Screenwriter/director Quentin Tarantino has during the past 25 years provided to moviegoers a number of films that at best elicit responses of shock and surprise, and at worst hearken to the base racial characterizations seen prominently in the “Blaxploitation” genre of the early 1970s. Adilifu Nama’s new book, “Race on the Q.T.” (2015 The University of Texas Press, $22.95), provides a thorough albeit academic review of the prominent filmmaker’s most popular films ranging from “Reservoir Dogs” to “Django Unchained.”
Nama, a professor of African American Studies at Loyola Marymount University, provides an introspective look at the filmmaker who has been labeled by some theatrical critics as brilliant, and by others as brash and exploitive in presenting on the big screen the American racial dynamics that still tend to interfere and sometimes quell respectful discussions of racial politics. Because of its research approach and lack of literary accessibility to the ordinary reader, Nama’s book is better suited in a classroom setting rather than as a vehicle of easy reading. It’s a short book—only 134 pages including the introduction—but quite dense and burdensome for light reading. It is clearly a text book destined for inclusion on the reading list for one of Nama’s courses. “Race on the Q.T.” involves a controversial subject and will challenge the reader. It may be advisable to have a dictionary on hand, but fans of Quentin Tarantino will devour the book.
Tarantino’s films are explained as being etched generally within the Blaxploitation period when Hollywood wanted to present a more gritty, self-evident portrayal of African Americans particularly those residing in the inner city. “Race on the Q.T.” (on the “quiet”) demonstrates Tarantino’s filmmatic racial representation—and most specifically Black racial expressivity, style and character types—while maintaining the director’s honest and critically acclaimed engagement of Black culture. Nama explains with intricate detail how Tarantino sometimes reverts to “turnaround-is-fair-play” in his development of Black characters as they encounter racial tropes and various stereotypes that are so often part of Hollywood’s portrayal of the urban Black man or woman. This could be an aspect of the director’s “racial mechanics” in developing a storyline as it relates to racial interplay.
For instance, in his obligatory war film, “Inglorious Bastards,” there is a reference to King Kong that is similar to the frequent “hidden meanings” Tarantino sometimes uses to reveal any racist ideology associated with the United States. Nama explains this as a method for the filmmaker to reveal a “racial analogy” (in reference to the character “Marcel”) as a simple example of Nazi vs. American racial tolerance. Nama uses academic prose to determine that Tarantino’s reference to King Kong is a suggestion of the pathology of German Nazism being the ideological cousin of American racism.
And so goes most of the book. It is difficult but rewarding reading, particularly for film school students or those wishing to learn more about how White directors view the African American narrative.
Tarantino has excelled in presenting “Black agency” against Whites; his Black male characters often occupy a position of power and exhibit ownership of their specific lot in society. The character “Django,” for instance, draws his racial swagger from the Blaxploitation films. Django’s “Little Lord Fountleroy” valet costume eschews the image of the “broken and obedient” slave who only masquerades as subservient until it is time to “strike back” at the entrenched powers.
Nama explains Tarantino’s films as “existing within the mounting anxiety” around Black masculinity, interracial sexuality and racialized American violence. The author reveals that Tarantino has discovered and excells in exploiting the viewer’s strident reaction and anxieties stirred by his frequent use of “nier” and the F-word and graphic violence which was part-and-parcel of the Blaxploitation films. But it’s not just the African American urban experience; “Kill Bill: Vols. 1 and 2” are intricately associated with the popular martial arts films of the Blackploitation period. These movies were very popular among Black teens then and featured famous “karate heroes” such as Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris and Jim Kelly that tended to glorify the violence, blood, machismo and sexual bravado so well associated with the African American urban experience.
The author goes to great length to explain Tarantino’s films as standing in contrast to the “sanitizing” by Hollywood of power, race and sexuality. In “Pulp Fiction,” a Black man is raped by a White man—thereby evoking racial history similar to the common castration of a Black lynch victim by a band of masked, unknown White sadists. Tarantino’s films are racially insurgent. He gives homage to the Blaxploitation films via extreme violence, sexual objectification and racist dialogue. The director also pays significant tribute to the Blaxploitation sex symbol (i.e. Pam Grier as “Jackie Brown”) and provides a touch of the past to a modern generation of film fans.
In some ways, Tarantino’s films, according to Nama, face the same social scrutiny as did Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” which since its publication 130 years ago has been taken to task as a vulgar, stereotypical portrayal of African Americans. Nama suggests that those who criticize Tarantino’s work may forget that he is only a filmmaker and not a race philosopher.