• Tarantino, Race, and the Construction of American History

    It may seem odd to be writing now about a movie that came out in July, but Scorsese’s recent release of The Irishman makes it worthwhile to return to Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (as does the requisite passage of time necessary to assess any work of art). Since I am not the first to compare these two films, it is important to understand why I associate them.

    Despite Scorsese’s attacks on superhero films, what links his film (and Tarantino’s) with the various superhero movies is a certain mood: nostalgia. As the theorist Svetlana Boym once put it, “nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy.” This is true of all of these films. Boym continues, noting that, “nostalgia appears to be a longing for a place, but it is actually a yearning for a different time — the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams.” Tarantino has explicitly mentioned that the year 1969 — when he was six — was the year that “formed” him; Tarantino sees his latest film as a sort of “love letter” to the year (for another, quite different, perspective on this period, see The Stooges classic “1969”). The yearning for childhood should require no explanation in the case of superhero films, but it might require a bit more explanation in the case of The Irishman. Turning to that film allows me also to frame the exact way in which I want to pursue my discussion of Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.

    For any work of art, its standing as an aesthetic object — a work of art — cannot be ignored. In the case of The Irishman, this is no more obvious than in the production and release of the film. Because of his agreement with Netflix, Scorsese’s film ran only in 1/6 of the screens that a film traditionally does, and it did so only for 1/3 of the time that a film normally would. Following that, it became available at home to any Netflix subscriber. What we have here is a distinct sort of nostalgia: a yearning for the possibility of making certain types of films, a possibility that simply doesn’t exist anymore on the mass cultural stage. Despite the centrality of the gangster film to our self-understanding as Americans, it just is the case that great gangster films (think Heat or Goodfellas or The Godfather or Scarface) simply cannot be made anymore — not to mention the classic gangster films of the 1930s and 1940s. In 1948, Robert Warshow wrote a brilliant essay titled “The Gangster as Tragic Hero.” It concludes with the following observations:

    This is our intolerable dilemma: that failure is a kind of death and success is evil and dangerous, is — ultimately — impossible. The effect of the gangster film is to embody this dilemma in the person of the gangster and resolve it by his death. The dilemma is resolved because it is his death, not ours. We are safe; for the moment, we can acquiesce in our failure, we can choose to fail.

    I take it that Warshow’s essay is throughout highlighting the intertwinement of American capitalism and the American gangster film and the limits of each. When he claims that, “in the deeper layers of modern consciousness, all means are unlawful, every attempt to succeed is an act of aggression,” he just is highlighting the facts of late capitalism, what the German critical theorist, Theodor W. Adorno, writing in the United States around the same time, called simply “bourgeois coldness.” Late capitalism, however, has gotten even later — gotten worse — since Warshow and Adorno were writing; we are no longer safe even in the nominally safe ways they suggest (literally: even while we watch — there are now mass shootings in movie theaters). And the stakes of failure are thereby far greater; and so our films are shorter and even less intelligent, funding is harder to come by, mass culture even much more one-dimensional and derivative, art that much more derided and undervalued, and our understanding of ourselves thereby that much more impoverished (and this all apart from the other facts of late capitalism: a brutal for-profit prison industry affecting domestic and international policy, a racialized criminal and judicial system, a culture dominated by misogynistic norms, and an expansive military presence across the entire known world… one that aims to extend even to the unknown world, in the form of a “space force”).

    It may, given Tarantino’s own misogynistic streak and his consistent glorification of violence, seem odd thereby to claim that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a deeply philosophical, and deeply reflective film, one that has to be taken seriously. That is exactly what I suggest, however. Tarantino’s film is self-conscious in a way that Scorsese’s The Irishman is not.

    To see how this is the case, it is important to keep two points in mind. First, my claims and the analysis that follows are about Tarantino’s films, not about Tarantino himself. Works of art have a density and solidity — if they are good enough — to stand up to sustained and serious criticism. Such criticism may — but it need not — invoke the intentions of the artist: the object itself is a completed whole and may actualize properties that the artist themselves did not explicitly intend (i.e. what interests me is not the biographical Tarantino with his conscious intentions, but the Tarantino we can reconstruct from the work of art, with his conscious and unconscious intentions, not to mention his unintended accidents). Second, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood cannot be properly understood without Tarantino’s three preceding films (Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight). The four films together form an extended reflection on the American relation to history, and to historiography.

    This second point requires some elaboration. In the wake of the Nazi genocide, the Germans developed a term that might best be translated as “working through the past”: Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. The idea is that there must be a comprehensive, critical, self-reflective confrontation with the past, one that operates at a variety of registers, notably the rational as much as the emotional (confronting as much “what happened and why?” as “ought I feel guilty?” and “how do I understand my desire to ignore this event?”). As the philosopher Susan Neiman has noted, Tarantino lived in Germany for almost a year while filming Inglorious Basterds, and became influenced by the theoretical and practical issues involved in forging such a relationship to the past (for more on this, Tarantino’s interview in The Root with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is essential). Given the stature of the Nazi genocide in the modern imaginary, Inglorious Basterds, with its alternative history, serves as a first foray into this territory simpliciter. Tarantino’s next film, Django Unchained, explicitly aims to work through the past in the American context, by “sending a message that Nazism should not be used to end discussions about evil but to begin them, and that American crimes deserve as hard a look as any other.” The Hateful Eight, in turn, turns to a quintessential American form, the western, in order to ask whether the defining feature of the United States is its racism or its misogyny, concluding, at least in this film, that misogyny is one of the few commitments that trumps race in the American imaginary. To the extent that the genre of the western is meant to present, as Robert Pippin puts it in Hollywood Westerns and American Myth, “in a recognizably mythic form dimensions of… American self-understanding,” The Hateful Eight’s concluding scene, where a former Union major and a Lost-Cause militiaman act together to brutalize a female fugitive, exhibits how misogyny underwrites the entirety of American possibilities, then as much as now.

    It is against this background that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood orients itself. (That this film is a sort of conclusion to the prior three, and that it takes up associated themes, is highlighted by the fact that the original title of Inglorious Basterds was Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France.)

    The most important detail about Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is what — or more accurately who — is absent: the palpable absence — with one exception (more on this shortly) — of people of color. Regardless of how you understand Tarantino’s relationship to the black community (i.e. where you fall on the Spike Lee vs. Tarantino feud), it’s undeniable that black actors and black characters have been central to Tarantino’s films. The fact that there is a controversy at all attests to this fact. For Tarantino not to cast even one black actor — something he hasn’t done since his first film — is striking. When this fact is coupled with the fact that the sole person of color that Tarantino does cast, Mike Moh as Bruce Lee, portrays Lee as a blowhard who could be physically defeated by the white lead, and whose fighting prowess is thereby a joke (on both counts quite far from the historical truth about Lee), then we as viewers are forced to ask what exactly is going on.

    My suggestion is that the film does not revel in toxicity, nor merely exhibit a love of arcana, nor any sort of nostalgia for white supremacy or for old Hollywood or for a cultural restoration of the pre-hippie sixties, but rather harnesses its nostalgic aesthetic sensibilities and visuals in order to suggest that the deeper violence underlying all of the blatant media violence that Tarantino easily delivers is the violence of American storytelling itself (and of course, Tarantino explicitly highlights the former with his nods towards the centrality of American television violence). This violence — the way in which stories are told in American media — is itself a persistent brutality; it is this violence that perpetually erases black history from American history, and it is this violence that consistently overlooks racism and misogyny in order to present a happy ending, where the good guys win and do so in the most brutal ways (which are always okay… as long as it’s the good guys winning). Audiences are thus only too happy to giggle when it is implied that the lead character in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood killed his wife, or when the Manson family’s commitment to white supremacy and race war is ignored.

    The film’s suggestion with its portrayal of Bruce Lee — a figured now beloved in the American imaginary even as he was subject to racism during his life — is a provocation: “Oh, you think this is inaccurate? Really? Tell me more…” Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood dares the viewer or the critic to ask this question because doing so will unleash the floodgates, gates which the film has carefully barricaded shut and locked, thereby stacking the deck for such an encounter (and no more conspicuously than with the absence of any black actors in the entire film, apart from a couple of extras). Confronting these facts about the film and about the time it portrays will shatter the entire structure and project of telling American history in a popular context (to which the medium of film is essential), revealing it all to be little more than a fairy tale, with all of the childishness and lack of self-reflection that this implies. And so once upon a time…


    Martin Shuster is a philosopher who teaches at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD. He is the author most recently of New Television: The Aesthetics and Politics of a Genre.