Aiming to confront “the racial frankness in [Quentin] Tarantino’s films and not the man himself,” Adilifu Nama’s new book offers close readings of the writer-director’s eight feature films (and additionally, True Romance) in order to unveil the complexities of racial interest and formation as they occur within the Tarantino oeuvre. Nama takes this charge as a corrective to critics like Armond White who view Tarantino’s films as “pop sleaze without the politics,” or Stanley Crouch, who’s compared Tarantino’s interest in race with novelist Ralph Ellison’s. Nama falls somewhere in the middle, wishing to lift the “hackneyed claims that Tarantino is a racist,” while stopping well short of hagiography, stating “at most [Tarantino’s films] serve as catalysts for discussions around black racial formation across the public sphere.” The latter assertion is well taken, since the totality of Race on the QT provides ample, perceptive examinations, but almost exclusively along narrative and character lines, with little attention paid to form or aesthetics, rendering several of these readings useful, but only up to a point.
Nama’s best insights come in the book’s first chapter with analyses of Reservoir Dogs and True Romance, where clever approaches to dialogue and each film’s implicit critiques will make even the most ardent viewer want to revisit them. Nama is particularly on point with Reservoir Dogs, which he deems “a visual analogue of the type of hypermasculinity and extravagant violence rapped about on top of 1970s funk samples.” That is, Nama meticulously mines each of the film’s white characters’ racist views on blackness (of which there are plenty) and positions them in relation to Holdaway (Randy Brooks), the film’s sole black character, since he’s “a formidable tactician and the principle architect for bringing down [the] crime organization.” By recasting Reservoir Dogs as a “racial revenge narrative,” Nama acutely displays the film’s ties with Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, films that utilize this kind of narrative far more explicitly. However, Nama’s discussion of these films proves largely unsatisfactory, since here he’s adamant and repetitive in his assertions that Inglourious Basterds is a “science-fiction fantasy” and Django Unchained a “Gothic horror film.” These categorical imperatives detract from Nama’s stated interests in reading for blackness.
On that front, the third chapter’s scrutinizing of Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Kill Bill: Vol. 2, and Death Proof isn’t only underdeveloped, but nearly non-conversant with the proposed themes of the book, since each forgoes an extended meditation on blackness for more general discussions of race and gender, although there are a few worthwhile pages on Vivica A. Fox’s character in Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Too often, Nama gets sidetracked with incomplete discussions of films from other directors, sometimes making dubious, even egregiously glib claims, like that John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China is a “manic misfire…a cartoonish kung fu action flick heavy on special effects and light on character arc.” Likewise, Nama has inexplicable vitriol for Lee Daniels and Spike Lee, the latter of whom Nama believes uses “racial discord as a slick distraction to package and promote films that have weak or underdeveloped plots and inconsistent acting.” When hewing almost exclusively to issues of blackness in Tarantino films, as Nama does in a solid chapter on Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, the book affords boastful insights that require serious consideration.
Yet these passages aren’t the norm, but bright spots in a book that performs deficient historicism through incomplete explanations for epochal transitions and addressing other, major directors in flippant and reductive ways, ironically engaging the same sort of shortsighted critical dismissals that Nama so vehemently takes Tarantino’s critics to task for. Moreover, if what Tarantino naysayers take issue with are his films’ “aesthetic choices,” then Nama does very little throughout to address these matters. Aside from exceedingly sparse references to mise-en-scène, formal consideration is comprehensively absent, with each film analyzed as if Nama were reading its screenplay rather than looking at its frames. Finally, Nama confounds with a coda that calls Tarantino “a tongue-tied court jester” in interviews and denigrates his “ability to act” within his own films, despite opening with the claim that his book would not concern itself with such inquiries.
Adilifu Nama’s Race on the QT: Blackness and the Films of Quentin Tarantino is now available from the University of Texas Press; to purchase it, click here.