Back to top

Race on the QT

Race on the QT
Blackness and the Films of Quentin Tarantino

Winner of the Ray and Pat Browne Award from the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association

Asserting that race has been the cornerstone of most of Quentin Tarantino’s films, this book uncovers the racial politics, progressive and regressive, hidden on the “QT” in the director’s work from Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction to Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.

April 2015
Active (available)
$22.95
184 pages | 6 x 9 | 36 b&w photos |
ISBN: 
978-0-292-77236-6
Description: 

Known for their violence and prolific profanity, including free use of the n-word, the films of Quentin Tarantino, like the director himself, chronically blurt out in polite company what is extremely problematic even when deliberated in private. Consequently, there is an uncomfortable and often awkward frankness associated with virtually all of Tarantino’s films, particularly when it comes to race and blackness. Yet beyond the debate over whether Tarantino is or is not racist is the fact that his films effectively articulate racial anxieties circulating in American society as they engage longstanding racial discourses and hint at emerging trends. This radical racial politics—always present in Tarantino’s films but kept very much on the quiet—is the subject of Race on the QT.

Adilifu Nama concisely deconstructs and reassembles the racial dynamics woven into Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Death Proof, Inglourious Basterds, and Django Unchained, as they relate to historical and current racial issues in America. Nama’s eclectic fusion of cultural criticism and film analysis looks beyond the director’s personal racial attitudes and focuses on what Tarantino’s filmic body of work has said and is saying about race in America symbolically, metaphorically, literally, impolitely, cynically, sarcastically, crudely, controversially, and brilliantly.

Awards: 

Ray and Pat Browne Award
Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association

Contents: 
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Reservoir Dogs and True Romance
  • Chapter 2. Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown
  • Chapter 3. Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Kill Bill: Vol. 2, and Death Proof
  • Chapter 4. Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained
  • Coda
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  •  
Author: 

Adilifu Nama is Associate Professor of African American Studies at Loyola Marymount University. He is the author of the award-winning books Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes and Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film.

Excerpts: 

Introduction

"Don’t let the pigmentation fool you: it is a state of mind."
—Quentin Tarantino on being black

For just over two decades, Quentin Tarantino has provided audiences with films that are simultaneously thrilling, compelling, successful, and, quite often, offensive. The Tarantino tongue-in-cheek style is a mash-up of lurid violence, shocking body horror, and belligerent racial politics where whites nonchalantly articulate the n-word. Interracial relationships abound, and abundant and seemingly crude images of black criminality are the norm. Despite the range of critical and popular responses to the body of Tarantino’s work, he is possibly the most iconic Hollywood film director of our time. Moreover, adoring fans and ambivalent critics alike have displayed a nearly neurotic need to decode Quentin Tarantino as an American pop-culture icon. Consequently, the mantle of “Hollywood film director” is an inadequate and flimsy expression for who Tarantino really is as a person. Those unwilling to accept conventional Hollywood bylines and biographical narratives turn to his films for intriguing insights into the curious personality that is Quentin Tarantino. Cinematic scavengers explore Tarantino’s films to piece together patterns and uncover clues that reveal not only his filmic formula for success but also his interior psychological makeup. Accordingly, Tarantino films are not merely cinematic excursions through odd worlds replete with violence and enchanting dialogue; they do double duty as a Rorschach test for exposing the “real” Quentin Tarantino hidden beneath the auteur veneer.

What do his films say then?

Certainly Tarantino is a fetishist. His self-indulgent proclivity to focus our/his gaze on pedicured toes and barefoot female actresses contributes to making him appear as merely another strange dude in a long list of peculiar “creative types” the dream factory has historically employed. If this is the clearest conclusion such fixations dictate, then Tarantino is just a modern-day version of eccentric Hollywood directors like Howard Hughes, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Russ Myers, David Lynch, Tim Burton, Sam Peckinpah, John Milius, and Melvin Van Peebles, whose excesses and idiosyncrasies make for personas that periodically rival the films or genres they have come to define. Given this backdrop and Tarantino’s oddball persona, he is indeed in good company. But such an assessment is too glib and generic; Tarantino demands a more exacting analysis.

Certainly, Tarantino’s rock-star status is not just a function of his personality or the quality of his films. Yet, a more socially critical analysis of Tarantino is just as problematic. When critics, fans, and detractors insist on distilling Tarantino down to a more specific categorization, the calculations are quite irregular. Genius. Savant. Saint. Sinner. Outsider. Hollywood royalty. Racist. All of these categories are used to encompass the complexity of Tarantino, but none of these labels are adequate for accurately defining the hyperactive man with the gift for gab. Despite the inherent shortcomings of these tags, the notion of Tarantino as a racist is the most compelling, disturbing, perplexing, controversial, and in many ways, the most unjustifiable of all the labels that have dogged him. Why? Because it suggests that Tarantino’s films are also racially toxic and what he says in their defense is evidence of his personal racial animus.

Across various interviews regarding his films, Tarantino has said such things as, “I grew up surrounded by black culture . . . It is the culture I identify with . . . [W]e have a lot of people inside of us, and one of the ones inside me is black . . .”; “When Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy do their stand-up acts and say ‘nigger,’ you’re never offended because they’re ‘niggers.’ You know the context it’s coming from . . .”; “I just don’t feel the whole white guilt and pussyfooting around race issues . . .”; and “I like booties. Let’s just say, I have a black male sexuality.”  Admittedly, Tarantino, like his films, chronically blurts out in polite company statements that are extremely problematic even when delivered in private. Consequently, there is an uncomfortable and often awkward frankness associated with Tarantino and virtually all of his films when it comes to race vis-à-vis blackness.8 Moreover, such offthe-cuff commentary offers supporting evidence that Tarantino has a warped notion of black racial formation in America, a perspective that evokes the worst in the racial imaginations of the white audiences that view and enjoy his films. In this sense, Tarantino is a figure of extreme interest because of the controversy he engenders around race. Even trade industry publications such as the Hollywood Reporter have noted that, “Beginning in earnest with a monologue by the director himself in Pulp Fiction, in which he says ‘n-----’ repeatedly, he has displayed a propensity for including the term in his films that is unmatched among white directors.” 

But for me, examining Tarantino for his racist tendencies is too reductive an analysis and too easy a solution for not engaging the cinematic representations of race in America that are his films. Stopping Tarantino from making another film or stigmatizing him to such an extent that his career is ended will not dispel racism as ideology or practice. Moreover, blaming the director or writer for the anxiety around race that films stir in the viewer or critic is a convenient intellectual evasion. A more challenging approach is deconstructing why and how Tarantino’s films resonate with established and emerging discourses concerning race in America. Such an approach is more concerned with engaging the range of cultural work his films represent regarding race relations in society, not mere authorial intent that reductively translates the racial discourse and racial meaning across his work as a function of a series of oddball personality quirks. Accordingly, Race on the QT: Blackness and the Films of Quentin Tarantino confronts the racial frankness in Tarantino’s films and not the man himself. Rather than explore the inner machinations and racial motivations of Quentin Tarantino, this book is committed to critically examining what Tarantino’s filmic body of work has said and is saying about race in America cinematically, symbolically, metaphorically, literally, impolitely, cynically, sarcastically, crudely, controversially, and brilliantly.

On the surface, Tarantino’s fanboy sensibility for 1970s Blaxploitation films appears to inform his representation of blackness and the inclusion of black folk in his films. Hence, his filmic choices are reasonably assumed to be functions of personal tastes (or lack thereof ).11 But a closer examination reveals that context, rather than a fondness for a specific genre or eccentric proclivities, also accounts for the racial elements that permeate Tarantino’s films and the racial discord they often express and evoke.

One only need look to the halcyon days of the Hollywood film industry during the 1970s to find a source for the racial topicality found in Tarantino’s films. Conventional readings of Tarantino place Blaxploitation cinema as the taproot for the revenge and subversive racial motifs in his films, rather than the insurgent (or auteur) cinema that emerged in Hollywood during the 1970s. Before the shift to blockbuster films as the driving economic model, and concurrent with this insurgent cinema, was the faddish success of Blaxploitation cinema. Blaxploitation became a quick means to infuse a floundering Hollywood studio system with cash as the dream factory was forced to retool and revamp what types of films were profitable and popular.12 As an unexpected result, there emerged a collection of gritty American films that spoke to the cultural, political, sexual, and racial zeitgeist of the early 1970s beyond the Black Nationalist and militant pop politics of Blaxploitation, a paradigm imitated following the success of Melvin Van Peebles’ film sensation Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). The Liberation of L.B. Jones (William Wyler, 1970), The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971), Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin, 1971), Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973), Charley Varrick (Don Siegel, 1973), and Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974) are a small sample of films from the early 1970s that are emblematic of the racial candor woven into the works of the period. Such films foregrounded casual racism by whites, or at the least did not avoid it as an ongoing presence in American society.

Even cinematic classics such as Francis Ford Coppola’s The God­ father (1972) were intimately involved in the cultural politics of race in 1970s America. Although the film harkened back to the 1940s and 1950s, the racial politics it presented spoke to the relevancy of race in 1970s America in the wake of Black Power militancy and cultural nationalism. Take for example the racist soliloquy of Don Zaluchi (Louis Guss) when Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) calls for a meeting amongst the heads of the five mafia families to salvage his criminal empire. As the dons weigh the pros and cons of selling heroin, Don Zaluchi announces his support for drug distribution with this caveat:

I also don’t believe in drugs. For years I paid my people extra so they wouldn’t do that kind of business. Somebody comes to them and says, “I have powders; if you put up three, four thousand dollar investment, we can make fifty thousand distributing.” So they can’t resist. I want to control it as a business, to keep it respectable. I don’t want it near schools! I don’t want it sold to children! That’s an infamia. In my city, we would keep the traffic in the dark people, the coloreds. They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.

Rather than being viewed as an example of how Coppola held disparaging beliefs about “the dark people” of America, dialogue such as this enhanced the aura of authenticity regarding conspiratorial backroom negotiations when profit and power are divvied up among white organized crime elites. In this case, criminal endeavors are informed not merely by greed and avarice but by a perverted racial morality whereby blacks are viewed as expendable and therefore the perfect target market for addictive and debilitating drugs that are presumed to have no real moral or social cost. When viewed against the concurrent, rising fast and fading even faster Blaxploitation film fad that presented virtually all white characters as racist automatons, Don Zaluchi’s edict appears devoid of artifice and sounds like an elegant explanation of how and why real black communities were overrun by drug dealers and addicts both then and now.

By and large, the Hollywood film industry’s candid display of American racial politics is best understood as a product of the heightened awareness and topicality of black and white race relations during the early to mid 1970s. In a film like The Godfather, racial politics were expressed by allusions to casual racism circulating in the smoky back rooms of white organized crime syndicates. In a film like The Spook Who Sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon, 1973), the depiction of a violent black response to rampant white racism fulfilled fantasies of overthrowing the U.S. government, similar to the vivid predictions made by Malcolm X’s “Ballot or the Bullet” speech (1964) and promised by black militants such as H. Rap Brown.14 Arguably, Martin Scorsese is the only director from that intrepid period of American cinema who continues weaving a racial subtext into his films. Case in point, Scorsese’s film The Departed (2006) begins with a narrative monologue that has the main antagonist, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), proclaim:

I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me. Years ago we had the church. That was only a way of saying—we had each other. The Knights of Columbus were real head-breakers; true guineas. They took over their piece of the city. Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a fucking job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace. That’s what the niggers don’t realize. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it’s this—no one gives it to you. You have to take it.

Certainly, the above comments boldly define the beliefs and motivations of a disturbing character. But more important, Costello’s comments also reveal a series of assumptions and arguments concerning the cultural politics of race in America, past and present. In terms of the bygone racial politics of Boston, Costello’s comments symbolize the deep-seated ideological racism that plagued Boston and rose to the surface with the violent school-busing crisis of the mid 1970s.

Arguably, one of the most controversial and divisive developments concerning access to quality education emerged during the mid 1970s with “forced busing” to ensure school integration. The backlash to black integration of the Boston Unified School District included violent protests by working class whites.15 Against this historical backdrop, Costello’s seemingly random film narration sets the stage for a politically and racially relevant reading of how The Departed integrates racial tension, and how the Protestant work ethic, opportunity, and luck are signaled as scarce resources for black folks. At a broader, ideological level, Costello’s comments can be read as a thinly veiled rebuke of white liberal public policy and as a refutation of academic explanations for the economic and social disenfranchisement experienced today by a disproportionate number of black folk in the American social order. Costello’s claims buttress conservative arguments that black youth who fail to achieve are symptomatic of a lack of personal motivation and drive, and, in a phrase, that they suffer from a “welfare mentality.” Costello’s perverted version of the white, middle-class work ethic fuses religion, politics, and racial biases so that economic, cultural, and environmental conditions such as housing discrimination, poor schools, lack of male role models, and limited exposure to positive reinforcement become nonfactors for determining black success. Ultimately, in this sense, The Departed is not merely a film about double-crosses and divided loyalties, but is a cinematic reminder of the central place that race occupies in a major northern city and U.S. society.

Tarantino continues this aesthetic tradition born of the insurgent cinema of the 1970s by articulating racial anxieties circulating in American society. Any discussions concerning Tarantino’s filmic influences must wholly dialogue not just with Blaxploitation but with the totality of the New Hollywood cinema of the 1970s. New Hollywood cinema radically rejected the studio-dominated western and musical film productions of the 1920s to mid 1960s in favor of taboo subject matter, more realistic violence, and political topicality with films like Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967), Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any­ More(Scorsese, 1974), Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, 1975), Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976), Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976), Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977), The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), and Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979). Consequently, despite Tarantino’s seemingly anachronistic articulation of racial dynamics, he is drawing from an established and venerated filmic tradition.

Tarantino’s inclusion of racial animus in his films is similar to what William Friedkin did with The French Connection (1971), Brian De Palma with Sisters (1973), Francis Ford Coppola with The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), Martin Scorsese with Taxi Driver (1976), and Paul Schrader with Blue Collar (1978). Nevertheless, Tarantino’s version of racial sensibility is often jarring and easily courts criticism as misplaced, ill conceived, and out-of-touch given his status as a white male. Instead, conventional wisdom dictates that Spike Lee is unquestionably American cinema’s most skilled (and accepted) racial provocateur for our present era. To Lee’s credit, no other modern-day director has successfully used race as a topical source to generate publicity, garner cultural clout, and make contradictory polemical statements about race in America. A quick thematic inventory of Spike Lee’s films makes the point strikingly evident: School Daze (1988) addresses the insecurity and animosity between dark and light-color complexions amongst African Americans; Do the Right Thing (1989) taps racial prejudice and white police brutality as its central focus; Jungle Fever (1991) is a diatribe against interracial intimacy between black men and white women; Malcolm X (1992) is a cinematic tribute to America’s most trenchant and charismatic race critic; Get On the Bus (1996) is a racial road-trip movie to the Million Man March; Four Little Girls (1997) is a thoughtful but awkwardly detailed documentary of Southern white racial terrorism against blacks during the civil rights movement; Bamboozled (2000) is a jumbled satire for and against contemporary black minstrels in the media; and Miracle at St. Anna (2008) is a film dedicated to recuperating the role and stature of black World War II soldiers. All of these films individually display flashes of brilliance in documenting the trails and tribulations of being black in America.

Yet, as a whole, in spite of a prolific body of work, there is a strain of disingenuousness coursing just beneath the surface of too many of Lee’s films. In this regard, the racial issues examined in many of Lee’s films appear as a gimmick. Films such as School Daze, Jungle Fever, and Get On the Bus use racial discord as a slick distraction to package and promote films that have weak or underdeveloped plots and inconsistent acting; they display little internal logic, present meandering storylines, and chronically showcase student film-school tricks. Without a doubt Spike Lee, at his best, is the Oscar Micheaux of our era, a pioneering black director whose bread and butter is the race film. At his worst, Lee comes perilously close to indulging in racial hucksterism. Consequently, across the bulk of Lee’s filmic work hot-button racial issues are used more like agitprop to support a series of mediocre titles. The cultural upshot is that in-group racial orientation does not necessarily provide a director with ability or insight when it comes to articulating racial politics in America, a point dreadfully underscored by black directors such as Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels, whose films make Spike Lee look like Ingmar Bergman in comparison.

In contrast, white film directors such as John Sayles with Brother from Another Planet (1984), Matewan (1986), Lone Star (1996), and Honey­ dripper (2007), and Norman Jewison with In the Heat of the Night (1967), A Soldier’s Story (1984), and The Hurricane (1999) are accomplished filmmakers who have provocatively tackled and integrated racial issues across their bodies of work. But while Sayles and Jewison have periodically taken race to task, Tarantino is a white director who makes race a sharp cornerstone in all his films. In this sense, Tarantino demands more than a cursory conversation about race, given how all his films have included black folk of various styles, temperaments, and motivations. In other words, Tarantino films are very much about race even though the type of paint-by-numbers racial thematic found in Spike Lee’s films or the garish racial sociology found in the film Precious (Lee Daniels, 2009) is absent. Consequently—and counterintuitively—Tarantino’s films are more likely to implicate us as viewers in the wrongheadedness and seductive irrationality of racism in ways the often ham-fisted Spike Lee fails to dictate and Lee Daniels neglects to achieve in the contrived and squeaky melodrama The Butler (2013).

This is not to say Tarantino is all finesse. The repetitive use of the n-word as an everyday utterance in Pulp Fiction (1994) and Jackie Brown (1997) or a character’s matter-of-fact comparison between a giant ape and African Americans in Inglourious Basterds (2009) irritate like fingernails clawing against a chalkboard. In this regard, Tarantino appears intent on making the audiences squirm to the sounds of America’s racial proclivities past and present. But for many critics and scholars, the aforementioned examples are merely more evidence of Tarantino’s presumably racist perspective. For example, critic Sean Tierney views Tarantino through the prism of white studies, examining him in terms of his star personae and public rhetoric, and unabashedly proclaims that the filmmaker is an active advocate of the very racism Tarantino is a critic of.16 By focusing on Tarantino the personality, however, Tierney for the most part bypasses the body of work for which Tarantino became famous in the first place.

In contrast, the caustic film critic Armond White takes Tarantino to task for what he shows on screen. White views Tarantino as expressing racial hostility vis-à-vis the racist utterances of his various characters, particularly with the frequent use of the n-word in a non-salutary manner. He basically views Tarantino as a derivative director who revels in the worst aspects of Blaxploitation film, producing pop sleaze without the politics. White’s racial analysis is too brittle and facile for my liking. Without getting into the dubious merits of an argument concerning the constructive power of the n-word and Tarantino’s inability to deploy the term in a useful manner, I believe White’s type of criticisms reflect a rather reductive approach to investigating race as it relates to Tarantino’s films. Instead, the use of the n-word across Tarantino’s films also functions as a transgressive reminder and marker of the real racial animosity that circulates throughout American society, not just in the mind of one white Hollywood film director.

Not all voices of racial reason share such a strident characterization of Tarantino’s work. The widely published cultural critic and racial gadfly Stanley Crouch has written a couple of extended essays on the merit of Tarantino’s work as a metaphoric treatise on racial miscegenation and, ultimately, cultural diffusion and hybridity. His essay “Blues in More Than One Color” in particular is a well-written celebration of the Tarantino filmic touch. Crouch even goes so far to compare Tarantino with Ralph Ellison, one of the few authors who can claim the rarified status of writing “the great American novel,” with his racial tome Invisible Man (1952). As talented as Crouch is as a cultural critic, his film studies technique comes across as cloyingly labored. Like a John Coltrane solo that is virtually divorced from its original compelling melody, sounding more like an exercise in extended improvising, Crouch often muddles his points by engaging in extended intellectual riffing on topics near and dear to his heart but not quite germane to black racial formation. Most important, Crouch skimps on framing Tarantino’s films in terms of other films. This lack of cinematic engagement severely hampers any explanation of how QT’s body of work is situated filmically and obscures what type of conclusions are articulated in relationship to race and American cinema. The result is a colorful but convoluted rumination on Tarantino’s films from Reservoir Dogs (1992) through Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) that devotes too much time to describing narratives and plot points of the various films and affords little time to making meaningful connections between the characters, scenarios, and outcomes connected to real racial issues and dynamics operating in American cinema, society, and culture. Nevertheless, Crouch’s notable contrarian viewpoint serves as a counterweight to various hackneyed claims that Tarantino is a racist. For Crouch (and I agree with him on this), Tarantino is a complex screenwriter and director who questions America’s traditional notions of race, ethnicity, and gender.

Certainly much has been made of the reality that Tarantino’s filmic corpus is chockfull of references, homages, similarities, plagiarism, and allusions to other films, both obscure and well known, that are characteristic of the Tarantino style. This postmodern pastiche, however, only makes sense when viewed in relation with—and, periodically, against—a broader cultural and social discourse concerning race in America. Thus, reductively translating the racial politics of Tarantino’s films as primarily homages to Blaxploitation cinema is too narrow an analysis.

Similarly, any fruitful discussion of race in Tarantino’s work that goes beyond name-calling and kneejerk claims of race-baiting must view his work in relationship to broader and ongoing racial discourses circulating in American society. Rather than start from the unspoken supposition that the director is a sinner/saint or bog down the analysis of Tarantino’s films with notions of positive or negative stereotypes, my approach in this book is quite straightforward. I frame and then deconstruct Tarantino’s film work as a form of referential cultural production in dialogue with historical and concurrent racial anxieties in American society. Accordingly, the style I have adopted for this project is cultural criticism within a film studies framework that self-consciously refrains from the jargonistic overkill of most academic writing and the promotional puffery of a celebrity exposé. By reading and deconstructing the racial dynamics woven into Reservoir Dogs, True Romance (1993), Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Death Proof (2007), Inglourious Basterds, and Django Unchained (2012) in relationship to the cultural politics of race in America, I argue that Tarantino’s films reveal a dialogical expression of race, particularly around the articulation of blackness. Consequently, the eclectic fusion of cultural criticism and film analysis in this book is less concerned with authorial intent and more focused on the symbolic and cultural meaning individual films create and engage as racial representations, ideology, American cultural politics, pop culture, and U.S. race relations.

In chapter one, Reservoir Dogs is examined in terms of how the film subversively states, restates, and revolves around blackness as a marginal and excluded identity in the face of an “old boy network” where whiteness is privileged. True Romance is examined in light of the ways race is coded and the manner in which white racial purity is articulated and critiqued. In particular, the crisis of white masculinity is examined in relationship to shifting and encroaching notions of blackness informed by the pop cultural trends of the period. In chapter two, I examine how Pulp Fiction constructs white masculinity even as it spectacularly and disturbingly alludes to the stifling, sadomasochistic impulse present in white supremacy as idea and practice. Moreover, the film is deconstructed as a racial fairytale, highlighting the racial import of key vignettes. For Jackie Brown, I analyze the ways in which the film embraces and exhibits multiple tensions of race, class, and gender. The film’s title character highlights limited racialand gender-based economic opportunity, and the character of Robbie Ordell explores the pathology of black overcompensation and self-hatred. Chapter three takes on the action-drama mash-ups Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Kill Bill: Vol. 2, and Death Proof. I examine how the Kill Bill films engage race, in this case the fetishization of Asian iconography and culture, in a manner that is both problematic and progressively subversive. The films are considered for the many ways they attempt to negotiate issues around “yellow face” in American cinema and mark the threshold of and boundaries between homage and racial appropriation in the form of a white protagonist as a martial arts master. With Death Proof I examine how race and gender are used to affirm Amazonian black sexuality and signify resistance to white male hegemony as objectification. Black gender politics are mapped around the violence and sexuality of the female protagonists. Chapter four examines Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. The former is discussed as a racial/ethnic diatribe that symbolically and literally attacks white supremacy as an institution and personal practice. The film employs various visual signifiers and adopts specific racial rhetoric as a means to comment on American racism as a system of exploitation related to Nazism. Finally, I offer Django Un­ chained as a continuation of Tarantino’s highly provocative critique of race relations in America, one that destabilizes American history and the mythological constructs of black enslavement in American pop culture. The depiction of black enslavement in American cinema is explored along with the common aesthetic representations that filmmakers often employ to portray the horror of black racial oppression. I argue that Django Unchained is most appropriately characterized as a Gothic horror film rather than a spaghetti western.

Many fans, as well as critics, have insisted on focusing on Tarantino’s use of violence, and they reductively attribute his inclusion of black actors and racial issues as homage to the Blaxploitation film of the 1970s. Others interpret the films as revealing some warped racial prejudice lurking deep in Tarantino’s subconscious. Instead, I argue that the overall result, for better or worse, is a body of work that ideologically engages the cultural politics of race in America, but this engagement is either uncritically lauded, carelessly overlooked, or roundly criticized because of prejudices attributed to the director. As counter-intuitive as it may appear, when it comes to the body of Tarantino’s films, the radical racial politics coursing through them is hidden in plain sight and very much on the quiet, or as I prefer, the QT. Consequently, the title of this book, Race on the QT: Blackness and the Films of Quentin Tarantino is more than a play on words. It is also an exercise in providing a more explicit examination of the racial import lurking beneath the surface of Tarantino’s films.

Upon first viewing, the violence and prolific profanity found in the films of Quentin Tarantino threaten to overwhelm the racial commentary woven throughout the body of his work. A deeper and sustained reading, however, reveals a subversive racial milieu layered with cultural and ideological concepts that are greater than the sum of their parts. Accordingly, Tarantino’s films are not merely movies that entertain; they symbolize racial anxieties circulating throughout American society. Such observations are not automatically evident just by examining QT films for negative or positive representations of black people, black life, or black culture. Beneath a veneer of interwoven plotlines depicting profane violence and death are critical considerations of real and imaginary elements of blackness in America. The films engage long-standing racial discourses and hint at emerging trends. The following chapters may not definitively settle debates surrounding Tarantino’s personal racial politics, but they will reveal more accurate insights and conclusions concerning the weaknesses and strengths of the racial rhetoric and representations found in his films.

Reviews: 

“Nama’s book traces the racial topicality of Tarantino’s films to his fascination with the subversive and racially empowering features of Blaxploitation cinema. It confronts the racial frankness in Tarantino’s films rather than the man himself, examining what they say about race in America with a critical dynamism and a clarity of perspective that makes enjoyable and provocative reading.”
Times Literary Supplement

“Like never before, Nama’s Race on the QT scrapes back those dermal layers of race and racism grafted on Tarantino’s films. Under Nama’s deft surgical hand it’s all peeled back for view. Mainline Nama’s analytic tour de force—if you dare! It’ll change you and everything you imagined about high-octane cinema in the U.S.”
Frederick Luis Aldama, Arts & Humanities Distinguished Professor of English and University Distinguished Scholar at the Ohio State University, and author recently of The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez