Here’s the riddle of Quentin Tarantino: people who hate him still watch his movies. There are a few exceptions, of course, most notably Spike Lee, who famously boycotted his long-time nemesis. But as Tarantino becomes more divisive, his audience grows. At water-cooler debates or academic conferences, his detractors prove just as conversant as his fans – a diverse group that includes feminists, frat boys, the leader of the Nation of Islam, and a recently busted Florida cop who reportedly nicknamed himself “Master Candie” after the sadistic slave owner in Django Unchained. For better or worse, Tarantino is part of our zeitgeist.
Despite the director’s hyper-visibility, Adilifu Nama argues, his films are misunderstood. As Nama sees it, critics have been too distracted by Tarantino’s spectacles of violence and proclivity for the n-word to identify the meat and bones of the director’s work: a radical racial politics that exposes white privilege and racism’s stark brutalities. “When addressing the cultural politics of race in America,” he says, “Tarantino remains markedly unique.”
Like Tarantino’s films, Race on the QT is provocative; at turns brilliant, frustrating and far-fetched. Much of the book pivots on the notion that Tarantino’s racist characters and his camera’s leering perspective are not evidence of the director’s personal animus but reminders of the reality of racism and misogyny in the US. Pulp Fiction’s rape scene, for example, illustrates the “sadomasochistic” impulses of white supremacy. In Death Proof, the camera lingers on Jungle Julia’s long legs, only to later show them detached from her body, a gory reminder of the “logical conclusion” of sexual objectification. These claims play fast and loose. There’s little room for the contradictory desires that make cinema so perversely pleasurable, and Nama seems to assume that Tarantino’s audiences share a common moral compass. Besides, it is not the quotidian use of the n-word and disregard for black life that we need reminders of, but the very different claim that black lives matter.
Yet those willing to wade through Nama’s muddy defence of Tarantino’s booty shots and spectacles of anti-black violence will be rewarded with some sparkling insights. He pitches Detective Holdaway, the sole black character in Reservoir Dogs, as the film’s true protagonist, and notes the rarity of films that, like Jackie Brown, have black female leads. The gears of Nama’s analysis turn when he tackles the question of genre. Here Django Unchained is not a spaghetti western, but a gothic horror film with its skeletons, ghostly apparitions and zombie-like enslaved, and a meditation on the grotesque history of slavery, America’s “peculiar institution”.
There’s certainly a mystery to Tarantino’s films, but Nama’s claims for their subversive nature are difficult to square with his secondary assertion – that those messages are almost always overlooked. How do we explain the varied meanings that Tarantino’s fans derive from his mash-up of badass women and black cool, obscure references, rape and violence? A study of the “symbolic and cultural meaning” of films should better account for those interpretations. At one point, Nama calls Inglourious Basterds a “cinematic Rorschach test” that invites “various and sometimes conflicting conclusions about the film”. Might we think of all Tarantino’s movies in this way? Based on what we know of his fans, his films seem better cast as masterpieces of the inkblot than as lessons on US race relations.
Cara Caddoo is assistant professor of cinema and media arts and history, Indiana University Bloomington.
Race on the QT: Blackness and the Films of Quentin Tarantino
By Adilifu Nama
University of Texas Press, 184pp, £38.00 and £15.99
ISBN 9780292768147 and 772366
Published 15 April 2015