‘The Hateful Eight’ Is a Hellish Journey into Quentin Tarantino's Psyche
The director's latest is a Reconstruction-era Western filled with N-bombs and berserk provocations.
Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson are two of the hateful. Photo courtesy of the Weinstein Company
Spoiler Alert: This article discusses some key plot details from The Hateful Eight
In the lead-up to the release of his eighth film, the blood-soaked, Reconstruction-era Western-cum-mystery The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino made a series of pointed, racially-charged remarks to the press. "If you've made money being a critic in black culture in the last 20 years you have to deal with me," he told Bret Easton Ellis in the New York Times Style Magazine. "You must have an opinion of me. You must deal with what I'm saying and deal with the consequences." On this matter he has a point, however hubristically it was expressed. Since his emergence on the filmmaking scene a quarter of a century ago, Tarantino is one of few American directors to have consistently explored contemporary and historical racial antagonism in his work. He's also used his growing clout to afford myriad talented black performers meaty roles (the best of which remains Pam Grier's title turn in 1997's Jackie Brown, his most uncharacteristically nuanced film.)
But he wasn't finished there. Tarantino was manifestly miffed at the temerity some black writers displayed in questioning his aptitude and ability to address the trauma of African-American slavery in Django Unchained (2012), a gaudy, oft-surreal mélange of intense, baroquely-conceived violence and slapstick comedy. "When the black critics came out with savage think pieces about Django, I couldn't have cared less... It's been a long time since the subject of a writer's skin was mentioned as often as mine." Setting aside his dimwitted and arguably telling use of the word "savage" (a term with grave, dehumanizing connotations), I could find no real evidence of these articles. Excellent black writers like Jelani Cobb and Roxane Gay offered measured, personal negative takes, while others, like Wesley Morris, Cord Jefferson, and Rembert Browne, cheered the film while offering sharp insight on issues like multiracial spectator dynamics in the face of such provocative content. Jefferson, for example, coined the term "the Django moment" to describe the discomfort that arose when a white audience member laughed at something he found racially offensive.
What also sticks out is the obvious inaccuracy of the second part of Tarantino's comment—the imbalance of diversity and opportunity in Hollywood is such that whenever a writer/director of color gets a break, their race is usually the first thing mentioned. And while the likes of Steve McQueen and Ava DuVernay (at whom Tarantino took a catty swipe in Ellis's piece) have recently made films about African-American history, that privilege has historically been reserved for white artists with institutional, studio backing in films like The Color Purple, Glory, and Lincoln. In contrast, the Ethiopian-American director Haile Gerima had to self-fund (which took nine years) and self-distribute his antebellum psychodrama Sankofa (1993), which, unlike Django Unchained, presented a slave rebellion in the form of collective action, rather than Blaxploitation-style individual badassery, and was not dependent on the presence of a garrulous white character to secure a "crossover" audience. (For the record, I don't believe that being white precludes a filmmaker from making insightful work about different cultures; consider Malcolm X's favorite film Nothing but a Man, a blistering civil rights-era drama written and directed by the white Jewish filmmaker Michael Roemer)
Ultimately, Tarantino's whiteness remains the invisible Hollywood default, regardless of his working-class Torrance-via-Tennessee roots and carefully cultivated public persona. As spotted in interviews and appearances over the years—including a cringeworthy, jive-talkin' spot on BET—this is a sort of post-Norman Mailer's "White Negro," proto- Rachel Dolezal hybrid; a down-ass, semi-post-racial brotherman with no qualms about mixing it with the big boys ("I don't back down, especially to big black guys," he boasted to Playboy in 2003). Could Tarantino's recent outbursts possibly come from the same mouth that informed an audience at London's National Film Theatre in 1998 that "we all have a lot of people inside of us, and one of the ones inside me is black. Don't let that pigmentation fool you; it is a state of mind"? The same mouth which claimed in 2007, years before making Django Unchained, that he'd been a black slave in America in a former life ("It's just a feeling. A knowing")? Arguably the only time Tarantino has exhibited a degree of self-criticism regarding this persona arrived in the form of Gary Oldman's performance as Drexl Spivey, the Blaxploitation-obsessed, dreadlocked, cod-Ebonics spewer from True Romance (1993), a film Tarantino wrote, but did not direct. (It's only fair to point out here that Tarantino also made headlines this year for appearing at an anti-police brutality march in New York, and branding cops who kill unarmed black people as "murderers." Publicity stunt or not, it certainly enraged the NYPD union, who threatened a boycott of his films. In the lead-up to Django Unchained, taking a cue from Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow, Tarantino told The Hollywood Reporter that the prison industrial complex and the "war on drugs" produced a version of modern-day slavery.)
On the subject of his critics' race, Tarantino went even further in a chat with the Los Angeles Times, dreaming up a revenge fantasy that was both chilling and awfully limp, particularly by his own bloody standards: "I like the idea that some black critic who has been paid to write three different think pieces about me and always looked at me with a jaundiced eye will be sitting at Thanksgiving when he's a grandfather and his grandkids are studying my films in school and it's their favorite class. That's my revenge." A privileged multimillionaire bent on avenging perceived slights from an underrepresented group within a niche profession? Sounds mightily satisfying.
It's generally wise—and fair—to separate the artist from the art when it comes to critical assessment. Some filmmakers, like the reclusive Terrence Malick, make this easy: They simply don't give interviews, and let their work do the talking. Sometimes though, making the distinction can be difficult. And it's hard not to draw a link between the aggravated pettiness—if not outright Trump-esque trolling—of Tarantino's recent comments on race, and the vitriolic provocation that characterizes The Hateful Eight. It's simultaneously his longest, grandest production to date—clocking in at over three hours (including an intermission), the film's being toured nationwide on the rare, expensive Ultra Panavision 70mm film format—as well as his most dubious.
The Hateful Eight tracks the journey toward Red Rock, Wyoming, of bounty hunter John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell), his spiteful fugitive prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), his driver (James Parks), and two other men they meet on the way: bounty hunter/former Union soldier/quintessential black Tarantino badass Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and proudly racist good ol' Confederate boy Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who may or may not be the new sheriff of Red Rock. Hoping to find shelter from a blizzard, the group travels to a stagecoach stopover located on a mountain pass. Here they are greeted by four strangers of dubious provenance, and a putative road movie transforms into a claustrophobic chamber piece—you will not be surprised to learn that the film features yards of natter and oodles of graphic violence, the majority of which is visited, stomach-churningly, upon Daisy.
In his review for Cinema Scope, the excellent critic Adam Nayman wonders whether Tarantino is "exploiting his retrograde period setting as an excuse to indulge in more multi-directional political incorrectness than ever before"—Nayman's not sure, but I think he hits the nail on the head. Despite The Hateful Eight's setting, and a few intriguing observations about Warren's mechanisms for survival in a white world (he claims to carry a personal letter from Abraham Lincoln), the film fails to offer a complex or meaningful microcosm of the country's postwar racial and political divisions. There is some unarguable textual resonance with 2015's heated racial climate (the Charleston massacre of June 2015 looms large, as does activist Bree Newsome's removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House, and conversations around extrajudicial killing), but Tarantino's characters are mostly cartoonish mouthpieces for his windy dialogue, and moreover subordinate to his ostentatious narrative manipulations, many of which arrive without significant payoff. The film's nadir is a gruesomely protracted sequence that culminates in the graphic murders of three women, among them two indefensible black caricatures: a sassy "mammy" and a chicken-plucking "maid." Though I found a handful of positives (a few tense standoffs, an icily grandiose score by Italian master Ennio Morricone, some fine acting, Robert Richardson's sumptuous photography)—and there are countless references for genre buffs to unpick—I found it to be a torpid and ultimately sickening experience; three-plus hours marooned in front of the projected fulminations and fetishes of an untrammeled egotist.
One of the film's most disturbing aspects is its egregious use of the word "nigger"—an old offense in Tarantino-land (Gawker's Rich Juzwiak recently compiled an exhaustive history of his involvement with the epithet). Tarantino has spoken grandly in the past of wanting to "defuse" the word's power, as though it was within his power to do so. He's failed (surprise!), but at least his past usage of the word has carried some ironic, critical edge. Despite, say, the casual, blustering bigotry of Reservoir Dogs' criminals ("You're actin' like a bunch of fuckin' niggers! Ever work with niggers? Always sayin' they're gonna kill each other"), and their pretensions to professionalism, the only genuinely professional character in the film was a black guy: Detective Holdaway (Randy Brooks), the calm cop who helps Freddie (Tim Roth) finesse his cover story. The word was quite clearly overused in Django Unchained—don't give me the "realism" canard; Tarantino is anything but a cinematic realist—but it at least assumed a multivalency of meanings and textures when exchanged between Django and other black characters, like his Uncle Tom arch-nemesis Steven (Jackson).
There's some bleak humor around the word early on: Ruth takes a break from punching Daisy to sensitively school her that "the darkies don't like being called 'nigger' no more"—a jab at the supposed limits of political correctness? Yet as the film progresses, its gratuitous peppering mostly recalls the hideous scene in Pulp Fiction in which Tarantino cast himself as a slacker with a black wife just so he could repeatedly say, "Do you see a sign in my house that says dead-nigger storage?" to a cowed Samuel L. Jackson. Poor Jackson is once again the target in The Hateful Eight, and his character gets "niggered" so often—and in many cases transparently for comic effect—that I genuinely started to feel sorry for him. (Warren gets to dispense a couple of "crackers," as though the word is equivalently offensive.) During the screening I attended, I had an increasingly dismaying series of "Django Moments"—the white, 50-something man sat next to me seemed to find each utterance of the word increasingly hilarious, even freeing. He couldn't have known I'm a biracial guy with black father; even if he had known, he mightn't have cared.
The Hateful Eight also offers a lurid exploration of the white anxiety of (perceived) black sexual prowess. This is nothing new for Tarantino. It's there in the script of Reservoir Dogs ("A man walks into prison a white man, walks out talkin' like a fuckin' nigger... I think it's all that black semen... pumped up your asshole, now it's backed into your fuckin' brain... and it's comin' out your mouth!"); it's there in True Romance ("The Moors conquered Sicily... they are niggers and your great-great-great-great grandmother fucked a nigger, ho, ho, yeah, and she had a half-nigger kid... now, if that's a fact, tell me, am I lying?"); and it's all over Django Unchained. In The Hateful Eight's best, most outrageous scene, Warren mercilessly plays on the pathological anxieties of an ancient, grizzled Confederate (Bruce Dern, who was surely born sneering) with a potentially tall, and shockingly graphic, tale. However, Tarantino finds a way to ruin its potency by inserting himself into the film to comment on the moment in a smug voiceover. And while I won't go the whole hog with spoilers, a late, emasculating injury to a key character is a disturbing callback to the horrifying moment in Pulp Fiction when kingpin Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) is raped by a white racist. Such consistency in content suggests that Tarantino has an irresistible thing for punishing his black male characters lest they get too cocksure.
Perhaps worst of all is the creeping sense that Tarantino imagines he's forging some kind of progressive race-relations narrative through the opposites-attract pairing of Warren and dyed-in-the-wool racist Mannix. When Tarantino has dabbled in cross-racial buddy-bonding before—as in Pulp Fiction's Vincent and Jules, and Django Unchained's King and Django—it's made some kind of pragmatic, intellectual sense. On the contrary, this partnership feels like absurd wish-fulfillment on the behalf of its creator. Early on, as if to break the enveloping clouds of nihilistic cynicism, Tarantino gives us a jaw-droppingly dumb shot of a black horse and a white horse drawing next to other to pull the cart forward in unison—it makes " Ebony and Ivory " look like a masterpiece of understatement. And what ultimately seals these men's union? The brutal, sustained destruction of a white woman. (I will say this much for Tarantino's excessive methods: The film certainly had a profound effect on my mood—I felt like I needed a long, cleansing shower afterward.)
No longer the spunky Gen-X outsider of the Reservoir Dogs years, Quentin Tarantino is now a bona-fide above-the-line auteur, a filmmaker working in America whose international influence, access to wide audiences, and iron control over his own material is rivaled arguably only by Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan. It's likely that my grandchildren will be studying his films one day, and maybe even discussing them with me over Thanksgiving turkey. I don't mind—I actually like some of them. But I hope that we'll be discussing his work alongside a range of different voices that will emerge in the coming years as awareness of a need for storytelling diversity—not as a quick fix, but a structural, artistic necessity—grows deeper and deeper. In the light of The Hateful Eight's berserk provocations, and Tarantino's seeming obliviousness to his manifest racial privilege, the idea of him as an authoritative cinematic voice on American race relations for future generations terrifies the living shit out of me.
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