If you’re a Black person who watches Quentin Tarantino flicks, there’s a few things you probably struggle with as a viewer.
For example, Tarantino notoriously loooves the N-word, especially in his earlier films where any character, whether Black or White, would leap at the chance to say “ni**a” or “ni**er.” Tarantino even outright says the word “ni**er” with a hard “er” thanks to a character he plays in Pulp Fiction.
Tarantino also works in the realm of violent crime and action films. He tends to care less about the nuances of a subject and more about how an intricate plot can move forward. This can definitely make for good movies, but it risks creating black-and-white depictions of characters or themes. This is especially true for Tarantino’s work based on historical events. In Django Unchained, the slaves were good and the slave owners were bad. In Inglorious Bastards, the Jews were good and the Nazis were bad.
Easy to pick a side, right?
While this formula might’ve worked okay for the previously mentioned movies, it didn’t stick in Tarantino’s latest movie Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. The movie takes place in 1969 Los Angeles where a fictional television star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is starting to age and must confront the fact that he’s not the cowboy western star he used to be. Meanwhile, his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), helps Rick with his every needs when he’s not assisting him with stunts.
The movie enters the historical realm because the characters, primarily Cliff, interact with members of the Charles Manson family. In the late ’60s, the group was notoriously known as a cult and certain members carried out a series of murders, the most famous one being the murder of actress Sharon Tate.
Once Upon A Time ends with the planned murder of Tate, only this time, the fictional characters Rick and Cliff prevent the attack by violently killing three of the Manson family members. This is the part of the movie when Tarantino, no doubt, wants the audience to cheer for Rick and Cliff. I, however, was not able to do so.
Throughout the movie, Rick and Cliff were loaded with racists undertones that made them hard to root for. Rick was a cowboy Western star reminiscent of John Wayne, who was notoriously racist. Throughout Once Upon A Time, you could peep the type of movies Rick would star in, including one that involved killing Native or indigenous people.
Brad Pitt’s Cliff character also had some racism up in his bones. At one point, Rick was venting to Cliff in a parking lot area and Cliff told him not to cry “in front of the Mexicans.” There was also a cringe-y fight scene between Cliff and Bruce Lee, where Bruce Lee was portrayed as an arrogant martial arts caricature. Even Lee’s daughter, Shannon, came out against the movie for her father’s portrayal.
These scenes might seem minuscule to some, but it’s a common Tarantino tactic to insert a little bit of racism into his films. Whether it be the N-Word or some unnecessary comment about Mexicans, it’s rare that Tarantino can tell a story without being low-key (or high-key) racist. For the sake of storytelling, yes there are racist White people that can play a role in a film. But it’s rare that Tarantino has a character that challenges the White person on their racism. In fact, the White person ends up being the hero.
It doesn’t help that Brad Pitt’s character also has an air of misogyny. Throughout the movie, rumors swirl that Cliff killed his wife because she was nagging him too much on a yacht. Although we never witness Cliff actually killing his wife, his rage comes out full force when he kills one of the Manson women at the end of the movie. The way he kills her is so violent, it isn’t hard to believe that Cliff has brutally attacked women in the past. Yes, I know the Manson woman ends up being a killer in real life. But was it really necessary to witness every minute of Cliff smashing her head to a pulp?
By making such men the heroes of a movie, Tarantino continues to place White men on a pedestal, no matter how violent, racist or problematic they may be. With such movies, it feels like Tarantino is saying “yea I made Django Unchained and yea I attended an anti-police brutality rally…but at the end of the day, I’ve still got the upper hand.”
His need to insert some kind of racist easter egg into all his movies proves that he wants to talk about the topic in some capacity. I just don’t think he has the tools, or necessarily wants the tools, to talk about race in a way that challenges dominant White male culture. Tarantino loves White male culture, no matter who gets thrown under the bus or killed in the process.