Thursday, January 3, 2013

Tarantino Unchained

 By Jelani Cobb from The New Yorker
In early 2010, not long after the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Second World War revenge epic, “Inglourious Basterds,” I began teaching a course on American history at Moscow State University. When a Russian friend asked me what I thought of the film I told him I loved the way the director created an alternate history in order to make a larger point about the universal nature of heroism. My friend and, as I later learned, lots of other Russians took issue with the film for precisely that reason. “Is this,” he asked, “how Americans really perceive World War II?” In Russia, where the annual May 9th celebrations of the German surrender dwarf those of the Fourth of July in this country, the sacrifices that were crucial to defeating Hitler are a point of huge national pride. The history department at the university features a marble monument to hundreds of university students who died defending the country. Because many Russians feel that the world—and particularly the United States—has never properly recognized the scale of their losses, they tend to see “Inglourious Basterds” not as a revenge fantasy but as an attempt to further whitewash their role in Hitler’s demise. The alternate history in “Inglourious Basterds” failed there because the actual history had yet to be reconciled. The movie’s lines between fantasy and the actual myopic perspectives on history were so hazy that the audience wasn’t asked to suspend disbelief, they were asked to suspend conscience. With “Django Unchained,” Tarantino’s tale of vengeful ex-slave, what happened in Russia is happening here.
The theme of revenge permeates Tarantino’s work. If the violence in his films seems gratuitous, it’s also deployed as a kind of spiritual redemption. And if this dynamic is applicable anywhere in American history, it’s on a slave plantation. Frederick Douglass, in his slave narrative, traced his freedom not to the moment when he escaped to the north but the moment in which he first struck an overseer who attempted to whip him. Quentin Tarantino is the only filmmaker who could pack theatres with multiracial audiences eager to see a black hero murder a dizzying array of white slaveholders and overseers. (And, in all fairness, it’s not likely that a black director would’ve gotten a budget to even attempt such a thing.)

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