As usual, life continues to present many opportunities to talk social justice. While my work world is opening more avenues for continuing the work of social justice, the news presents plenty of chances to embark on a social justice-themed dialogue. I shall take a little journey here…
Enter good ol’ Quentin Tarantino. Full disclosure – I don’t know him personally and I’m not inclined to buy into media representations of any public figure’s personality. The press likes Tarantino because Tarantino makes headlines. He also makes a huge pile of money doing what he does. Not bad for an indie guy. While I know there are die-hard fans as well as die-hard critics, I don’t have any particular allegiances to him or his work. He’s made some things I really like (e.g. Reservoir Dogs, which I still think is the best thing he’s ever done for many reasons) and some things I couldn’t take (e.g. Django Unchained, except for the pre-lynching scene which was brilliant). I do suspect he’s pulled a publicity stunt from time to time. I also think he needs to come up with a better response about the whole violence-in-movies thing. And chances are he’s been highly misquoted on a fairly regular basis.
Even though I don’t really know him, I do know he’s a highly influential white male who commands the attention of many, many people in the USA. People give him money – producers, investors, and the general public. If someone in the USA doesn’t know his name, likely they’ve been buried in a concrete bunker for the last 20 years. Status? Powerful? Representative of the ideals of dominant society (i.e., the “American Dream”)? Unquestionably. Which is why this latest mess he’s caught up in is so important to look at as an expression of what happens in the USA when someone tries to confront this thing called Oppression.
So here’s the synopsis: Tarantino goes to rally about police brutality, makes comments about calling “murderers murderers” and now has at least 4 different police unions rallying to boycott his upcoming Hateful Eight as well as any other productions he makes in the future. Weinstein Co. originally called for QT to apologize for fear the film will lose money at the box office. Several news outlets have condemned his actions and the headlines are all about whether or not this spells “doom” for his latest film and career. Let’s add to this a plethora of comments on twitter and other websites calling him, “irresponsible,” “anti-police,” and especially the “we will come after you and scare you into silence” threats.
What’s really happening here? We could get into the semantics, where he’s accused of saying “all” cops are murderers, even though that isn’t actually what he said. We could get into whether or not he’s displaying some double standard as his films feature almost cartoonish violence yet he’s condemning police action. We could get into how some think a Hollywood director should stick to his day job and not have an opinion. We could get into the debate about whether or not he’s a jerk or an opportunist.
We could do all that, but we won’t. Because all of that is yet again an attempt to point the finger back at the individual, to put all the blame on the person who is trying to do one very clear thing: voice an injustice. Let’s look at the purpose of the #RiseUpOctober rally in the first place: like many other similar movements, it’s about bringing attention to the corruption and abuse of power displayed by mechanisms of authority in this country, namely the police. It does draw attention to specific officers who committed crimes (yes let’s remember these are crimes) by raping, beating, bullying, or (gasp) murdering those they were supposed to be protecting. It has also exposed serious, deliberate systemic measures employed by high-ranking officials in police organizations to exploit various communities they serve, which also just happen to be communities composed of largely Black and Latino populations. Essentially these rallies are efforts from various movements to change the system of power that has allowed such abuses to be built, implemented, and supported. (And if you happen to think none of these abuses have ever occurred, pull your head out of the deep, dark, wet pit of sand you’ve smothered yourself with and take a look around. Even members of the police are able to identify that such atrocities have occurred.) Un-“American” you say? Sorry, but protests of such nature are about as “American” as you can get. It is one of the ways a system of democracy offers its people (the governed) an ability to affect change on a power structure (the governing) that grows too strong (e.g. fascism).
Enter The Tarantino, a powerful white man who speaks out against a corrupt system. Now interestingly, when a person of color does this, we are also told to basically shut up and stop complaining. We are also told idiotic things like, “well if you’d just go along with what the police tell you, you wouldn’t be in such a mess.” The end result is to support the status quo and tell the person of color that they made the mistake in the first place. It’s a great use of modern power to render the mechanisms upholding power invisible while pushing the subjects of such power into center focus. It makes us responsible for our own hardships as well as keeping each other in line. As long as the person crying out is turned into the problem, society never has to examine itself. It is, to make the analogy, very much like what happens when adults abuse children; once the child tries to say “stop it,” the reply is, “shut up or I’ll give you something to really cry about.” Such a system also tries to convince the child that the abuse is therefore 1) the child’s fault and 2) something only the child can do anything about. Notice who no longer gets paid attention to: the adult who did the abuse in the first place.
What’s so interesting (for lack of a better word) in this Tarantino situation is that now we get to see what dominant society does to members of dominant society when they try to point out systemic injustices. To translate: “You must apologize” is really like saying, “how dare you point out that we’ve done something racist. Shame on you for making us feel embarrassed.” But steps are taken beyond that: pull support for his film, boycott the movie, threaten to “keep him in line”, and so on. It is a strong reaction that also communicates that stepping out of line will bring harsh consequences and we will take away all that privilege that you seem to have forgotten we gave you in the first place. Notice the message that gets supported if we stay in line – the current system is blameless, which includes making it okay to perpetuate things like racism, sexism, classism, and so on. I mean really, Police, is this really what you want to stand for? Are you meaning to say, “Yes, I want to be a racist cop?” It’s like watching a toddler in a corner throwing legos at babies while yelling things like, “but I want to kick the dog!”
I suspect the real reason though dominant society may fear a Tarantino-like figure making such a statement is exactly because the message is coming from not just a white male, but again a highly influential white male. Many people will pay attention to what someone like him says, which is an expression of the kind of power that comes with possessing multiple aspects of privilege. Someone who may not have paid attention to accusations of police brutality might now take a second look. And that means those who stand to lose something if the current system is challenged might actually lose something. It also communicates the idea that someone who does have greater access as a result of this privilege should act, should employ the power that comes with it towards making social change. Because the reality is that someone with a Tarantino kind of power could actually get something done, even in spite of the backlash. Those who already hate him will keep hating him, those who already love him will keep loving him – but it’s those in the middle, the undecided, who might get swayed, and that’s what we mean by power: the ability to influence. Power also means being able to exercise the choice to participate and to have your voice heard, things that get stolen as one loses access to privilege (oh yeah, that’s another way to define, “Oppression.”).
Do I think he should apologize? Normally I am all for reconciliation. This time though, I don’t think so. I am actually very happy to watch someone of his status take on this fight. Because in the end he will survive and we know it, whereas many others who fight, particularly people of color, don’t. So rock on, Tarantino. Make your actions match the caliber of your movies. Whether or not someone goes to see The Hateful Eight is immaterial. But if someone decides to get up and learn something, maybe even take action about the social inequality in this country as a result of what you’ve done – well that would be Oscar-worthy indeed.