The Uncomfortable Nature of Race in The Hateful Eight
Warning the following contains a few spoilers for The Hateful Eight. It is advised that you view the film before reading this piece.
An unexpected uneasiness washed over me while watching Quentin Tarantino’s latest opus The Hateful Eight. It was a feeling that hit me with the same surprising intensity as the blood that paints Daisy Domergue’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) face at one point in the film. This sense of discomfort did not come from the copious amounts of violence; it is a Tarantino film after all, but rather my own acute awareness of self that the film evoked. As much as I love Tarantino’s films, I have never been more aware of my own ethnicity than I was watching The Hateful Eight.
Quentin Tarantino’s relationship with the n-word and appropriation of “black culture” has been well documented. Truth be told, I have defended the director’s work on numerous occasions in conversations that have veered onto his incorporation of race and derogatory terminology. However, for the first time, I found myself truly struggling with it in this film. It probably did not help matters that I was the only visible minority in my afternoon screening.
The Hateful Eight is essentially a western that wraps its narrative within the tense threads of the mystery genre. Imagine if the film version of Clue took place in the frigid and isolated world of The Thing and you get a broad idea of the film’s framing. However, there are no alien forces here, the danger comes from the eight individuals in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a stagecoach lodge on the outskirts of town, and the blizzard that has trapped them all together. Amongst the group is John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) who is chained to Daisy, an outlaw who he is taking to Red Rock in order to collect the $10,000 bounty on her head. Prior to reaching the lodge the pair encounter another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), and a former confederate soldier, Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), who claims to be heading to Red Rock to be the new sheriff.
The coincidence that his stagecoach would stumble upon two separate stranded individuals on the day he is transporting such valuable cargo is not lost on Ruth. Neither is the fact that the lodge is full of individuals who, with the exception of Bob (Demián Bichir), who works at Minnie’s, all seem to have business in Red Rock. Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) is on his way to see his mother, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) is the hangman of Red Rock, and General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) is a weathered confederate soldier who seems to be tormented by decisions of the past. Of course Ruth’s paranoia proves to be warranted when an incident occurs, one so important that Tarantino himself brings attention to it via narration, and bodies slowly begin to pile up.
While the film’s tension comes from trying to figure out which of the lodgers is working with Daisy – though uncovering who laced a particular beverage with poison is rather easy – Tarantino treats the lone female at the center of it all as almost an afterthought for the bulk of the film. Instead, he spends his time, when not sadistically playing for laughs the merciless abuse Daisy endures, exploring the bigotry of the era. This, of course, provides Tarantino with a justifiable excuse to use the n-word more freely than the crudest rap album.
After eight films, Tarantino’s love of the controversial word has become a stylistic trademark of sorts. However, it is strange that of all of Tarantino’s works, and for a film set in the aftermath of the Civil War where it actually makes sense for characters to use the n-word and play up racial stereotypes, this film feels excessive in this regard. Race is constantly at the forefront of the film even at times when it does not need to be. It practically overshadows Daisy’s story, which is the real reason the characters, and us the audience for that matter, have all assembled.
This is most obvious when viewing the journey of the lead character, Major Warren, throughout the film. Although he is arguably the smartest guy in the room, his skin colour evokes distrust on both sides of the law. He never feels like the fist-pumping inducing heroic character Tarantino tries to make him out to be. Carrying a letter allegedly written by Lincoln himself in his pocket, which brings him a smidgen of respect from a man like Ruth, he is an outcast who, despite his prestigious record as both a soldier and bounty hunter, is constantly perceived to be a liar.
Major Warren is the personification of everything that whites fear about black males in that era. He is the deceiving sexual predator, who will stick his “black dingus,” one of the many euphemisms Tarantino uses to describe black genitalia in the film, in white flesh any chance he gets. This is especially punctuated in a gorgeously shot sequence when the shunned bounty hunter recounts a tale, to the gentle theme of “Silent Night” no less, about the time he met General Sanford Smithers’ son. The story ends with Major Warren forcing the general’s son, who initially tried to kill him, to perform fellatio on him in his final moments. Whether the tale is true or not does not matter, its main purpose is to get a rise out of General Smithers and laughter out of the audience. However, I found myself cringing while others were chuckling.
The sequence, much like most of the racial jabs in the film, felt uninspired and ultimately has little to do with the central story at hand. It was as if I was at a party where the host was telling a really interesting story, only to interrupt said story every few minutes to throw in an off-colour joke. Do not even get me started on the caricatures that Bob and Minnie (Dana Gourrier) are reduced to in the film. Yes, I understand that the era that the film takes place in needs to be taken into consideration, but historical accuracy has never been something Tarantino has strived for. Frankly, I would argue that he has tackled these racial themes, including the fear of the “black Johnson,” far better in Django Unchained.
In that film it is genuinely terrifying when Django is almost castrated for simply trying to save the woman he loves from the grips of slavery. There is an actual castration of sorts in The Hateful Eight, but again it is played for laughs. An event that might have been funny without the General Smither’s sequence; however, it comes off as confederate wish fulfillment more than anything else, especially since it is the dimwitted racist Mannix who ultimately holds all the power in the final act of the film.
Now I am by no means saying that The Hateful Eight is a bad film, just a rather a misguided one. Tarantino’s excessive focus on race takes away from some of the truly wonderful moments within the film. The performances by the principle cast are great; Goggins, Leigh and Jackson in particular are pure heaven to watch. Not to mention the fact that the cinematography in the film is simply outstanding. I still drool thinking about the image of the wooden snow covered Jesus statute that opens the film and numerous other sensational shots. The film practically demands repeat viewing for the visuals alone. However, I could not help but feel that it was one of Tarantino’s weaker efforts from a story perspective; even the dialogue did not carry the same zest as his previous films.
For a man who brought Jules Winnfield, Jackie Brown, and Django to the big screen, The Hateful Eight felt like step backwards for Tarantino. Instead of getting lost in the mystery surrounding Daisy’s possible hanging, I found myself consciously aware of my race. Who knows, maybe this film just caught me on the wrong day, or with the wrong audience, but I found the constant reliance on racial conflict unsettling and unnecessary.