On the last day of the Sundance Film Festival, I sat down for an Impossible Burger and ended up chatting, as one does, with a fellow Sundancer about the movies we had seen and loved. After mutually gushing over Edson Oda’s masterpiece Nine Days, which garnered standing ovations from the crowds at both of our screenings and should be seen immediately by anyone who cares at all about movies and/or life, we drifted casually into conversation about other movie-related topics.
I mentioned that I had enjoyed Bao Nguyen’s Bruce Lee documentary, Be Water, earlier that morning. The discussion turned to Lee’s role in challenging stereotypes in Hollywood.
“He broke down barriers for Asians that weren’t really getting work in the film industry, or if they were, it was degrading work,” my burger mate noted of Lee. “That was such a big deal to a lot of people. That’s why that scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was so controversial.”
I nodded in agreement, remembering the scene well, along with the indignation and discomfort of watching one of my heroes being diminished before my very eyes to the status of mere mortal. “Yeah, that scene made me cringe.”
“QT can be a little insensitive.”
“Racist AND sexist, and sometimes I’m not so sure how I feel about it.”
We briefly discussed the validity of giving Tarantino a pass on the merits of his storytelling, reaching no conclusions other than that we both enjoyed his movies, before the time came for me to dash off to the queue for my next film. But the question gnawed at me like a chipped tooth, my inner dialogue popping off like criminals in a diner exploring the boundaries of character. Does Tarantino get a pass?
When I think about Tarantino’s crunchier dialogue and what it accomplishes in his films, whether it contributes to story, I can see that it may have artistic merit. As to whether these merits overcome the criticisms that we as a politically correct society may level against such dialogue, as a white lady, I’m hesitant to make a firm declaration either way. But in the spirit of exploring boundaries and inner dialogue, I’m happy to share some of my chipped-tooth ruminations on the matter.
On the one hand, whenever his characters use the kind of language that decent society has agreed is off-limits, it establishes for many viewers the villainous nature of those characters.
We root for the comeuppance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, feel personally rewarded to see the Nazis burn in Inglorious Basterds. We revel in the characteristically Tarantinoesque glory of the Black Mamba’s revenge, revealed as a more of a slow burn but with none the less intensity once we realize the harms done to Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo in the Kill Bill movies. In this regard, the racist and sexist attributes of his antiheroes amplifies the conflict in Tarantino’s films, resulting in a more triumphant climax and far more satisfying film experience than if those characters had been more civilized in their language and behavior.
But on the other hand, a perhaps more pernicious aspect of these character sketches is the sly celebratory brazenness with which they ultimately get away with overt racism and sexism.
When we hear Tarantino’s characters casually drop the N-word or call some woman a slut, it signals something more than just the mark of a villain. It tells us that these men operate outside the boundaries of decent society, as not just criminals but outlaws. For certain members of the viewing audience, I imagine this functions as a beckoning, a clarion call to claim one’s freedom from the conventional rules of society. By celebrating these characters and their behavior, perhaps an unwritten bond between filmmaker and audience gradually shifts the parameters of what is considered unacceptable so that these behaviors become, rather than the mark of a villain, the mark of the privileged.
After all, we may fantasize about vengeance, but the reality is that slavery was followed by Jim Crow, redlining, and mass incarceration. Fascism not only still exists but seems to be experiencing a revival. And women cope with the brutal realities of intimate partner violence every day.
Is the elevation of story worth the tradeoff of putting these signals out into the world? Are Tarantino’s intentions more aligned with the former, or the latter? He often seems to be daring us as audience members to challenge his absolute right to say these wicked words, to portray these rancid behaviors as not merely normal but as part of the societal framework against which his heroes must struggle.
In his early hits, some of the most brazenly racist and sexist characters are portrayed by the director himself. These bit roles, largely inconsequential to plot but memorable primarily for their flaunting of societal norms, place Tarantino in the position of an otherwise civilized white dude who, finding himself in the company of outlaws, signals his outlaw credentials.
But is he dropping those N-bombs in order to gain entree into an exclusive society that holds itself above the rules, or is he in fact signaling its existence to the rest of us?
Mapping out the use of racist and sexist tropes throughout Tarantino’s filmography returns a complexity of signals. For example, Mr. Pink, unabashed abuser of waitstaff in Reservoir Dogs, is portrayed by Steve Buscemi as kind of a weenie, a little too insecure in his masculinity to be comfortable with the association of the color pink. He is also, arguably, the only character to survive the brutal events of the film.
Kill Bill’s fury Kiddo, facing a gang of criminals who have stripped her of the signature symbols of feminine value in a masculine world, has to forge her own sense of feminine strength from the ground up. She does so by vanquishing a series of not only male but perhaps even more notably female antiheroes, ranging from wifely mother to gang bosses in their own right, each represented by various species of poisonous snakes.
Christopher Walken’s character in Pulp Fiction, a Vietnam veteran who exhibits a liberal use of Asian slurs in his one memorable scene, also suffers the indignity of having to penetrate his own anus with a ticking timepiece.
Ultimately, a lot of Tarantino’s films perform as revisionist history, fantasies that channel the audience’s anger at the injustice of the world into graphically violent rejections of it. It’s almost as if Tarantino, perhaps cognizant of the way these same injustices place barriers to entry on the lucrative world of storytelling via film, has managed, like some double-agent of a white dude from the valley who used to work in a video store, to surf a fine line between reinforcing ugly stereotypes, and challenging them.
But if the power and scope of this platform that he’s built for himself means that for every challenge issued, permission is also granted, it still leaves us with the same questions. Regardless of whether we grant Tarantino a pass for his tremendous ability to craft a tale, these stereotypes exist, and their perpetrators and the harms they do surely exist as well. It would be no more wise for us to ignore them than to celebrate them. As for the scenes that make me cringe, perhaps that in itself is their highest and best purpose, that they should make me uncomfortable enough to question why, however briefly. As such I’m compelled to credit Tarantino for bashing us in the face with them in ways that are impossible to ignore.
Despite, or in the opinion of my Impossible Sundance buddy (who, by the way, happened to be Black), even somehow because of the heavy reliance on racist and sexist caricatures, I have and imagine I always will take special delight in watching Tarantino’s films. He’s unquestionably gifted in the art of visual storytelling, and in no way would I ever suggest that he should stop making movies. But if his work with Harvey Weinstein, and later, on his own, has in any way managed to place even the tiniest wedge in the doors of gatekeepers anywhere, so that people who are not white men might one day enter, I would consider this to be his greatest cinematic legacy.