Much has been said about Quentin Tarantino’s latest film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and its casually racist depiction of Bruce Lee. There’s been so much criticism, in fact, Tarantino has been asked if he’ll apologize. He has not. Instead, he’s doubled down in a recent interview and claimed that Lee was “kind of an arrogant guy,” and wrongly stated that Lee once vowed he could beat up a young Muhammad Ali, which Tarantino makes his version of Lee say in the film.
In the scene, an aging stuntman played by Brad Pitt gets into a fight with Lee on a Hollywood set. In the first round, Tarantino’s idea of Lee sends the white stuntman to the ground with a flying kick. In the second round, though, the stuntman surprises the martial artist, catching him mid-air and body slamming the cinematic icon into the side of a car, crushing both doors. There is no third round, as their fight gets broken up.
It’s a small moment in the film and serves little purpose to the plot. Its real value is to show how cool Pitt’s character is. This dude could kick Lee’s ass. Which is the big problem underlying the scene — that this white man’s cool and power can be directly measured by the fact he can beat up a man of color. This white man is so cool he can handle the most badass man of color out there.
Or as basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a close personal friend of Lee’s, put it in a recent op-ed: “Bruce was dedicated to changing the dismissive image of Asians through his acting, writing and promotion of Jeet Kune Do, his interpretation of martial arts. That’s why it disturbs me that Tarantino chose to portray Bruce in such a one-dimensional way. The John Wayne machismo attitude of Cliff (Brad Pitt), an aging stuntman who defeats the arrogant, uppity Chinese guy harks back to the very stereotypes Bruce was trying to dismantle.”
Unfortunately, though, this is a recurring theme that mars most Tarantino films. As a storyteller, he loves to use men of color to measure white cool. Take Pulp Fiction, his first mainstream hit. There’s the scene in which hitman Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and his hitman partner, Vincent Vega (John Travolta), have to drive around L.A. in a car painted with the blood and brains of a young black man after Vega “accidentally” shoots the black man in the face. His death gets played as one big messy joke, an annoyance in the Valley.
Another scene features Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), the superbad black gangster villain. He gets into a fight with Butch (Bruce Willis), and after he loses to the aging white boxer, Marsellus gets raped by racist white men in the basement of a pawn shop. The underlying message seems to be that superbad as he may be, Marsellus can still easily get bested and butt-fucked by white bigots who sell used appliances for a living. It’s racial anxiety writ large.
And that’s before we even get to the “dead nigger storage” scene:
Tarantino likes to give himself acting roles in his films. He is not by any measure a good actor, nor is he a natural presence onscreen. He’s stiff. He’s wooden. He’s a casting agent’s nightmare. His beautifully crafted dialogue falls out of his mouth like hunks of lumber, and so his suddenly wooden words land clunky and loud. Which makes it extra clamorous when Tarantino is the actor who repeatedly shouts “dead nigger storage.”
Yet this is also supposed to be what makes his character cool: He can angrily shout “nigger” in the face of Sam Jackson, a badass black gangster himself, and nothing bad will happen to him. “Did you notice a sign on the front of my house that said ‘dead nigger storage’?” Tarantino interrogates him. “Do you know why you didn’t see that sign? Because it ain’t there, because storing dead niggers ain’t my fucking business. That’s why!”
Essentially, Tarantino’s character, Jimmy, who isn’t supposed to be tough or cool, gets to be the tiniest bit cool because he can say “nigger” and get away with it.
When they were filming that scene, Jackson warned Tarantino about saying “dead nigger storage” over and over again on film. In a recent interview with writer Carvell Wallace, Jackson recounted that day on the set, “When we did Pulp, I warned Quentin about the whole ‘nigger storage.’ I was like, ‘Don’t say “nigger storage.”’ He’s like, ‘No, I’m going to say it like that.’ And we tried to soften it by making his wife black, because that wasn’t originally written. But you can’t just tell a writer he can’t talk, write the words, put the words in the mouths of the people from their ethnicities, the way that they use their words. You cannot do that, because then it becomes an untruth; it’s not honest. It’s just not honest.”
This is often the defense raised for Tarantino’s use of the word “nigger” in his dialogue. He and his defenders say it’s him being “honest” and “truthful.” It was particularly offered again and again in defense of Tarantino’s slavery-set Django Unchained.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s other frequent collaborator, Spike Lee, isn’t so willing to give Tarantino a pass. Lee once said in an interview, “I have a definite problem with Quentin Tarantino’s excessive use of the N-word. And let the record state that I never said that he cannot use that word — I’ve used that word in many of my films — but I think something is wrong with him.”
Whether it’s honest or not, Tarantino knows what he’s doing and has considered the ramifications. During a Q&A in London back in 1998, the Guardian reported that a young black man asked Tarantino why he used “nigger” so much, saying that he wouldn’t get away with it. Tarantino reportedly replied, “Yes, I do.” His answer was met by a round of applause.
Back, though, to his more general use of blackness (and specifically, black bodies) as either a signifier of cool or a means of punishment. In The Hateful Eight, there’s Tarantino’s use of a black family to create a good, homey warmth for his setting, only for them to be later graphically slaughtered purely in service of the plot. In the same film, Jackson describes what seems to be the worst thing imaginable to an old white man — especially an old white man who was a Confederate officer. In a sprawling tale, Jackson shares all the graphic details of the time he made this old white man’s son crawl through the snow and suck his “big black johnson.” Of course, Tarantino wants us to see this jailhouse moment in the white snow:
Twenty-two years earlier, he provided the words for Dennis Hopper’s oft-celebrated monologue in Tony Scott’s True Romance. During it, Hopper explains to Christopher Walken, who’s playing a Sicilian gangster, why Sicilians are actually niggers (the Moors “did so much fucking with Sicilian women” that all the people of the island grew darker as a result, etc.). For his rebuttal, Walken shoots Hopper dead.
One of the gangsters, who witnesses this surprising midday kill, is Italian and speaks no English. Confused, he asks why the boss just killed Hopper’s character. The answer in Italian: He said Sicilians are spawned by niggers. The gangster nods. To suggest such a thing is certainly a killable offense.
In 1994, a year after True Romance was released and when Tarantino first caught social critiques for his prolific use of the word “nigger” in his dialogue, he argued that he, a white man from L.A., could be thought of as a nigger: “When I was growing up in the 1960s, ‘nigger’ was a fighting word. It never was to me because I always said, Okay, I can be identified as that, because it speaks volumes about who I am. It’s somebody who’s not to be fucked with, it’s somebody who grew up a certain kind of way, who has certain kinds of traits that will get your ass fucked up if you step to them the wrong way. I’m one of those kind of people, yeah.”
Less eloquently (if that’s possible), in 1998, Tarantino berated a young blond woman who interrupted his dinner and demanded to know why he thought it was cool and fine for him to use the N-word so gratuitously in his films. As reported by the New York Daily News:
“Tarantino let his pork ribs cool as he lashed back at the woman, while dinnermate and Jackie Brown star Michael Keaton ate on. ‘This is ME we’re talking about! You’re fucking wrong!’ Tarantino shouted at the woman. ‘I have a great affinity for black people and black culture.’”
That affinity, however, is obviously only skin deep. It’s anxieties and stereotypes in conflict. As such, it’s neither particularly nuanced nor deeply considered. It’s essentially commentary on other films. The overall message is equally simplistic: People of color are cool. And a white person is at their coolest whenever they can keep people of color in check.
Moreover, Tarantino knows that he gets to have it both ways. He can say “nigger” all he wants, but he never gets treated like one. And that’s what he thinks makes him cool.