When it comes to mainstream filmmakers, Quentin Tarantino is about as polarizing as they come. As an artist, he is hailed as a pioneer by some, while condemned as a thief by others. While many find that his self-confidence reeks of arrogance, others view it as refreshingly honest. No matter where on the spectrum it lies, any opinion of Quentin Tarantino is likely to be a passionate one. Alas, controversy is inevitable.
The aforementioned clashes of opinion create an endless dispute, so to argue them would likely prove a waste of time. There is also the massive “violence in film” debate, but that extends to plenty of directors. The Tarantino controversy that deserves a closer evaluation before reaching a contrary conclusion, however, is that of his use of racially-charged language in his films or, more specifically, the recurrent usage of the word “nigger” by his characters.
Many viewers are naturally offended by the word, regardless of context. Some may even cringe at its full written form, as opposed to being referred to as, “the ‘N’ word.” Those who are upset by this word cannot and should not be criticized for their natural response, of course. It is a word that has been used to enable vile discrimination throughout history and has naturally burdened victims of its derogatory use with traumas that continue to weigh on them in modern society. As warranted as these visceral responses may be, however, there is an issue to be taken when such a reaction leads to false and drastic accusations. Detractors labeling Tarantino a “racist” or, as Spike Lee famously regards his use of the word, “disrespectful to [his] ancestors,” are sorely overlooking the filmmaker’s actual intentions. To flinch at the word due to its personal and historical impact is more than fair, but to mold that discomfort into anger at the one who wrote it down, to the point of calling that writer something as evil as a “racist” is, in this case, to misunderstand the writer altogether.
In Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs (1992), white characters casually spew racial slurs, at times with a negative context. These same characters are also criminals––bad guys––the types of people who would say such awful things. Most viewers can comprehend the difference between the writer and his characters, but even some who understand that concept may be reasonably skeptical. After all, there is only one black character in the film, and nothing in said film precisely points to the idea that the filmmaker is an advocate for racial equality. Since this was the film that introduced the auteur’s voice to the world, it bears potential cause for suspicion as to how he may perceive the minorities his first piece neglects to represent. The film is provocative with its language, but not advocative of the groups that language demeans in any other respect. It was only from thereon out that Tarantino’s films would prove his views not to be prejudiced, but rather, quite the opposite.
The argument that the language is fitting for the characters and therefore does not represent Tarantino’s views can apply to each of his subsequent films – most of which contain at least a few utterances of the word. However, this is a relatively weak case to make compared to the most visible indicator of the filmmaker’s good intentions: he casts black actors in major roles, playing characters he so dearly cherishes. His most frequent acting collaborator is Samuel L. Jackson, a black man whose characters are some of the most recognizable in Tarantino’s filmography. Jackson himself has stated that it is “impossible” for Tarantino to be “racist,” for every character he has written for him “has pretty much been the smartest character in the film.” While those characters may be despicable, Tarantino’s feeling toward them is nothing but affectionate, which is evident in their dimension and their dialogue. Jules Winnfield of Pulp Fiction (1994) and Ordell Robbie of Jackie Brown (1997) are intelligent, powerful, and speak more of Tarantino’s precious words than anyone else in their respective films. The former character is even the only one in his film who wishes to seek redemption for his sins.
Jackie Brown is based on the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard. It features a character named Jackie Burke, who Leonard describes as blonde-haired, and presumably white-skinned. Tarantino took a step further into enforcing positive black representation by re-writing the character as Jackie Brown, changing her race to black, and naming the film after her. He cast Pam Grier, a familiar figure in blaxploitation cinema, in the titular role. In doing so, Tarantino celebrated the films of black culture, with this casting homage serving to establish the protagonist’s fortitude. Jackie is independent, brainy, and ultimately good-natured. Grier spoke about the career-defining role, expressing that she “just could not realize that someone had written such a strong lead role for [her].”
Django Unchained (2012) brought more attention to the Tarantino-race controversy than ever before, as the film contained over a hundred uses of the word “nigger.” His supporters argued the fact that the word’s seemingly excessive usage was historically accurate for the film’s setting, which takes place in the Antebellum South in the years before the Civil War. What Tarantino’s detractors fail to see, however, is how Tarantino’s screenplay and imagery give rise to a black lead––and a black hero––both of which are seldom seen in mainstream cinema. Its titular character derives his name from Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966), a spaghetti western about an Italian gunslinger, much like other films of that genre. Tarantino not only paid homage to that style, he symbolically re-claimed a classic name––punctuated with his signature theme song–– for a black man; “Unchained” from his role as an enslaved object, he becomes a powerful southern hero who saves the day. Tarantino also gave Jackson one of his best roles as Stephen, a decrepit loyal house slave who ultimately becomes the biggest villain in the film. This is not a form of negative racial representation, per se, but rather another outlet through which Jackson can dominate his scenes with remarkable panache – or as the character would say, “pan-ass”. He even steals the thunder from white superstar Leonardo DiCaprio as the smartest, funniest, and the evilest person in the film. Stephen is the one whose suspicion and cleverness lead to the discovery of the protagonists’ dishonesty, and he is the one who comes closest to derailing Django’s rescue plan. He is truly the brains of the operation.
In 2015, Tarantino went beyond his support of black representation in film to become an activist for the black community’s rights in the real world. He attended a Black Lives Matter event in New York to mourn the loss of unarmed black men killed by police. After he had referred to the officers who committed these acts as “murderers," he received backlash from the police community and others, who accused him of applying that label to all cops. Tarantino refused to retract his remarks. He instead took the media’s attention as an opportunity to not only clarify his meaning to those who misconstrued it but to spread awareness about the cause he was standing for in the first place. He called for police institutions to acknowledge the deaths of such police brutality victims as Michael Brown, Amadou Diallo, Akai Gurley, Freddie Gray, Antonio Guzman Lopez, Janisha Fonville, Justus Howell, Darius Pinex and Eric Garner, as unforgivable acts to be punished accordingly and discontinued in further law enforcement.
Tarantino continued shining a spotlight on the issue of race relations with The Hateful Eight (2015) which focuses on the black struggle in America as a prominent theme.
“I have a vast interest in race in this country,” Tarantino said in an interview before the film’s release. “In the way blacks and whites have dealt with each other… It’s a theme that I can’t get away from… it’s such an important theme in America, and such an ignored theme…”
The Hateful Eight explores this more thoroughly than any other Tarantino film, and with the Black Lives Matter conundrum hovering behind it, acts as the director’s most political film. The hate between Jackson’s character, Major Marquis Warren, and many of the other eight, is exacerbated by racial hostilities both from prior to and following the Civil War. Walton Goggins’ character, Chris Mannix, even acknowledges that “when niggers are scared, that's when white folks are safe.” Later on, Jackson’s Major Warren recalls this with the line, “The only time black folks are safe, is when white folks is disarmed.” This sentiment is unashamedly truthful to the period but also holds considerable significance in the current rivalries between black and white, such as the ones magnified by the Black Lives Matter movement. When the death toll of African American victims by the firearms of Caucasian officers continues to rise, the fear of becoming the next statistic naturally imbues the black community. This can lead to resentment that feeds the cycle of conflicts between these groups.
A key plot element in The Hateful Eight involves a letter addressed to Major Warren from President Abraham Lincoln. When another character spits on the letter, Major Warren instinctively punches them out of rage. It is later revealed that the letter is fake, which calls to question why he would have responded so defensively. His immediate reaction was too genuine to be an act. The ending of the film’s final chapter, titled “Black Man, White Hell,” confirms the emotions behind that reaction. As he lies beside Mannix, bleeding to death, his former enemy asks to see the Lincoln letter. He reads it aloud, as Warren mouths the words with his eyes closed, fantasizing about a world where those words of inclusivity are coming right from his president, directed toward him and his fellow people. Unfortunately, such a world is a utopic dream. Mannix crumples up the letter and tosses it aside.
Tarantino is underlining with this final shot the sad notion that there is a long way to go, and much work to be done, before a world of positive race relations can be a reality. He does this while demonstrating the characters’ newfound tolerance and respect for one another, their realization that in death, we are all the same. To realize that this is just as true of life is the first step toward correcting negative attitudes between communities in the future. Quentin Tarantino’s work provokes attention to these attitudes, and advocates for such a future.