Tarantino Revises History With a Vengeance, But is it Irresponsible to the Present ? 



Given Quentin Tarantino’s last two revisionist epics, it’s not surprising that there have been rumors about a third installment in his revenge revisionist fantasies. With history littered with brutalized victims and unpunished oppressors, it’s fair to assume that Tarantino has a wealth of subject matter he could choose from: Perhaps he could take on America’s original sin – the systematic genocide and forced relocation of the American Indian population. Or he might just choose to make a revenge tragedy about a group reviled by every population – child molesters. The victims of abuse could band together and exact vigilante justice on their perverse tormenter, and others like him. There are many gross crimes sadistically committed against innocent groups of people all throughout history and today. Tarantino has chosen to take aim at familiar historical evil figures and/or institutions that are symbolic totems of oppression, tyranny, and dehumanization, and created a fictional hero (or group) representative from the oppressed ranks to avenge their mistreatment and in turn, brutalize the oppressors. Tarantino’s revisionist histories are great fun, and it’s especially satisfying to see familiar villains get punished, but is it responsible to do so? Does the filmmaker have a greater responsibility to the period and those oppressed during it? I believe he does.

As an unapologetic post-modernist, Tarantino manages a mashup of the old and the new, and the hip and the passé. In Django Unchained in particular, Tarantino is clearly borrowing upon the familiar trope of the revenge tragedy/ fantasy. Many of the Blaxploitation films of the ’70s employed such devices as the black protagonist exacting revenge on the white ‘honky’ and all their oppressors. The genre’s role in exploring and shaping race relations in the US has been controversial. While some held that the Blaxploitation trend was a token of black empowerment, the movies were accused by others of perpetuating common white stereotypes about black people. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new wave of acclaimed black filmmakers focused on black urban life in their movies, particularly Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, among others. These films made use of elements of Blaxploitation, but also incorporated implicit criticism of the genre’s glorification of stereotypical “criminal” behavior. The problem with Tarantino appropriating the Blaxploitation genre is that it’s disingenuous and intellectually bankrupt, pure and simple. Tarantino’s making the same Blaxploitation films he emulated in the ’70s, and has been remaking year after year.

For a man who’s been on the radar of moviegoers for over 20 years, he seems to be making the same film over and over. He still employs the same quirky, stylish dialogue (no one really talks as cleverly and with such an enviable ability to skewer pop culture as his characters all do), brutal, yet almost satirical violence, and preoccupation for revenge. His films have not matured, as he presumably has. They still feature the same kinds of somewhat sleazy characters making various decisions that will almost certainly be their undoing. Revenge is the ultimate motive to many. People went to his films expecting the same thing they got out of Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and other similar movies. However, Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds were different. These were not strictly fiction, but takes on a history we knew and featuring familiar villains we all deplored, providing him with an instant revulsion in the audience and a recognizable hero who fights the very face of evil – Hitler and his Final Solution of systematic genocide in one, and slaveowners and their inhumane enslavement of millions in the other. Without one single reel being shot, Tarantino had an audience clamoring for revenge.

Tarantino uses the ’70s as his spiritual inspiration, and Blaxploitation films in particular. He seeks the flashy and stylish sex appeal of the gorgeous black protagonist, with the mouth full of all the most bad-ass vengeful one-liners. We see all the black stereotypes and shallow complexity of those of his race all around him. In some ways, Django is the everyman AND the outlier of his race. He is enviable, sure, but not representative of his people. Not unlike the films they are modeled after, the white villains are also two-dimensional bogeymen, devoid of complexity and legitimate depth. The black and white people that populate this world are remarkably uncomplicated, and conveniently fall into one of two categories: good or evil. There is very little gray in this movie. Not only do Tarantino’s films emulate the aesthetic and soul of Blaxploitation films, they also represent the superficial handling of their subject matter. The plots are thin, and the characters are devices and stereotypes with very little complexity. Characters are motivated by large and unwieldily concepts, like revenge. There is very little contemplation of what it means to take another’s life.

Tarantino’s cast of characters is comprised of un-nuanced stock heroes and villains. The kind of baddies who are well-dressed Snidely Whiplash villains, with nary a nuanced bone in their bodies. In these films, he’s been choosing actual historical figures and groups that are rightfully maligned and despised, but still inflicting pain dozens of years later. These aren’t colorful eccentric characters from ‘Pulp Fiction.’ These villains didn’t just tie a woman to the train tracks. We’re talking mass genocide….Institutional slavery and racism, and wounds that are still very fresh today. His monsters are still with us, and it’s easy to dehumanize these perpetrators and see them as faces of evil. In movies like Pulp Fiction, the lines of good and evil were blurred, and we came to love and relate to all of his quirky cast of flawed and tainted hoodlums. His fictitious creations were inherently stained and both likable and repellent. These historical revenge fantasies don’t allow us the same familiarity, and we are not allowed to relate or identify with the monsters we’re forced to malign.

Is Tarantino the first to spoof these groups and exact his own brand of revisionist justice? No. But the problem is, he does it in a way that is reckless, dangerous and irresponsible. Because he calls himself an artist, and thinks he’s creating great art. What he fails to realize is that it may look pretty, and be well-crafted, but it does not strive to reach the threshold of art, since it is patently lazy and fails to provoke any meaningful discourse. In fact, it is so careless with the n-word and its history, it may serve to bury or obfuscate a truth that needs to be unearthed, rather than excavate it. Just because we have a black President does not mean we are post-racism. Tarantino has appropriated another piece of history for himself…for his own titillating and exploitive ways, with absolutely no regard for his subject matter. Putting a gun in the hands of a black man, or a Jew, and having them exact merciless justice on their oppressors is NOT the same thing as trying to understand, and engage with history – however painful. It might even be no better than the Roman Galadiatorial fights.

Are these films FUN and ENTERTAINING? Absolutely. In fact, I like them both quite a bit. I own the latest one. I have no problem with them as pure fun mindless entertainment. I also have no problem that they are prurient, excessively gratuitous, hip, and provocative. However, I also find them exploitive and voyeuristic. It’s reckless to open a can of worms like racism or anti-semitism and not address the issues we still contend with today. Both are still very real byproducts of slavery and genocide, and are actually more far-reaching than that. To have a non-Jew/black excavate two of the most heinous moments of history, and seemingly use that misery for all its gruesome details, seems exploitive and voyeuristic to begin with. Furthermore, if you are going to set a story there, and have murder and revenge as integral to the story, it seems there should be a responsibility to tell the story as thoroughly and honestly as possible. Can we witness the complexity of Germans, and their steadfast belief in the right of what they were doing? Can we see the humanity of some slaveholders who were complacent participants in a peculiar institution that had ensnared most Southerners? Can we see the nuance and differences in the slaves who populate the plantations? But most importantly, can we see the consequences and dehumanizing effects the language of oppression has on its victims and perpetrators and how that trickles down to today? Can we see how the very act of avenging justice on the slaveholders and oppressors comes with a high price? The avenger is committing heinous acts of murder and revenge, and is no better than those he seeks to punish. Is the answer to violence, violence? Is there a sin that is passed down from generation to generation?

Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterdsare both fun and diverting movies, and promise injustice will be avenged and the guilty punished. There is a long tradition of revenge tragedies, dating back to the Greeks, and perfected by Shakespeare, amongst others. Hamlet is a perfect example of a character seeking and exacting revenge on someone who has wronged him and his family. However, what Hamlet has that Django doesn’t, for example, is a sense of hesitancy, regret, and remorse. He doesn’t struggle with his conscience, and weight the consequences of his actions. The movie doesn’t attempt to grapple with the long-term effects of such a monstrous institution and where we still see its lingering memories today. The fire has been put out in both these atrocities, but the embers…the coals of what allowed them to happen are still smoldering underneath.

Does every movie that depicts a past injury or shameful period in history have a responsibility to address the past’s wrongs and the motivations behind such epic injustice? Perhaps not. A love story set in Victorian England does not necessarily have to right the wrongs of child labor laws and the plight of London’s working poor. However, a film that is directly taking aim at a group of oppressors might have such a responsibility. It’s important to put an event in its proper social setting and historical context, and perhaps even more important to understand how racism or anti-slavery could flourish and spread. It’s challenging to allow the evil monsters and antagonists to possess humanity and be deeper than shallow mustache-twirling archetypes. There may even be more horror in seeing the humanity of a person that commits such heinous and inhuman acts.

Lastly, it is dangerous to suggest that the easiest and most effective way to find justice is to rewrite history, and right all the wrongs that were inflicted upon a certain group of people. This justice is only sought with a heart of vengeance and is only exacted through brutal and unfeeling murder and torture. The avenger is reduced to the sadistic carnage characteristic of his master, and effectively loses his humanity in trying to retrieve it. The punishing avenger is trying to shed as much blood as his people have shed, but the action is a futile one. There is no way that a movie hero can avenge the brutal treatment his people have endured. There is no revenge fantasy big enough to reverse the wrongs that have been perpetrated. Therefore, it seems silly and unrealistic to reverse the wheels of time, and try and punish the evil, and right the wrongs of yesterday. Such fantasy allows the audience to delight in such revenge, but does not ask anything more of them. The audience is not allowed to see the true horrors of the Holocaust or the long-lasting reaches of slavery. They are treated to a shallow story of good vs. evil, and not provided a context. The few survivors of the Holocaust and the descendants of slaves everywhere, can take little comfort in looking down the barrel of a gun or setting a bomb under Hitler. I had no objectives to the abundant use of the n-word, since Tarantino is right in asserting that it was ubiquitous in that time period and place. I took more issue with not providing a context, and not seeing the wounding effect it had on people, and the dark legacy we have been left with.

In conclusion, I really like these films for what they are – fun and mindless revenge fantasies. However, I also found Tarantino missed a genuine opportunity here. For over 20 years, he has been making the same kinds of movies, and he has matured and grown very little as a filmmaker. Sure, his special effects have improved, and he has become more skillful with the camera, but he also hasn’t stepped out of his comfort zone. The problem with idolizing the ’70s is that a lot of that work was thin and superficial, and didn’t last because it offered very little artistic merit. His films are not thoughtful and contemplative. These movies were perfect chances to explore race and prejudice in our country. All while making a fun action film. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Tarantino made some fun films, but also dangerous explorations of prejudice without addressing the greater question of what made it and how we are still living it today. Once again, we got style, but little substance. I want to see Tarantno mature as an artist, and take all those tropes he loves, and craft something deeper and more thoughtful. Spielberg gave us Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and employed all his tricks and tropes, but added layers and meaning. It’s time Tarantino grew up, and made a film more like Hamlet, and less Foxy Brown.  Probably the most egregious thing is that Tarantino considers himself a great artist, and his work to be great art. He is very talented, and is stylish and fun to watch, but I’m afraid his work falls short of great art. Once he begins to engage his audience, and ask big questions, then I will consider him more seriously. For now, he is fun and continues to be entertaining.