Graphic: Kaushik Kalidindi
The Quentin Tarantino Situation: Using Racism as a Literary Device
Throughout his career, Quentin Tarantino has used racism and misogyny as a shorthand to color in his broadly sketched, stock genre characters.
There’s a scene early in postmodern American master Quentin Tarantino'slatest, ninth, best film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, when genre idol and TV star cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), has a breakdown in a parking lot with his stunt double, gofer, and close friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Via a brilliant quintessentially Tarantino monologue by super agent Marvin Shwarz (Al Pacino), breaking down the politics of Hollywood studio star power and how those politics manifest themselves in fist fights on episodic television, Dalton has just been made to understand that his career is in the process of a long, slow, inevitable decline. Dalton lights a cigarette, then collapses in a sob on the shoulder of his friend’s jean jacket. Booth gives Dalton his tinted aviators, glances back at the valets, and responds, with a note of reproach, “Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans.”
I have to admit that when I heard this line in the theater for the first time, a hybrid of laugh and surprised gasp escaped. It catches you off guard, equal parts incredibly stupid and offensive. We learn a lot about both Rick and Cliff in this introductory moment: That they’re men out of step with the times, and that they’re dumbasses clinging to an antiquated vision of white masculinity. It’s also a very old pet trick of one the greatest screenwriters of the last 40 years: Using racism and misogyny as a shorthand to color in his broadly sketched, stock genre characters. As we learn in the book he released late last year, it’s one of the first lessons he was taught as a filmgoer and critic. I've come to the conclusion that, ultimately, the constant refrain of his characters’ own ignorance is a bad habit he should quit. It’s offensive to the people it affects. It suggests its author may have an at best obtuse, or at worst problematic worldview. But above all other things, it’s a lazy crutch.
The joy and the aggravation of Cinema Speculation
Quentin Tarantino’s Cinema Speculation is a must read for any fan and completist. The book is a digression-rich analysis of the ‘70s genre films that informed so much of the director’s filmography. When considered alongside his own body of work, the book serves as a Rosetta Stone, and the result is strangely flattening: Tarantino reveals himself to be the exact sum of his influences. This has perhaps always been apparent, and baked into his appeal, but after a side by side read and rewatch, each of his masterworks suddenly feels closer to a performance by an accomplished tribute band. You can read through his reflections of formative movies such as Deliverance, Dirty Harry, Taxi Driver, and Sisters, and clock the direct references to certain scenes, characters, plot twists, and shots from his own films that once felt like subversive leaps of his imagination. It’s a book length YouTube compilation of a magician revealing how he performed all of his tricks.
As a writer, Tarantino was a breath of fresh air, inserting an awareness and modernity into early ‘90s American screenplays. His punch ups would put Redditor debates over peak Silver Surfer comic book writer runs in the mouths of nuclear submarine lieutenants, proto-Pitchfork interpretations of Madonna songs in the mouths of bank robbers, and podcaster theories on the gay subtext of Tom Cruise films in….his own mouth. It was a potent combination, these pomo touches in his homage/remixes of French and American guys in suits with guns noirs, and samurai films, and snow westerns, and gritty matinee war pulp. In each of these instances, Tarantino is introducing a mode of speech and thought as well as a Type Of Guy: The nerd king, armed with an encyclopedic grasp of film history, from his stool/throne behind the Video Archives rental counter, with big, obsessive, exhaustive opinions, on the cusp of finding their perfect medium and expression with the age of the internet, certain that his read is not just the definitive take, but the only possible take on the material, and in that take, a critical theory in which the actual auteur has their own film, their characters and their logic explained and corrected for them, by Tarantino.
It’s at once outrageous and obvious, difficult to argue with but also clearly wrong, delivered with enough verve and certainty that you wouldn’t want to bother even if you were in the room with the writer himself, more than happy to grip your lap bar and go along for the ride with a born, wildly entertaining bullshit artist. This is both the joy and the aggravation of Cinema Speculation, which is full of these digressions. At first, it’s an honor and a privilege to feel like you’re at a bar sharing drinks with the man finally unloading his obsessions and secrets, until you’re 200 pages in and it’s almost last call and your ear aches from hours of him screaming into it.
That’s not to say the formula hasn’t been potent. He’s without question one of the greatest directors of the past 30 years, and belongs in the pantheon of all-time greats. As has been his stated intention from the beginning, Tarantino’s filmography is near perfect, with few in agreement with what either his best or worst film is. In any Tarantino film, the viewer is immediately comforted by being in good and supremely confident hands. He has a striking visual style that isn’t obnoxiously showy, an exhaustive imagination, he gives every fuck to each line of dialogue, every camera movement and every cut, a real understanding of the power of casting, he’s a phenomenal writer, and he has great taste — most of the time.
Tarantino exploring racism in film
At the opening of Cinema Speculation, Tarantino discusses a formative experience he had watching the 1970 John G. Avildsen film Joe as a seven year old at the Tiffany Theater in Los Angeles. The film is a satire that prophetically drew the link between the class of wealthy puppet masters and the left behind, resentful blue collar working class the Republican Party was in the process of coalescing around in the late ‘60s. Peter Boyle is the titular character: A racist, frightening buffoon who closes out the film with a mass shooting of hippies. The film is strewn with racial slurs and larded with Joe’s backward politics. Here is how Tarantino remembers his first viewing:
“(But once) Peter Boyle’s Joe enters the movie, the audience starts laughing. And in no time at all the adult audience went from repulsed repose to outright hilarity. I remember they laughed at pretty much every fucking thing Joe said. It was a superior laugh; they were laughing at Joe. But they were laughing with Peter Boyle, who enters the movie like a force of nature. And the talented screenwriter Norman Wexler gives him a bunch of outrageous lines.” He concludes, “It doesn’t make Joe likable, but it does make him sort of enjoyable.”
So in one of his first cinematic experiences, Tarantino is absorbing the power of racist humor, how racism isn’t funny but racists can be. He doesn’t note any concern from where these laughs might be coming from, assuming everyone in the theater is in on the joke and laughing at the same things for the same reasons. Tarantino later describes his recollection of the racial makeup of the crowd at that showing as “(mostly) white”.
Tarantino clarifies his positions on representation in his analysis of Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film he describes as influenced by Joe. Tarantino spends a few paragraphs discussing the history of the film and its making, before getting to what he truly seems to find interesting about it: Its racist themes. He describes Travis Bickle, portrayed by Robert De Niro, as a different sort of racist than overt and outspoken Joe, but “the film makes it obvious he sees black males as figures of malevolent criminality. He’s repelled by any contact with them. They are to be feared or at the very least avoided.” Tarantino believes the question the film “forces you to ask yourself” is whether the movie is about a racist, or a racist movie, then does the work for us, definitively answering it’s “clearly the former” without explaining or clarifying why he feels this way, or making any concession that others could conceivably feel differently.
Tarantino’s wrath is reserved for Columbia Pictures, who released the film. He remarks, in what reads like genuine, incredulous bafflement, “is it possible Columbia films could be timid about a provocative film like Taxi Driver? Hell yeah, over 30 years later Columbia Pictures was timid as hell about the reaction to Django Unchained.” Paul Schrader has claimed the studio made him change the race of pimp character “Sport” in Taxi Driver, who eventually would be played by Harvey Keitel. Schrader claims this was requested because lawyers feared liability if Black crowds rioted in response to a white protagonist going on a Black killing spree. Tarantino first dissects the studio’s concerns, (and his arguments are valid. The studio displays its own sort of racism that would later be used against Spike Lee in the late ‘80s: The belief a Black audience couldn’t handle a controversial film without resorting to violence) but he soon lays bare his true gripe: “Columbia Pictures changing the pimp character of Sport from black to white was a societal compromise”
Tarantino launches into a bit of history, explaining his issue with the studio's mandate to change the race of the pimp. He uses anecdotal evidence, a story told by Keitel that before filming began he had attempted to find a white pimp to shadow for research. He had heard rumors of their existence, but never found one, and wound up shadowing a Black pimp. This is somehow proof that the studio overruled the film’s screenwriter to pander to the times, and the audience, casting a mythical white pimp as if it was a CGI unicorn, ruining the integrity and credibility of the film. It is fair to say suits should stay out of the business of a writer’s screenplay and a director’s vision, but the meat of Tarantino’s criticism is odd, and his equation of racism with honesty (Essentially: All pimps are Black, so cast a Black pimp) will play out time and time again in his own work.
Tarantino contrasts Taxi Driver and Joe: “Joe doesn’t engage in social compromises or audience pandering. On the contrary, it flew in the face of compromise and pandering. Joe’s great screenwriter, Norman Wexler, could have given Joe some bullshit backstory in an attempt for the audience to get their bearings on this challenging lead character. But Wexler doesn’t attempt to try and explain Joe or for Joe to explain himself. Joe is just who he is.”
Photo by LMPC via Getty Images
Tarantino makes clear that he equates a type of authenticity with the willingness to display and the refusal to excuse the racism of characters in film. The insistence of turning a Black pimp white is an insult to the audience as well as surreal, in his eyes. The possibility that movie star Harvey Keitel simply couldn’t find a white pimp in the weeks leading up to filming Taxi Driver isn’t considered. The fact that this screenplay and all its characters are imagined creations of the screenwriter and director aren’t discussed. These figments of Schrader’s imagination are presented as real people who think and behave a certain way that can’t be altered or massaged in any way in deference to viewers who may be angered or upset by the stereotypical representation of yet another Black pimp.
But he leaves his most troubling take for the end of the chapter on Taxi Driver. Tarantino criticizes Schrader, demanding that Travis Bickle’s racism proves he never served in Vietnam, as he claims to in the film. Tarantino:
“No fucking way was Travis in Vietnam.
The extent of Travis’ paranoia of black males is only credible if they are an other that he has only had superficial contact with.
How do you do a tour of duty in Vietnam and only have superficial contact with black dudes? The answer is you can’t.
Okay, say he did serve with black dudes in Vietnam, does that mean he has to like ‘em?
No, not necessarily.
But it’s not convincing he would fear them the way Travis does.
In the movie, he fears them as an other. If you serve in war with six or seven other black guys (officers and enlisted men) they wouldn’t be an other (Unless possibly Travis was an MP).”
So in this, we have all the hallmarks of the aforementioned classic Tarantino monologue. He’s weaponizing text and subtext to create a counternarrative presented as fact. His argument is that it’s unrealistic to have served in Vietnam or by extension, to have any prolonged exposure to Black people and maintain fear of Black people. This wildly simplistic and pretty obviously patently false view of how racism operates across a wide spectrum of individuals, presented as a truism, serves as a reflection of Tarantino’s neurodivergent myopia applied to the films he discusses as a fan and critic, a reflection of the language of cinema as it relates to character, and apparently for Tarantino, a reflection of the world. It’s reductive and dishonest.
A list of every character Tarantino's ever written that uses racist, homophobic or misogynistic language
It’s a problem that affects his creations. Tarantino’s characters are all verbose and occasionally surprising in their sudden bursts of violence or discursive diatribes, but they’re all humanoid. He doesn’t seem to understand how people work, most of his films are populated with video game characters advancing from side quest to side quest until they reach a final boss. There’s very little depth, they have the simple wants and needs of genre characters, most often revenge. But many of them are racist or use racist language, and after reading Cinema Speculation the motivation to color them this way becomes clear: From a young age, he understood one way to provoke audiences, and entertain them, and explain character to them, was through racism. It’s a blunt use of an infinitely complicated, powerful and destructive force he doesn’t appear to fully comprehend. If Tarantino was watching a movie that featured a clock powered by racism, he’d be less concerned with where the clock came from or how it works than if it kept exact time.
If this was a well Tarantino drew from a few times throughout his 30 years in the industry it would “just” be troubling. But when you consider the breadth, it’s hard to qualify it as anything short of a pathology. I compiled a list of every character he’s ever written that uses racist, homophobic or misogynistic language. Some of these entries, a reader can feel free to quibble with, as it occasionally lists Black actors who use the “N” word, or other potentially debatable instances you can feel free to go through item by item and take issue with. But this is not far from a list any honest person would generate if they were to task themselves with the same effort:
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Nice Guy Eddie
True Romance (1993)
Natural Born Killers (Original Screenplay) (1993)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Jackie Brown (1997)
Kill Bill 1 & 2 (2003 & 2004)
Death Proof (2007)
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Major King Kong
Django Unchained (2012)
Son of a Gunfighter (?)
US Marshall Gill Tatum
Old Man Carrucan
Dr. King Schultz
Big John Brittle
Multiple Klan Members
Lara Lee Candie
The Hateful Eight (2015)
John Ruth “The Hangman”
Oswaldo Mobray aka English Pete Hicox
General Sanford Smithers
Bob aka Marco the Mexican
Major Marquis Warren
Once Upon a Time In Hollywood (Novelization) (2022)
It’s perhaps useful to consider how Tarantino employs racist language in his films and his possible motivations for doing so. A common usage is this stomach turning bit from Mr. Pink, played by Steve Bushemi, in Reservoir Dogs: “You guys act like a bunch of fuckin’ n*ggers. You ever work a job with a bunch of n*ggers? They’re always fightin,’ always sayin’ they’re goin’ to kill one another.”
Or consider this line from Lance, the heroin dealer played by Eric Stoltz in Pulp Fiction: “Am I a n*gger? Are you in Inglewood? No. You’re in my house. White people who know the difference between good shit and bad shit, this is the house they come to.”
Or this line, delivered by Seth Gecko, played by George Clooney in From Dusk Till Dawn: “These guys ain’t sp*c firecracker salesman from Tijuana. They don’t even know the meaning of the word “barter”. In each case listed above, the usage is behavioral, a generality applied to a group of people the character is saying acts a certain way. And it’s stomach churning, by design.
There are some defenses for this. As discussed earlier, Tarantino’s early films are populated with a rogue’s gallery of hitmen film buffs, bank robbing poptimists, slasher stuntmen, and movie star Nazi war heroes. The director himself would argue, like Joe, many of his characters are anti-heros and their grotesque speech and thought are the evidence of that, character building details he is showing rather than telling us. But the numbing repetition of the same device is what can only be described as laziness. Tarantino might argue he’s just respecting the integrity of his fictional characters, and that the world is full of bad racist people, but as we see above, he continues using the exact same modes of speech and thought. It’s cheap, he uses it in the same way you might make a bad guy fat or ugly, and it seems to mean roughly the same thing to the director.
That isn’t to say he never addressed the critique. After the controversial proliferation of the “N” word in Jackie Brown, Tarantino first releases two exercises in pure genre, the Kill Bill series and Death Proof, which constitute as his least racist films (while in the case of the former, obviously very guilty of wholesale, gleeful appropriation). Then he escapes into the past, to Occupied France, the Antebellum South, and the Western Frontier at the end of Reconstruction, locales where he can make all the Jew jokes and throw around all the racial epithets he wants because they’re period appropriate.
And then there are the many cases in which Tarantino isn’t using racism as described above, to build character, but just for laughs. Consider the random King Kong joke written for a Nazi in a basement in Inglorious Basterds. Consider his infamous, abhorrent diatribe in Pulp Fiction he personally delivered against the advice of his longtime collaborator and loudest cheerleader of color, Samuel L. Jackson. It serves no purpose beyond the shock and provocation of hearing a mild mannered, robed white man spewing hate speech, with the punchline being — I guess — his wife is Black? He pulls similar lame tricks in Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, somehow justifying calling Jews rats and staging brutal slave fights to the death because at the end of the film, the victims are left holding the gun and taking the final shot.
When questioned on the subject, Tarantino has cycled through different explanations and excuses over the years, and finally settled on what you’d imagine he’s felt all along, telling Chris Wallace that people unhappy with his constant use of racism should “see something else,”, a Trumpian non-apology- refusing to be accountable for being wantonly offensive and shitty — that sounds just about right coming from a man who divides his time between LA and Israel. It’s hard to come to any other conclusion besides he simply finds this shit funny. It’s his sense of humor and he refuses to curb it.
And this is why Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is his best film. It displays a quality we hadn’t seen from Tarantino in 30 years: growth. With the exception of his adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch (a surprisingly faithful translation he barely touched, besides adding gratuitous use of the “N” word), his characters in Hollywood are unique in his historical stable because they aren’t a pastiche of details from ‘70s genre flicks, they resemble actual human beings living in something that feels closer to our world (obviously, until the heightened blood orgy “correcting” history at the end). Despite the opening “Mexican” line, and its controversial treatment of Bruce Lee, the racial element is more or less absent (albeit in an extremely white film). The film remains true to his cinematic obsessions and obsession with cinema, but does so by literally peering behind the camera’s lens to spend time with the passionate and dedicated men and women who actually made the pulp that informed his work. Tarantino recently announced his 10th film is going into production. He claims it will be his last, but I sincerely hope it isn’t, because Once Upon a Time in Hollywood just might signal a very talented filmmaker has at last unlocked something, and found a way forward.
The story of Floyd
Tarantino closes Cinema Speculation with a somewhat surprising, very personal anecdote that could potentially be construed as the author and filmmaker attempting to present his bonafides, a signed permission slip to attend “the cookout” if you will. It doesn’t really make sense in the context of the rest of the book, and is in fact presented as a footnote. He tells the story of his history with a man named Floyd Ray Wilson, a Black man who dated Tarantino’s mother for a time when he was ten years old, and ended up living in their LA apartment serving as a sort of caretaker for Quentin later on as a teenager. Floyd shared Quentin’s love of movies, and was an aspiring screenwriter himself.
Quentin clearly loved him, revered his takes on film and cherished their relationship, but he also grew to resent him, because he learned the hard lesson that Floyd was flaky and untrustworthy. The tone of the writing changes as Tarantino reflects on his childhood grievances. He’s bitter, he’s sad, and he believes Floyd never really cared about him. In explaining Floyd, and his situation with Quentin, Tarantino says, “It was sorta like moving Sam Jackson’s character in Jackie Brown (Ordell Robbie) into your home and having him look after your sixteen-year-old boy for over a year.” Intimating Floyd may have inspired Tarantino’s presentation of Ordell Robbie in his film. The two men eventually lost touch, but Tarantino credits an unproduced screenplay Floyd wrote for inspiring the broad outline of Django Unchained.
Now, I’m not interested in playing armchair psychologist and projecting what this story could possibly mean to Quentin and how it may or may not have informed his work. But for fun, let’s pitch the plot of a hypothetical film:
Our protagonist is an awkward, gawky teenage nerd who doesn’t have much in his life beyond movies. He has this fraught relationship with a Black guy who used to date his mom, who now lives at home with him in a spare bedroom, and is supposed to be hanging out with him while his mom is out working or otherwise occupied, but is constantly letting him down, which breeds resentment and hurt feelings. And that kid grows up and becomes a star, a beloved auteur writer/director, and in basically all his films, he employs racist language and tropes, and even writes elements of that old boyfriend into one of his films, a film that largely makes fun of him and murders him in cold blood.
Now again, this is me speculating, but let’s say you were Quentin Tarantino, a critic who has a limp, surface level, black and white relationship with racism and how it's employed in story, and that critic was watching that movie, what do you think he’d say about our protagonist?
Flatbush local, culture writer, former mayor of New York City.
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