If the hysterical overreaction by police unions across the country weren’t enough of a sign that Quentin Tarantino was right to speak out at last month’s Rise Up October protest, then surely the rumors about Harvey Weinstein’s reaction would be. The distributor may not be chastising Tarantino publicly, but Weinstein is said to be furious with the director for attending the New York rally, where he joined with other marchers in condemning police brutality — all just two months before the Dec. 25 unveiling of Tarantino’s much-anticipated new thriller, “The Hateful Eight.” With box office returns and award nominations waiting to be collected, this was apparently no time to incur a nationwide boycott — or, for that matter, to take a tough public stand on matters of grave moral and sociopolitical importance.
Such controversy is not new to Tarantino. Indeed, the words “such controversy is not new to Tarantino” were used by Bret Easton Ellis in his recent, controversial interview with Tarantino for T magazine, in which the filmmaker took swipes at Ava DuVernay and Kathryn Bigelow before making some obnoxious declarations about his cultural standing in the black community. “If you’ve made money being a critic in black culture in the last 20 years you have to deal with me,” he told Ellis. “You must have an opinion of me. You must deal with what I’m saying and deal with the consequences.”
And deal they have. “Django Unchained” (2012), Tarantino’s most recent and commercially successful film, was taken to task by many for approaching the subject of slavery not with the solemnity of a prestige picture, but with the blood-sloshing irreverence of an exploitation movie. Crude revenge narratives and charnel-house aesthetics may be par for the course from the director of “Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill,” but what really rankled critics (and not only black critics) about “Django Unchained” was its reckless, audacious and profligate use of the N-word. It’s not the first time Tarantino’s fondness for that particular taboo has raised hackles (Spike Lee took issue with it years ago after “Jackie Brown”), and it remains, for many, the most egregious example of cultural appropriation by a white filmmaker who sometimes fancies himself a black one.
We can only speculate as to what was running through Tarantino’s mind when he chose to attend a Rise Up October gathering in New York on Oct. 24, where he took the stage to honor the victims and their families (among other speakers, including Cornel West, Eve Ensler and Chris Hedges). Was he trying to make amends for, or divert attention from, the statements he made in that earlier interview? Or was Tarantino — in his usual brash, outspoken, shoot-from-the-hip manner — trying to show not only that he was concerned about the issues at stake, but also that his identification with black culture transcends a mere difference in skin color? After years of talking the talk, perhaps this was his way of walking the walk: Outsider or insider, honorary brother or cultural parasite, he chose to take a stand on behalf of the African-American men and women who have been targeted by cops in such disproportionate numbers, even if the matter of race remained largely implicit in his brief onstage remarks.
“I’m a human being with a conscience,” Tarantino told the crowd of about 300 protestors. “And when I see murder, I cannot stand by, and I have to call the murdered the murdered, and I have to call the murderers the murderers.” The word “murderer” may not be quite as inflammatory as an N-bomb, but you can still understand, up to a point, why so many in law enforcement were so infuriated by it. Tarantino may be one of our most gifted screenwriters, but he is far from the most delicate. The violence in his movies has never been merely a matter of plucked eyeballs and severed ears; it’s there in the very language of his characters — the badass phrasings, the whip-crack rejoinders, the menacing pauses, the slurs and threats that get merrily tossed about like foul-mouthed grenades. Tarantino’s rally speech may have been extemporaneous, but even his off-the-cuff remarks cut deep; they reflected a master’s practiced ability to shock and wound.
The vehemence of Tarantino’s verbal assault is not in dispute, though the target of it very much is. As the director recently told the Los Angeles Times, “All cops are not murderers. I never said that. I never even implied that.” It’s sad that he even had to clarify. In the heat of their outrage, none of Tarantino’s attackers seem to have grasped that his words were directed specifically at those responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown, Amadou Diallo, Akai Gurley, Freddie Gray, Antonio Guzman Lopez, Janisha Fonville, Justus Howell, Darius Pinex, and the many other victims of police violence who were honored at the October rally. It shouldn’t require any stretch of the imagination to identify these men and women as “the murdered,” or to suggest that their killers deserve to be held to account — a statement that hardly amounts to a blanket condemnation of all those who protect and serve.
But the logic of Tarantino’s critics doesn’t allow for that level of discernment, to judge by their call for a boycott of his movies — a call that has spread from one organization to the next like wildfire. (As of this writing, police organizations in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles have joined the boycott, along with the National Assn. of Police Organizations and the National Border Patrol Council.) To criticize one member of the force, apparently, is to criticize them all. “You’re either with us or against us” is a dangerous mindset for any group of people to hold, particularly for those in law enforcement — a profession that should demand the highest levels of accountability and self-examination. At the very least, it should require a thicker skin.
Tarantino is not the first Hollywood celebrity to speak out about the use of deadly force by police. But he is the only one who has drawn this ferocious and coordinated a rebuttal; his words, as they so often do, clearly struck a nerve. And the angriest reactions seem to stem from a personal fury that it’s this guy, of all people, who has the nerve to speak out — it’s not just a matter of “How dare he say this,” but “How dare he say this.” After all, Quentin Tarantino makes sensationally violent, hugely influential movies about mobsters and thugs and assassins and robbers and rapists and vigilantes, movies where people get murdered and mutilated in all manner of grotesque and over-the-top ways. Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Assn. of the City of New York, is hardly the first person to opine that Tarantino is “a purveyor of degeneracy,” someone who “makes a living glorifying crime and violence.” (As someone who’s generally a fan of people sticking to their chosen fields of expertise, I have to say I’ll take Tarantino’s social criticism over Lynch’s movie reviews any day.)
The question of whether Tarantino’s cinema serves to promote or pacify a culture of violence has been debated since the release of “Reservoir Dogs” more than 20 years ago, and it will continue to rage long after he’s shot his final frame. The carnage in his films should never be taken lightly; nor should it be shrugged off with the condescending, anti-intellectual justification “It’s only a movie.” But neither should it be interpreted in a vacuum, or subjected to the crude reading that something that thrills and excites us necessarily amounts to a glorification. There are relatively few cops to be found in the lawless landscape where most of Tarantino’s movies unfold. But there is, even within the simplified morality of his characters’ worldview, an abiding fascination with the pursuit of justice — messy, primitive justice, to be sure, but justice nonetheless. And it’s that impulse that drives and connects almost all his films, from the payback-thriller templates of “Kill Bill,” “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” to the postmodern morality play of “Pulp Fiction.”
There may be something incongruous about a director whose films are known for their ridiculously high body counts uttering the words “When I see murders, I do not stand by.” But you can only call it hypocrisy if you fail to grasp that there’s a difference between real violence and movie violence, and that a person’s moral and political consciousness can’t be reduced to the sum of his or her creative output — even when that creative output is as distinctive and recognizable as Quentin Tarantino’s. Which brings us to the other, altogether more troubling reason why I think this particular filmmaker has been singled out for his comments, and why so many have joined the campaign to suppress him.
No one batted an eye when Kanye West or Azealia Banks or Samuel L. Jackson lent their names to the cause of Black Lives Matter. But Tarantino is, not to put too fine a point on it, a white man. He’s a popular, critically acclaimed, award-winning white filmmaker whose bad-boy sensibility has long been embraced and absorbed by the mainstream. He is, for all his nose-thumbing tendencies, an establishment’s anti-establishment filmmaker. And in light of his popularity, the call to boycott “The Hateful Eight” and his other films feels not just spiteful and retaliatory, but desperate — as if his critics are trying not just to punish someone for exercising his right to free speech, but also to apply enough financial pressure to cow him into silence or spur a retraction. Of course, as Forbes film critic and box office pundit Scott Mendelson has astutely pointed out, any attempts to stifle Tarantino will probably have the undesired effect of merely boosting his profile and that of “The Hateful Eight,” to the point that one might reasonably wonder if this entire brouhaha was one calculated Weinstein masterstroke.
My own sense — borne out by his defiant response to those who would shut him down — is that nobody really tells Tarantino what to do. A lot of people, black and white, probably wish he would shut up about race already, but as we’ve seen, the very cultural cachet that he sometimes wields as an entitlement within the black community can also be a highly useful tool for amplifying that community’s call for justice. It would be even more useful, and unassailable, if other artists of an equivalent stature were following his example. Who knows, it might even compel his critics in law enforcement to spend as much time policing their actions as they do the free-speech rights of celebrities. What once read like an instance of swaggering self-regard — “You must deal with what I’m saying and deal with the consequences” — now carries the unmistakable feel of an invitation. Maybe the real problem isn’t what Quentin Tarantino is saying, but that there aren’t more people saying it with him.