Newtown, Quentin Tarantino and the culture of death

by Santino J. Rivera on December 19, 2012 in Cultura, El Now

Like many people, I’ve spent these past few days reflecting on what’s wrong. What the hell is going on? People are expressing so-called shock and awe at the recent violence in Connecticut but no one has any answers. Some would call it soul-searching, others grasping for straws. Others still are trying to squeeze as much blood from this stone as they can before it passes into obscurity, which it eventually will…

One thing that I know for sure is that the violence epidemic in the United States of America is not attributed to any one thing. We have been on this road for a long time now and anyone shocked by the fruit that the blood-soaked soil has produced has not been paying attention. Welcome to the culture of death.

We are obsessed by it. And so what does that mean when it comes to our entertainment? It seems like everything that we do is permeated by death now. We eat, drink, breathe and shit death. Zombie apocalypse fantasies are so popular now you’d think people actually really want it to happen…and I think many of them do.

We’re endlessly entertained by sadistic meth cooks and serial killers, sword-wielding royalty and armies of the undead. We love our realistic combat games and we love our brutal sports. We love our guns! But so what. What does that all mean, if anything..?

People are quick to point fingers in the face of tragedy and our popular culture is often blamed in one way or another. If it’s not Satanic heavy metal music it’s violent video games or gory slasher flicks. Does life imitate art of is it the other way around? The thing is, you can pull 1,000 reasons out of a hat as to why these things happen but one thing is for sure: when tragedy is close at hand, certain things do not help.

Which brings me to Quentin Tarantino‘s latest film, Django Unchained. Most everyone writing film reviews about this movie right now is falling down over themselves praising Tarantino for having the balls to make this film in the way he made it. They are applauding his bravado and calling him a genius.

Then the Sandy Hook massacre happened.

The premiere of the film has been delayed until Christmas. What does that tell you about our culture…? Does Hollywood feel some culpability if they are delaying the release of an ultra-violent film in the face of an ultra-violent tragedy? Probably not. They want to make sure they allow people time to mourn before they start emptying their pockets.

I should preface this article by stating: I have not watched Django Unchained. I will not. I refuse to patronize it and I will explain why if you keep reading.

When I first heard that Tarantino was making this film I cringed. The idea of this guy, the very same guy that wrote himself into his own film (Pulp Fiction) with the explicit sole purpose of saying the N-word on screen without any culpability whatsoever – this guy wants to interpret American slavery? Yeah, no. No thanks.

Django Unchained is littered with usage of the N-word. I read that you could shave off ten pages of the script if you just took out that word. Wow! Does that word have a place considering the context? Sure. Does Tarantino have a penchant for being over the top? You bet. Is it irresponsible in this day and age to create this film, now, with the way things are? In my opinion, yes. Just ask Matt Drudge.

The other night, when the President spoke to the mourning people of Newtown, it just happened to be during Monday Night Football. People took to Twitter and expressed their displeasure with the President interrupting their precious game. There was an endless stream of tweets calling the President the N-word, much like what happened during election night. And all I could think of was Quentin Tarantino’s film.

Look, I think Quentin Tarantino is a brilliant screenwriter (though I think his best days are behind him.) I think he’s a pretty good film director too. I also think he’s an asshole with an ego bigger than the moon.

Django Unchained is a slapstick, slapdick, throwback to the Blaxploitation era that Tarantino adores. He said recently on the Howard Stern Show that people actually cried on set during some of the slavery scenes because they were so realistic. That speaks volumes to me.

Things got so heavy in fact, some of the black cast members asked him to shoot some of the slavery scenes outside of the country. Instead he shot some of it on an actual plantation in Louisiana.

Nice guy.

I am not the only one disgusted by this film but I am definitely in the minority. It seems every time you bring things like this up there is an instant backlash of people telling you to shut the fuck up and get over it. A comment on another critical review of this film said, “Grow up and don’t use race as an argument when it has nothing to do with anything…”

And all I can do is shake my head at this point and hold my heavy heart because we are in denial about so many things in this nation; race is just one of them. But you can’t tell people anything without starting a heated debate.

Tarantino is quick to point his finger at actual American history when people get queasy about this film. In his mind, this absolves him of any guilt. It’s art, right? Don’t blame the filmmaker – blame history! As if anyone who sees this film is going to run to the library afterwards and read up on how the West was really won.

And it’s not like Django Unchained is a serious interpretation of American slavery. That’s the slippery slope here. This is quasi-revisionist history much in the same vein as Inglorious Basterds where he can tell the story without having to worry about things like pesky facts. But! It has to evoke realism because…well, ask Tarantino why he made his cast break down in tears.

One thing this film is not is the story of Nat Turner and the slave rebellion, which in my opinion, would have made a much better film. Would Hollywood be comfortable with the story a slave that freed himself and then led a rebellion that took the lives of over 50 whites? Hell no. And that’s part of the problem here.

Instead, we have this stylized opus, this masturbatory ode to Blaxplotation where a slave is freed only by a white man’s hand and ends up playing second fiddle to him through most of the film. We have gratuitous usage of the N-word in a world that doesn’t need it, art be damned and we have the brutal rape of a black female character who is exposed and brutalized over and over again…all, I’m assuming, to build up to the revenge scene.

If all of this smells like typical white Hollywood doing what they do best then you’re in luck.

Here’s a fun tidbit: Quentin Tarantino owns the “Pussy Wagon” from Kill Bill. You remember? The rapist’s ultra-nasty, dayglo rape-mobile? He thinks it’s hilarious and drives his friends around in it to go get breakfast after they’ve really tied one on.

Marinate on that for a bit if you see this film. It makes me wonder what other “trophies” he has…or what other awful ideas.

Santino J. Rivera is an Indie Publisher and Author @ Broken Sword Publications


La Emgee December 19, 2012 at 7:08 PM

Awesome post! I couldn’t agree more, except I can’t stomach Tarantino at all. I know I am in the minority when I say that Pulp Fiction made me ill. And I don’t know what we do to change our culture. I have fought against giving my kid violent games. But I’m losing the fight.

Margie Davis December 20, 2012 at 6:23 AM

Totally agree! When I bring up the racist plays our local theater puts on, I get told that well, we’re doing a play written by a black or a Latino writer therefore it must be ok. But these are all plays that make white people feel good, feel vindicated and especially (their favorite) “See, we’re all the same after all.” When my little theater did Carlyle Brown’s “The African Company Presents Richard III” I had packed performances all 4 shows. And who mostly came? People who never go to plays. Young people. Some people came to multiple performances. And the local white paper refused to review it – heck, they wouldn’t even put the hours and days in the paper. I still can’t find places to put on my plays – but you know what is the biggest issue with this problem of artsy fartsy sactified racism? That actors of color take part in it! The day I saw the best black actors in this area mugging and jigging in an openly racist play (they even got a wonderful black actor to “direct” this piece of shit) – when they are afraid to appear in the nonracist plays I want to do . . . I just wanted to give up. The actors’ excuse? “We don’t want to offend white people.” Isn’t there a name for that? Yes, Tarantino is a racist moron, but nobody’s forcing black actors to dance around for him. Don’t stand there crying because “oooooh, the slavery scenes are tough to watch” – you ARE a slave. But you have options. Exercise them. And, needless to say, I won’t be wasting my slave wages on this movie either.

Santino J. Rivera December 20, 2012 at 8:20 AM

Excellent commentary, Margie and I agree – the actors have a culpability as well. Hollywood is a nasty machine though and this discussion always brings me back to Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle film. The industry is sick and I’m sure many of these actors say that they’ll only do these roles to get their foot in the door…but then, if successful, the money always seems to change people’s minds.

It also makes me think of Dave Chappelle and his epiphany that maybe everyone wasn’t laughing with him…despite all the money he had.

Thanks for reading.

Ella Fitzgerald December 26, 2012 at 2:12 PM

Excellent post. Thank you for honoring all peoples past and present who have fought to end slavery and racism. Thank you for thinking.

lamikki January 5, 2013 at 5:01 PM

Thanks so much for your critical thoughts. This exactly what i was searching for when googling stuff about the movie.

Gil Cante January 7, 2013 at 1:39 AM

I have been a long time fan of Tarantino, but the scene in Pulp Fiction where there is gratuitous use of the N-word did bother me. It not only seemed excessive, but I really didn’t see how using that word in that part of the movie was supposed to add to the movie.

In terms of the use of this word in Django, I really don’t see the point, sure, it is used a whole lot, but does it really matter what slaves are being called when they are being bought and sold as if they were live-stock? You could call them your best friend, or the smartest people on they planet, it doesn’t change the fact that you have stripped them of any sort of humanity. I could see someone making the argument that language is the first step toward change, and that if we began by calling them something nicer, that gradual change toward treating them like humans would be soon to follow, but I don’t buy it.

While I do believe that this Tarantino movie is not his best work, I would still recommend that you watch the movie. He wrote himself a part in this movie and he made it a point not to use the N-word. In addition, Tarantino is making a judgment about Americans in having the only non-racist white person in the entire movie a German immigrant. Christoph Waltz is a helpful character, but Django ultimately does have to fight for his own freedom, and he does do it by killing a great deal of white people, not unlike what a Nat Turner scene may have looked like if a movie was written about him.

If Tarantino was a racist, he probably wouldn’t have made Jackie Brown with a Black female lead. If Tarantino was making movies just to sell tickets and make money, he probably wouldn’t have made Death-Proof. He’s making and promoting movies about things that he finds entertaining, so if there is a problem with what we find entertaining, it probably has more to do with the media that molded his mind decades ago.

I woke up to news of the CT shooting and I cried. I work with children what are in Kinder and I work with children and adults with Asperger’s, so that hit home pretty hard. I grew up in Compton right before the riots of 92, so I have always been anti-gun, but I don’t see guns as being the problem. There is a deep attitudinal aspect of all of these mass shootings that has more to do with the problem than guns themselves. I’m not sure if it’s an American trait, but I have notice this tendency in most Americans I talk to. I have noticed that we have a tendency to develop positions about things that we do not fully understand. I have also noticed how likely we are to act foolishly when our ignorance and lack of understanding turn into fear and hatred inspired by a lack of understanding, or an unwillingness to fully examine things and ideas that are foreign to us.

I understand if cruising in the Pussy Wagon has given you a sore feeling about Tarantino and his deviant sense of humor, its common for people to get angry at things they don’t understand. Even so, if you do get a chance to see the movie, and I hope you do, I think you’ll notice that you have a lot more in common that you thought with Tarantino, or you can just continue to write commentary about segments of the movie that were taken out of context and spliced together to make a trailer.

Santino J. Rivera January 8, 2013 at 9:26 AM

Hi Gil –

You raise some good points – great commentary. Tarantino said recently in an interview that he think that despite some people criticizing his film he hopes that some day, DU will be a rite of passage for young black men. That’s a very disturbing comment imo and further illustrates his wanting to send a message with this film. The question is – what message is that?! Especially for young Black men.

Look, personally, I don’t want to support yet another film promoting the exploitation of Brown people…now matter how “revolutionary” some people may view it as being. Until Hollywood starts green lighting films written by people of color, directed by people of color and produced by people of color, I’ll pass. We’ve had a century of white Hollywood interpreting history. Time for others to tell their own story.

Thanks for reading.

sapogordo January 8, 2013 at 1:39 AM

You forgot to mention that Tarantino’s habit of “paying homage to” (ripping off) all sorts of films that came from periods when audiences were more naive, or just plain stupid, about racial/ethnic issues. Present day audiences shouldn’t buy this shit twice. And then there’s his habit of re-writing history to suit his sick-ass tastes, such as in “Ignorant Basterds”, I mean “Inglorius Basterds”, in which all of the basics of WWll have been changed so that he could get all of the big name Nazis, including Hitler, into one creature so that they could all be blown and shot to little pieces. Let’s see what this pinche gabacho comes up with next, because he’s coming for you, Pocho…any ideas as to what B movie crap this pendejo is going to steal in order to be as offensive as possible to you?

Steve January 10, 2013 at 5:34 PM

The premiere of the film was not “delayed until Christmas.” Where did you hear that? Its release date was always December 25th.

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