Quentin Tarantino. It seems these days everyone from your green grocer to your grandmother has an opinion about him and his work. However, for a lot of folks, they haven’t even seen his latest film, “Django Unchained,” and yet still they have strong feelings about his use of language and violence in his artwork. This seems like standing outside of a museum, refusing to go inside and yet boldly declaring the artwork to be vulgar. For those who’ve seen Tarantino’s latest film, if they walk out solely discussing the violence or language they missed all the beauty of the artwork. “Django Unchained” is surprisingly emotional for a work by Tarantino. It’s clearly his strongest work to date. I left the theater thinking/feeling more about love and freedom than I felt shocked or offended by the casual use of “nigger” or the sprays of blood.
Why and how Tarantino uses the word “nigger” has been seized upon by a number of social critics, filmmakers and black Americans. However, in my experience, much like a Shakespearean play wherein the language takes you a moment to adjust, once you do, one focuses on the human story. Tarantino’s film uses its power to uplift the eternal themes of love and freedom and refuses to be weighed down by the pop socio-political culture of our present. No doubt, “Django Unchained” is an unquestionably brutal movie. It’s hard to watch at times. For instance, there is a scene of dogs attacking a slave that was far more disturbing than any word anyone uttered. But overcoming all the ugliness was the love story and to feel how I did walking out, I commend the storytelling. Great art should disturb.
Unfortunately for Tarantino, many critics don’t agree about the importance to disturb. Instead they use angry voices to decry his use of this offensive word to further the aims of his artwork. Spike Lee has refused to see the film, saying, “It’d be disrespectful to my ancestors.” To criticize without seeing something is childish, akin to holding your hands over your eyes or ears to block out what you don’t wish to be confronted by, and should exclude one from having an opinion. But Spike Lee doesn’t let this stop him.
In fact, in the past, arguing against Tarantino’s artistic right to use the word reserved apparently for black Americans, Lee compared Tarantino’s offensive use of “nigger” to Michael Jackson’s use of the terms “Jew me” and “Kike me” in his song “They Don’t Care About Us.” Spike Lee directed the music video for this song and opted to leave in the terms even after they were removed from the album days before the release. He’s also compared Tarantino’s usage of “nigger” to his own potential use of the word “kike,” and was quoted, “If I had used the word ‘kike’ 38 times in ‘Mo Better Blues,’ it would have been my last picture.” Both of these comparisons are specious at best, infantile at worst. Jewish people don’t readily use the word “kike” or the term “Jew me” in conversation and thus they fail as equivalents to “nigger,” which we all know is used by American people everyday, all the time. Whether you like it or not, it’s very much part of the American vernacular.
One of the most ridiculous criticisms comes from the comedian Katt Williams who said he’d beat-up Quentin Tarantino if he saw him in public. Known for his glorification of pimping in his stand-up act, it seems absolutely silly that he wishes to take the moral high ground. Pimps do far more damage to black America than any word ever has or will. Unless, he was intending a very sophisticated version of satire, he should be laughed out of the room for his bullying threats. The man is just under five-and-a-half feet tall. He’d have a very hard time even punching Tarantino’s face since Quentin stands a stocky 6’1.
Tarantino’s frequent collaborator Samuel L. Jackson has defended Tarantino’s use of “nigger” on numerous occasions. The actor’s worked with both Spike Lee and Tarantino and had this to say about the controversy,”If you’re going to deal with the language of the time, you deal with the language of the time. And that was the language of the time. I grew up in the South. I heard ‘nigger’ all my life. I’m not disturbed by it.” He’s very accurate in his analysis.
Any criticism of Tarantino should focus on the artistic merits of his work rather than on the offensive nature of history/reality. Tarantino is a storyteller and in his stories and through his characters and use of language he pursues truth, his truth. As a black filmmaker, I find his truth to ring true to my ears. There are ugly sides to the American character and to avoid these for the sake of being inoffensive would weaken the work and make the story impossible to believe.
Not limited to being criticized for his egregious use of the “n-word,” Tarantino has also found himself being attacked for his use of violence. The American cultural landscape has shifted and recent acts of “ultra-violence” have left Americans far more reluctant to enjoy depictions of depraved violence as they remind us too much of our modern reality. But this would be like comparing a cartoon banana with a real banana. Art is art and reality is reality, comparing the two is asinine. No one expects Superman or Iron Man or Spiderman to pull their punches, but because Tarantino glories in his violence somehow his film characters are expected to pull their punches?
The tragedies of Sandy Hook, the Aurora movie shooting, the Tuscon/Gabby Giffords shooting, and the countless other headline news stories in recent months are all horrific. They rend the heart. But they are stories rooted in reality. We go to movies and seek out art forms of all sorts to deal with the pains and joys of life. They help us deal with reality. But unlike reality, if you don’t want to see them or hear them, you don’t have to buy a ticket or listen to the album. This isn’t an option for what happens on the news. Gun violence in America is clearly a nationwide crisis we need to discuss and deal with but we shouldn’t shift the battle to the world of art to fight against it.
It seems no one blames Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner for inspiring violence and they’re some of the most violent artwork I saw as a child. Tarantino has been all over the news recently for blowing up at British reporter, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, because he refused to answer the reporter’s question about the role of violence in his films and how it might stoke the fires of real-world violence. This is entirely understandable. Tarantino’s been asked and answered the same question for 20 years!
Ever since 1992 when his first film, “Reservoir Dogs” debuted, reporters have been asking him about the violence in his movies. There are pages and pages of answers he’s given in the past and his opinion has not changed one iota in that twenty-year span. If the journalist was doing his job, he could’ve easily researched Tarantino’s previous answers, cited one of those, and asked if Tarantino still felt the same. Presumably, Tarantino would say he does and they could move on, but wanting to press the issue for the sake of ratings, he pestered the filmmaker and made a spectacle of Tarantino’s exasperation and frustration.
When “Reservoir Dogs” came out, we were amidst a nationwide dialog on violence and sex in American culture. Nearly ten years later, in response to the Columbine Shooting, the Surgeon General released a report in 2001 citing there was inconclusive evidence of a direct link between media and violence. Focused on youth violence, the report concluded, “media violence increases children’s physically and verbally aggressive behavior in the short term,” but also noted that “the causal links… are more firmly established for aggressive behavior… than for violent behavior.”
Speaking to CNN about the report, Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher said, ”But, in the report, while we point out that exposure to violence in the media — especially television — can significantly increase aggressive behavior in youth, it is not a major long-term factor in violent behavior.” He further elaborated,” I think the major point that we try to make in the report was that, for children — especially prior to puberty — the major risk factors for violence tend to be individual and family. But after adolescence, the shift is to peer interactions, and what takes place at school in this arena is very critical.”
In other words, violence is inspired far more by environmental factors than just the corrupting influence of media. Twelve years have passed since then and I’d wager a new Surgeon General’s report would find the same conclusion. Art imitates life and life imitates art. It’s impossible to separate them and insist that the influence travels some sort of one-way street.
Tarantino has been quoted saying America has a “junk food culture” and he’s absolutely right. We do. And just as we’re now trying to move away from the corrupting influence of fast food diets in favor of healthier alternatives, we can also move away from the corrupting influence of art we deem no longer valid as a choice for our sense of health and well-being. But we must never lose sight of the fact it’s a choice- a choice the audience makes.
If Americans didn’t buy music that hypes violence, if Americans stopped watching tv shows that celebrate violence, or avoided buying tickets to over-sexed and ultra-violent movies then the makers of those products would have to offer different alternatives, just as McDonald’s is now offering salads and fresh fruit and Walmart offers organic food. Popular entertainment is business.
We are to blame for our culture because we support the producers of our “junk food culture” with our dollars. If we insist that artists handcuff their creativity to protect us from ourselves, we’re engaging in the lowest form of social/cultural reform- the empty mandate. We’re saying, “since, we can’t change, you have to.” This is the same mentality that leads to stomach-stapling surgeries. Since we don’t have the willpower to resist the food that makes us fat, we’ll forcibly deny our bodies the ability to ingest as much of it. That’s wrong-headed, childish, and simple-minded!
Filmmakers like Tarantino present us with a world of their creating, an imaginary playground for us to watch their dreams dance on a movie screen. The man tells stories. And he plays fast and loose with reality. His World War Two film, “Inglorious Basterds” is a prime example of this- we all know Hitler didn’t die in a movie theater, but in Quentin’s world he did. In “Django Unchained” the film opens with an onscreen title that indicates the story takes place in “1858… two years before the beginning of the Civil War.” I’m pretty sure Tarantino, the editor and producers of the film know that the Civil War started in 1861 and this subtle wink is to let the audience know this story isn’t a historical fact but rather a historical fantasy and that it’s okay to bend the truth as he sees fit for the purposes of his storytelling.
Storytelling, like marriage and childbirth, is something all cultures share. It’s part of what makes us human. But also just like marriage and childbirth, all cultures do it a little differently. Violence is more common in American movies. Sex is more common in European movies. Honor is more common in Asian movies. History is more common in South American movies. The importance of the group/society is more common in African films. Each continent has its themes. And whether you like it or not, violence and racism and the corrupting influence of wealth are the big themes for America.
Similar to the fashion and iconography of fascism, Quentin Tarantino relies on bold striking imagery that moves the human psyche at a very deep level of emotion and relies on subconscious triggers, but unlike fascism he has no plans of affecting culture and morality, he only attempts to entertain. Leave him alone to entertain us. And if you have a problem with morality, then deal with that in reality.