rampant in postbellum United States, but historical accuracy doesn’t strike me as reason enough for using the “n-word” 65 times in the film. Even a fictionalized period piece must be responsible about portraying people of color and tense race relations, the products of which are resoundingly felt today. Tarantino seems to act with little awareness about the sort of cultural influence his name alone wields.
Tarantino’s affinity with using the n-word didn’t start with “Hateful Eight” or “Django,” though the frequency of its use in such films is supposedly necessitated by their historical period. But what necessitated his use of the racial epithet during his cameo in “Pulp Fiction,” in the infamous “dead n***** storage scene”? Historical accuracy doesn’t apply. This appears to be a matter of Tarantino perception of artistry and “progress” over the feelings of black artists and writers who have called him out on his uncomfortably negligent use of the slur.
He insists the “Hateful Eight” is meant to spark conversation, but when his characters are written more like caricatures, one wonders what sort of conversation it will spark. When I saw it in theaters on opening day, the racial epithets and crude, tasteless comments about both African-Americans and Mexicans — in particular a scene when Jackson’s character remarks that the owner of the waystation preferred dogs to Mexicans — actually sparked laughter.
The mysterious Bob, a Mexican man, has no depth and adopts an awful Mexican accent, while Major Warren is continually subject to insults from the other men.
The worst of it is an uncomfortably long, graphic scene where Major Warren describes orally raping and killing a southern soldier sent to kill him. The scene being used as a way to characterize the Major calls into question Tarantino’s lack of awareness. He perpetuates the stereotype that sex and violence are crucial to the Major’s masculinity as a black man and subsequently, power.
Later, the Major is castrated via gunshot and left immobile. It’s almost a continuation of the aforementioned scene, where the power of the character rests on antiquated tropes of masculinity, specifically his penis. Without the chief symbol of this masculinity, he is rendered powerless.
Tarantino’s lack of self-awareness crops up in other parts of the film. The most prominent female character Daisy Domergue, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, had been apprehended by Ruth and on her way to being hung. We see Ruth frequently breaking her nose, splitting her head, and engaging in other forms of brutalization.
“The violence is meant to send shockwaves through the audience, to create sympathy with Daisy,” Tarantino explains in a BBC interview. But Domergue’s spiteful, racist comments make it harder for the audience to sympathize. She’s not likable, but the film justifies her abuse by her criminality. Again, it’s irresponsible in its fetishization of violence and glaring misogyny.
“Me dealing with race in America is one of the things I have to offer to cinema,” Tarantino said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “That is one part of my interest in American society, and so the fact that it bleeds into my work makes perfect sense. In particular, it’s what I have to offer the Western genre, because it’s really not been dealt with [there] in any meaningful way.”
He says films like “Django” and “Hateful Eight” are nuanced critiques of institutionalized racism dating back to antebellum America. But after viewing the films, one must wonder how far up his own ass the director must be to really believe his films are advancing critical discourse about race relations in America or progressing the way characters of color are written on screen.
Tarantino has so much power as a director. His films have huge budgets and even larger social influence, which is why it’s disappointing to see these cardboard caricatures attempting to be passed off as revolutionary in their representation.
We should be urging filmmakers and artists to be responsible and conscientious about the media they are producing. It’s not about foregoing the quality of art for the sake of being politically correct or giving transgressions a pass because the story is fictionalized. It is about recognizing that sexism, gun violence and racism are unfortunate truths of the world we live in and that these ideologies bring harm to people everyday.