Entry 27: Tarantino Re-fights the Civil War

The Hateful Eight. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. 

Release Date: January 1, 2016.

We now have the third in Quentin Tarantino’s run of historical films, and just as the last one, Django Unchained, built on the revenge-fantasy structure of its predecessor, Inglourious Basterds, so too does The Hateful Eight build on Django. Bookending the Civil War (Django was set in 1858 and The Hateful Eight takes place at least a decade after Appomattox), The Hateful Eight borrows Django‘s central theme: race. Black and white relations occupy the most space but no one gets off easy, creating a vision of America where racial tensions and history infect everything and everyone. This isn’t all the film is trying to say, but for at least its first two acts, The Hateful Eight is a movie about the country the Civil War made as much as anything else. Like Django—and really all of Tarantino’s films—it uses an exaggerated lens, but that exaggeration serves to emphasize very real aspects of America’s past and present.

[Note: Mild Spoiler Warning!! I’m not going to discuss anything here that isn’t revealed in the film’s first 30 minutes, but stay away if you want to go into the movie fresh. I’ll have a well-marked section for substantial spoilers after the end of the post.]

No one is really the hero of The Hateful Eight, but Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson, cool and terrifying) comes closest. He’s also the most thematically connected to the Civil War and Django. Indeed, Warren could be a postwar version of Django himself, as he’s deeply motivated to punish southern whites for the sin of slavery. We know he spent his childhood enslaved but we don’t know much else about him until the Civil War, when he became a national hero as part of a USCT cavalry regiment. So proficient was Warren at killing Rebels, the Confederacy put a huge bounty on his head. The bounty remained in place after the war, so we first encounter Warren after he’s re-settled in Wyoming. There, he spends his time bounty hunting and dispatching southerners out for his head.

Tarantino draws attention to Warren’s status as a black veteran early and often, revealing how the old soldier’s racial and military identity both help and hinder him as he navigates white society. The film begins with Warren encountering John “Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), a white northerner and fellow bounty hunter. Their interactions exemplify the uneasy balance of disgust and reverence Ruth—and, by extension, the white North—has for Warren. Ruth frequently calls Warren “nigger” and speaks of him in metaphors that always emphasize his blackness. Conversely, Ruth respects Warren’s service and is highly impressed by a letter from Abraham Lincoln that Warren proudly carries. Ruth notes that Warren’s fame was so great the president himself struck up a continuous correspondence, cementing Warren’s status as a national hero worthy of white respect.

The racial subtext of Warren and Ruth’s relationship becomes text when, in short succession, they encounter two white southerners: Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), the son of a Confederate officer, and Sandy Smithers, a former Confederate general. As he did with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie in Django, Tarantino makes both men unambiguously racist and capable of horrifying acts against African Americans. Some viewers might consider this overkill but I’ll argue (as I did with Django) it’s a necessary and refreshing move, given how rarely the sheer brutality of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction appear in mainstream Hollywood films. Smithers is a stand-in for Nathan Bedford Forrest, having massacred a group of captured black soldiers at a fictional (and presumably later) version of the Battle of Baton Rouge. Mannix represents postwar racial atrocity, having served in his father’s postwar paramilitary organization, the “Rebel Renegades,” which terrorized black and unionist communities in South Carolina. Naturally, all three men are uneasy around each other and this contributes to the film’s suspense, as we wonder who will survive the night in “Minnie’s Haberdashery.”

But, as indicated above, this postwar white/black dynamic is only the most prominent among several sources of tension. The “hate” of the film’s title is largely racial and everyone carries their share of it. One of the other “eight” is a Mexican named Bob (Damián Bichir) and the black characters seem much more bothered by his ethnicity than their white counterparts. What’s more, Mannix criticizes Warren for having slaughtered Native Americans as part of the U.S. Cavalry, to which Warren cannot offer one of his usual witty retorts. Indeed, Warren’s intense hatred of southern (and possibly northern) whites suggests a possibly more justified but equally destructive type of racial prejudice. We could interpret this as a shallow “everyone’s racist” statement, but I think it goes deeper. While Tarantino reveled in the violent counterfactual revenge narratives of his previous historical films—in which Jews avenged themselves on Nazis and African Americans did so on slaveholders—here he subverts those films by demonstrating how history perpetuates hatred and violence. Whatever old scores individuals or groups have to settle, they all result in the same thing: brutality and death.

That’s probably as far as I can go without giving too much away. Tarantino has always claimed he’s trying to expose the less-savory aspects of the American experience, and The Hateful Eight continues that theme by showing how much race shaped American identity in the 19th Century and still does today. Current events surely influenced the script, in which Warren declares “Only time black folks is safe is when white folks is disarmed.” Go see it if you’re at all interested in the Civil War’s current place in popular culture. Tarantino certainly is.

Additional Dispatches:

  • We almost didn’t get to see this film due to an unfortunate script leak last year. I’m glad we did. Although it’s received a tempered critical reception, I think it’s great.
  • It’s interesting that gender doesn’t play a bigger role in the film, given the main antagonist, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is a woman. She certainly takes a beating at the hands of several men, but she’s so despicable the violence seems at least somewhat justified. She eventually becomes part of the racial narrative, voicing the same racist views as other white southern characters.
  • And how about a film that prominently features a Lincoln document! As an editor at The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, it warms the cockles of my heart.
  • Another way the film builds on Django: Warren represents the opposite extreme of Samuel L. Jackson’s previous “Uncle Tom” character, Stephen. Kudos to Jackson (who’s too rarely praised for his acting ability) for nailing both roles.
  • Of course, Ennio Morricone’s score is fabulous, just as it was in Inglourious Basterds. In that film, it evoked The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but here it’s partly one of many references to John Carpenter’s The Thing.
  • Does it mention slavery? I don’t think it ever does so directly, but the institution is an obvious subtext, given the numerous references to race and the Civil War.

Next Entry: Mercy Street, “The New Nurse”

Spoiler Space:

  • I’m still wondering what to make of the ending. As indicated above, I think Tarantino was trying to show violence spiraling out of control like he did in Reservoir Dogs, but something else is going on with Warren and Mannix’s reconciliation, especially since they end the film reading Lincoln’s letter together. Is Tarantino suggesting the nation’s history of violence can be bridged through shared experience? Maybe, but let’s not forget they reconcile while essentially lynching a woman.
  • Continuing the theme of racial violence and oppression, black and white emasculation emerges as a major theme by the end of the film. Warren’s potentially apocryphal tale of forcing Smithers’s son to give him oral sex essentially reverses the slave rape phenomenon and presents a sort of racial and sexual white emasculation. Warren is physically emasculated in the last act and presumably dies from the wound. Both incidents echo earlier Tarantino films, with Marcellus Wallace emasculating Zed after being raped by him in Pulp Fiction, and Candie’s henchmen almost emasculating Django.
  • I could have told you Warren’s Lincoln letter was fake. Abe would never have referred to his wife as “Mary Todd.”

 

 

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3 comments

  1. Daisy · March 17, 2016

    ” She certainly takes a beating at the hands of several men, but she’s so despicable the violence seems at least somewhat justified. She eventually becomes part of the racial narrative, voicing the same racist views as other white southern characters.” to quote your blog

    This is where the Hateful Eight throws up – perhaps unintentionally in terms of the director’s intentions which a re clearly stated – some of the very strange morality that shadows the way that the way the Civil War is now being spoken of.

    In our desire to “extirpate the foe” and dislodge the Confederates from our mental attic (I personally have no issues in recognising slavery as a transhistorical, transnational evil that is still with us today – and should be fought in its present manifestations not its 1860s manifestations and also keeping a corner of the attic reserved for some positive representation of the Confederacy) are we legitimising strange cruel imagery in the (perhaps erroneous) hope that we can make present day social relations better? I agree more with Sasha Stone writing on Awards Daily who suggests it is implausible for Daisy – and thus her lynching – to “represent, somehow, all of the evil of the South, all of the racism, all of the injustice. She’s a tiny thing. There is no point in the film, or maybe one just barely, when Daisy inflicts any violence upon anyone — and by then it could be argued that she is only desperately trying to defend herself. She is handcuffed to Kurt Russell, needing his permission to speak and eat, and then punched brutally in the face whenever she says anything.” http://www.awardsdaily.com/2015/12/27/the-hateful-eight-tarantino-and-that-misogyny-word/

    Likewise the rape of Chester Charles is a rape (except of course that it may actually be fictional – given that Warren is a Trickster God who survives and rules by his wits) and fighting racism is not an excuse to validate rape – on the whole the backlash from the white supremacists has not happened – I don’t think they go to Tarantino films very much …

    • Christian McWhirter · March 17, 2016

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment and for the link. As I indicate above and Tarantino himself has said, The Hateful Eight resists easy interpretation and invites viewers to come at it from different directions. I’ll also note it’s been 2 months since I saw the film, so my memory of it is a little faded.

      You’re right that Daisy rarely physically hurts any of the film’s characters, but the narrative strongly suggests she’s capable of monstrous violence if given the chance. I suppose we could consider this another lie in a script that’s full of them, but the story seems to bear this out, as her gang is certainly ruthless. I don’t, however, agree that she represents “all the evil of the South” and I think I was clear about that above. That Mannix is one of the two men lynching her negates that interpretation, as he’s one of the most pro-southern and racist characters in the whole film. If anything, I take the ending as agreeing with you by showing that the one thing most of these men can get behind, despite their political differences, is beating up a woman.

      The idea of whether or not violence is ever justified seems central to the film and I put Daisy’s lynching and Charles’s rape into that context. Tarantino’s previous two films are straightforward revenge narratives. The conclusions to both are indeed gory but I think audiences are generally supposed to root for “The Bear Jew” as he pumps Hitler’s head full of bullets and Django as he slaughters every white person on Candie’s plantation. The Hateful Eight pushes this idea to its extreme with Daisy and Charles, showing how the morality embedded in this violence really doesn’t hold up once the violence gets out of control. At least, that’s how I read it.

  2. Pingback: The history lesson the Oregon “militia” needs; a day in the life of a WWII; Who is Hugh Glass?; Tarantino’s latest; restoring a piano Lincoln heard | History Headlines

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