When you’re first getting into film, you tend to hear the same names repeated over and over again: Fincher, Scorsese, and, most of all, Tarantino. As a young cinephile, I was drawn to the outrageous violence in his films and the way he used music like a plot device. Years went by, and I still continued to immerse myself in his films, tuning out the criticisms against him. But when I recently rewatched his directorial debut Reservoir Dogs, I couldn’t help but think of Tarantino’s actions while shooting the Kill Bill duology, the multiple controversies surrounding Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and the violent anti-Blackness his films propagate. It’s become impossible to ignore the way Tarantino has been worshipped, while simultaneously not changing the things for which he’s been criticized.
People will usually tell you to watch Pulp Fiction first, but my first foray into the Tarantino Universe was Kill Bill Vol. 1. With unabashed gruesomeness and a career-defining performance from Uma Thurman, it quickly became one of my favorite films: I own a framed poster of Vol. 2, have contemplated getting a tattoo dedicated to it, and have memorized every fight scene. But in 2018, when the #MeToo movement gained momentum in the wake of allegations against producer (of several Tarantino films) Harvey Weinstein, Thurman herself revealed that not only had Weinstein assaulted her, but Tarantino himself had known about it. Thurman also stated that while shooting the Kill Bill duology, Tarantino spat “in her face in the scene where Michael Madsen is seen on screen doing it and chok[ed] her with a chain in the scene where a teenager named Gogo is on screen doing it.” The Kill Bill films have long been seen as films that showcase powerful women. But behind the scenes, their main actress was not only being mistreated—she could have been killed.
Thurman recounted a day when she was shooting the now-iconic opening monologue of Vol. 2. She was uncomfortable driving the car featured in the scene, and after being told “no” when she requested a stunt driver take her place, the car ultimately crashed with Thurman inside. Only after over a decade was she finally given footage of the crash. “Quentin finally atoned by giving it to me after 15 years, right?” she said. “Not that it matters now, with my permanently damaged neck and my screwed-up knees.” With Thurman’s harrowing revelations in mind, a duology praised for the women at its forefront ultimately becomes a source of pain and contemplation for the cinephiles who fell in love with these films. Thurman noted that “Quentin used Harvey as the executive producer of Kill Bill… And all these lambs walked into slaughter because they were convinced nobody rises to such a position who would do something illegal to you, but they do”—propelling these films into a jarring limbo between iconography and abuse.
It’s sadly unsurprising that even after these confessions from Thurman (which Tarantino himself confirmed) the director went on to craft one of 2019’s most popular films, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I’ll be the first to admit that I love this film: it’s a glitzy ode to Hollywood, bathed in sun and soaked with a fantastic soundtrack. But, like all Tarantino films, there’s something…off about it. It starts with the shocking omission of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) who was rumoured to be a singular part of the film, but instead had almost no lines. And this isn’t an Anna-Paquin-in-The-Irishman situation, where the character’s silence displays her feelings or place in the film. When Robbie is on screen as Tate, she’s almost always silent, and even then she isn’t given anything to do. She only hovers in the background, dolled up to perfection, and in the film’s 192-minute runtime, only says 242 words.
The most concerning aspect of the film isn’t the omission of Sharon Tate, though—it’s the massacre of the Manson Family during the film’s climax. In the trailer for the film, Charles Manson is displayed like an Easter egg, hinting that he’ll have a big role in the film. But he appears in one scene and is never seen again. In a “reversing of history,” the film’s main characters murder three members of the Manson Family before they can ever reach Tate’s house, stabbing them, bashing their heads against the wall, and setting them on fire. It’s all in typical Tarantino fashion, but I still can’t wrap my head around this plot decision. If Tarantino truly wanted to “change history,” why not kill Charles Manson, the mastermind behind these horrific murders? Instead, we’re made to watch a woman’s head crack open on the mantle of a fireplace as her screams are reduced to gurgles. It’s scenes like these that make me question if Tarantino actually likes getting a reaction out of his audience, or if he just has a sick fascination with brutalizing women on screen.
Then, there’s the topic that has stained Tarantino’s career for years: the use of the N-word in his films. It’s used 110 times in Django Unchained and almost the same amount in The Hateful Eight, but the film where I find the use of the word most jarring is Reservoir Dogs. When watching the film for the first time this year, I was so enthralled by it that I didn’t fully realize the amount of anti-Blackness throughout until afterward. On more than one occasion, Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) only uses the N-word to refer to Black people. It’s like he cannot fathom that they are anything other than this horrid word that’s been used to oppress them—and frankly, this discussion about Black people adds nothing to the film. The N-word acts as a flourish Tarantino can’t help but put into most of his films, sprinkled in like a garnish he and his fans can’t live without. And there’s absolutely no need for his white characters to say it.
Time and time again, when criticisms are made against him, Tarantino’s fans jump to say that people are “too soft” nowadays. Are we soft, or are we just tired of the same pathetic tropes being used in the films of one of Hollywood’s most powerful men? Although people have criticized Tarantino for decades, his influence on cinephiles and future directors is immense. For him to continue to abuse this power and create not only a toxic work environment, but a toxic filmography that showcases violence against women and racist rhetoric, is irresponsible.
So, what can we do? Unfortunately, I don’t have a complete answer—but I think it’s important for fans of Tarantino like myself to take note of these things, to hold him accountable. I felt extremely guilty when Once Upon a Time in Hollywood turned out to be one of my favorite films of 2019, and continue to feel guilty when I find myself wanting to rewatch Kill Bill and Reservoir Dogs. What I know about Tarantino now, whether it be from studying his films over the years or from headlines that have become viral op-eds, has changed the way I watch his films. Instead of looking at Kill Bill as a feminst masterpiece, I now think about that video of Uma Thurman crashing a convertible on set, her body trapped underneath the steering wheel. How can films continue to have an impact on you when things like this come to light? It isn’t an easy thing to grasp, and it’s something I’ll continue to question if and when Tarantino makes another film. Turning a blind eye to someone who’s been proven complicit in the horrors of Hollywood isn’t the answer, and as viewers we must think about where worship begins and where it ends.
By Kaiya Shunyata
Illustration by Damien Jeon