Warning: This article contains spoilers for several Quentin Tarantino films, some harsh language, and a graphic image from "12 Years a Slave."
By a casual definition, I'm an untalented, underemployed film geek. So, all of my cinematically-inclined followers should not be surprised to know that I went to see the roadshow version of Quentin Tarantino's latest film, "The Hateful Eight," in 70 mm film projection. And damn, was that an experience.
I (among others) think of Tarantino as an anti-directorial enigma, because he makes really, really incredible movies seemingly effortlessly, and does whatever the hell he wants whenever he so desires; Tarantino is as Tarantino does. And admittedly, there's a ring of truth to that: who else would have released a three hour Western almost entirely contained in a small cabin that basically coincided with the release of "Star Wars" and still have it be the best paced movie I've seen since "Ex Machina?"
Much as I'm sure the world needs another gushing review of "Hateful Eight," I like to think that movies are more than their formal qualities. So while I would list this film in the top 10 I've seen this year and in my top three Tarantino movies overall, the film is undeniably one of the most heavy-handed approaches to race relations I've seen since "Red Tails."
From this point forward, my review will no longer be spoiler-free. The widespread respect and admiration this film has gotten despite serious thematic issues is too important to let things like the standard format of a film review get in the way. Henceforth, this is going to be the opinions of a young white guy trying to make sense of the world around him, so take it with a big grain of salt.
OK, let's start with some historical background. Tarantino has been mired himself in racial controversy since "Reservoir Dogs," specifically through the wanton use of one specific word. Though various parties have attacked and defended the director, here's what Tarantino himself had to say in the wake of "Pulp Fiction:"
"My feeling is the word 'nigger' is probably the most volatile word in the English language. The minute any word has that much power, as far as I'm concerned, everyone on the planet should scream it. No word deserves that much power. I'm not afraid of it. That's the only way I know how to explain it."
OK, so put one on the board for Tarantino, if you believe it. No, it's not his word to "not [be] afraid of" any more than it is mine. No, he never explained why everything he films with people of color turns into a painful aping of what he seems to view as their culture. For the moment, society gave our young hero a pass because he claimed to be making a political statement through the vocabulary of his characters.
And that worked for several years, including a rip-off blaxploitation picture in Jackie Brown (which is my favorite, technically, because it actually takes its time to let characters think instead of being a damn highlight reel. Color me hypocritical, again). Our boy buzzed his happy way through several critically acclaimed films while only seriously being criticized by people who thought his movies were too violent.
That all changed in 2012 with the release of "Django Unchained." The only time continually spraying racist hate into the mainstream can be considered subtle is when it is compared to a revisionist history film about a Black gunfighter who kills a ton of white folks before literally demolishing the institution of slavery at the end of the film. As always, Tarantino is light on his feet.
Finally! everyone cried. Someone has done it! They've made the perfect slave movie, something we can put on a double bill with "Birth of a Nation" and feel like we've made progress afterwards. The Academy even gave him another Oscar, the critical equivalent of a gold star and a pat on the head.
I'll admit, I shared this view for a second until that meddling Steve McQueen shook me back to reality. While "Django" gleefully juxtaposed slavery and revenge through destruction, "12 Years a Slave" subjected the viewer to shit that seems impossible. You don't need a history degree to know about whippings or of lynchings, but seeing a film that so painfully lingers on degrading and horrifically visceral human suffering damaged me in a way no montage could ever. Racism became an element of history and society that demands reparations and justice, not some phony plantation in the backwards South that can be blown to bits for the climax.
Tarantino does something similar at the end of "Hateful Eight," and boy, is it even more so. As I've said before, the film is about an assorted group of folks crammed together in a cabin for a snowstorm some years after the Civil War. There are a lot of interesting moments that surround race in the film, but I'd like to focus on one item in particular: the Lincoln Letter owned by Samuel L. Jackson.
As a totem, the letter goes through a series of transformations. It begins the film as a sacred object, an intimate letter from the deceased leader of the free world to one lowly soldier. However, once the film reveals that the letter is indeed fake, it takes on another meaning as something meant to disarm racial tensions, a way to put white people at ease. For a moment, the film seemed to have a nuanced approach to race relations, which makes sense for a smart group of Hollywood people.
But as the white Rebel renegade (Walton Goggins) and the Black Union soldier (Jackson) lie dying at the end of the film, Goggins asks for the letter once again. Now, we are given the full text of the letter, which reads in part: "We still have a long way to go. But, hand in hand, we will get there." As the camera pans out to reveal the hanged racist Domergue, the film slaps you with a message of coming together as a nation, one that is new from the earlier leaked version of the script and the opposite of the letter's message. The film seems to end on a largely optimistic and socially conscious note for America's future: evil is dead, the two races are reconciled, and Tarantino is a genius.
He may be a genius, but that doesn't mean he's perfect.
America isn't done with racism anymore than QT is. Continuing to symbolically destroy plantations and hang, shoot, and stab racist southerners in films isn't the way to address these issues. A combination of revolution, reparation, and reconciliation is the only option I can see, and continuing to shoot explosively Cool movies (now featuring capital S Social messages) almost seems counterproductive. Not even his comments on #BLM sold me on the movie, especially his bizarrely messianic hope that the film become "a rite of passage for Black fathers and their sons."
So, that's why I'm happy Tarantino didn't make it to the big show this time. Not because it isn't a good movie, but because even #OscarsSoWhite seems to be able to tell this one has something weird going on.