The Hateful Word (The Last Thing I’ll Ever Write on Quentin Tarantino and the Word Nigger)

 

I’ve watched a lot of movies that were explicitly interested in racism. Of these kinds of movies, films about athletes or sports teams overcoming racial prejudice in order to succeed (e.g., Remember The Titans, Hardball, Coach Carter, Ali, The Great Debaters) tend to be the most explicit. There’s a rhythm to “race movies” that sports stories tend to follow very closely and I think that that’s worth thinking about in the context of The Hateful Eight.

The plot of race movies is usually something to the tune of idealism (racial harmony, individuals unimpeded by prejudice) facing up against reality and being struck down repeatedly until reality bends and realizes that the ideal is the only way forward. The march is long and hard but the bridge is always crossed.

This is clearly a myth, especially in the context of sports, an arena where loss is literally designed into the game, but it persists. In order to sustain this myth, especially within movies that aim for realism, racism and other deadlocked issues have to be reconstructed within the movie. I know this is obvious, but let’s dwell on it. Racism, like any other element in fiction, be it gender roles, family ties, or setting, has to be built piece by piece. It has to be washed, prepared, cooked up. Racism is never microwave-ready.

So how does one go about building a racist world? In a (American) sports movie, you dwell on those moments where Racism – big, scary R, with fangs, Klan sheets, badges, police cruisers, old and crusty Southern white men with bullhorns, smiling Southern white women with poisoned sweet tea – discards all manners and speaks directly, forcefully. I hate you. You are less than me. You are nigger.

I tend to frown and sometimes laugh at these movies because racism is just so conspicuous. Note that I didn’t say it’s fake – I still recognize it as real, plausible. But it’s a bit too in-your-face, too hideously ugly, too confrontational. Maybe I’m just a product of my era, but outside of a few rare instances I rarely have prolonged personal encounters with racism. This is definitely privilege talking, but I tend to catch it in glimpses, flashbacks, moments. Racism’s tendency toward evanescence is why I think most robust anti-racism movements have focused on structures of oppression: institutions, policies, laws, nations, doctrines. Now these I come into contact with everyday.

That said, I’ve never seen a movie [that was explicitly] about structural racism. I won’t say that the nature of structures makes it impossible for them to be narratively compelling, but I’ve never seen it done. Ever. Our current way of making movies and maybe even of just telling stories just seems to be too tied to character and individuals and groups and consciousness to deal with the inhumanity of structural racism. This isn’t a bad thing, but that’s the rub.

That said, some filmmakers try really hard to reproduce those structures, to mobilize them even in movies about individuals. Higher Learning takes aim at college. Training Day takes aim at cops. The Pursuit of Happyness takes aim at the economy. The Hateful Eight takes aim at the Civil War.

In The Hateful Eight the aim is scattershot (that’s my wide-screen joke) and it doesn’t always hit (the movie is deeply sexist, I think), but I’m not convinced it isn’t effective. The word nigger gets volleyed around over and over and over and I don’t think it’s in vain. Of course there are other ways to build a racist world, but in a world of speechifying, pissy, loquacious strangers, I think that deeply violent language is an awfully reliable brick.

Sure, the story as it was told did not have to be told this way and yes highly privileged white man Quentin Tarantino seems to use the word pretty comfortably, but all of this righteous indignation regarding the word nigger is starting to strike me as goofy. Structural racism is hard to produce on screen – there are people who don’t believe in it in real life, after all. And for better or worse the word nigger hits. And when it comes in unrelenting flurries the way it does in The Hateful Eight, I think it hits hard.

Cameron Kunzelman once made a video game called “My Rage is a Cloud That Will Cover The Earth.” The game features a cloud (of rage) that hangs over an avatar’s head and expands as sexist and condescending quotes linger on the screen. The cloud is explicitly meant to represent the avatar’s rage and frustration, but I’ve always thought it could also represent the quotes themselves, and their ability to slowly engulf the world, the universe, life itself.

Major Warren in The Hateful Eight seems to live in such a world and I think that the frequency and vitriol of the word nigger makes that apparent. Each utterance of nigger is a virulent droplet of hate in an atmosphere that’s already impossibly humid.

This doesn’t mean that the word nigger is necessary to convey racism against black people on screen.* Black strife now, then, and forever will always be larger than slurs. It just means that one particular filmmaker’s choice worked. This time.

I don’t think it will work forever or in all contexts. In Django, for example, the humor of the film made the word nigger and other forms of racism somewhat ambiguous, especially since nigger was used in all directions, by all kinds of characters. And that ambiguity can definitely come across as carelessness or insensitivity.

But beyond whether it will always work, I think the ultimate question about Quentin Tarantino and the role of race in his movies is who carries the burden of his representations? Who has to deal with laughs at racist jokes during his films? Who has to be pushed to the margins to realize Tarantino’s vision of black masculinity and American racism? Who suffers when Tarantino goes for indulgence over concision? The answers to these questions vary between his movies, but I think they are much better ways of engaging with his body of work and with his representations of black people than tallying up the occurrence of a word that he tends to employ quite strategically (in his films; in his interviews, he isn’t always so tactful).

In short, if you want to find the troubling racial undertones in Quentin Tarantino’s work (they are there!) please look beyond the word nigger. Your rage, your argument, and my experience of your argument deserve it.

*The defense that it is historically accurate doesn’t fly either. The accents in the Hateful Eight are free-wheeling and I’m pretty sure that Negro was a more common word than black during the time period when the movie takes place. Likewise, since fictional worlds are artificial, the idea that the word adds realism to a movie is also questionable. I think that the real strength of the word in his films is affect, not realism.

Further Reading: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

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2 thoughts on “The Hateful Word (The Last Thing I’ll Ever Write on Quentin Tarantino and the Word Nigger)

  1. I just recently stumbled across this. Your writing has an infectious quality, like laughter, not like disease. I teach at university, and I occasionally teach about red-lining. As a white adjunct, I always try to stay on the white side of this issue by focusing on the institutional nature of the problem. Anyway, we read Beryl Satter’s book “Family Properties” which is an interesting and powerful work dealing with fathers, heroes, villains,communities, and institutional racism in the Chicago housing market from the late 1950s to the mid-’60s. Since reading it I’ve pictured it in my head as an HBO series. I mention it, because the book does a really efficient job of showing how a structure (racism in housing markets) gets built, maintained, and then the results are just so devastating, but so unnecessarily so. It’s like watching a horror movie, and you know what the characters need to do to avoid disaster… but you are powerless to stop them. It’s unfortunate too, since we would now be living in a much different America. Now we look at black Chicago and us white people just shake our heads and say things like “they just don’t get it.” Which is such a deeply stupid, ahistorical, tin-eared thing to even think, let alone say. I just wonder if a story like Satter’s would be any better at conveying (on a screen) the structures of racism.

    I look forward to reading more of your work.

    As for Tarantino, dude is way too comfortable with that particular word. I forget which movie it was but there’s a white kid who wants to say the word, and so the black kids finally let him, they give him permission, and then they punch him. That seems right.

    • Hi John, I appreciate the comment and the compliment. The movie you’re thinking of is Dope, haha.

      Family Properties sounds really interesting! I’ll add it to my reading list! I imagine that an HBO version of the series would work like The Wire, focusing on different actors with different allegiances/levels of agencies in the housing market and showing how they consolidate and exercise power. I’m sure it would work well, but the thing I was trying to get at in this piece is that in movies, which don’t have the luxury time that serial storytelling affords, it’s more conducive to the medium to take a more pragmatic approach, saving time by being a bit more direct. I think Tarantino could definitely be more tactful, but this time, and in Pulp Fiction, I think he was successful.

      You’re right though, he uses the word as if he’s entitled to use it and it’s incredibly obnoxious. I just think that sometimes when people respond to that obnoxiousness and entitlement with broad mandates about how art should be, things get a little silly (not accusing you of that, by the way).

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