Warning: Spoilers about Quentin Tarantino’s latest film Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood are discussed below
Love him or hate him, Quentin Tarantino always presents us with loads to ponder and dissect in his films. His latest piece, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood certainly continues in that tradition, with heaping helpings of his famous idiosyncrasies at play. However, that discussion has quickly become one laced with bad faith and indignation, leading many to steer clear of the dreaded Discourse. I quite enjoyed Once Upon A Time myself, the “easiest” of his films for me to watch that serves as a free flowing escapade with which to kick back and drink cocktails to as I soak in all the craft on display. I am largely unfamiliar with the timeframe and history of Hollywood that Tarantino so adores, but his heartfelt love letter to cinema was palpable to me all the same. That said, if you have any misgivings at all about his indulgences, behind-the-scenes problematics, or his penchant for controversy, Once Upon A Time will likely leave you cold. I take all of the positives and negatives of Tarantino’s works into account as I watch them. Which is to say, I prefer the experience of simply watching and digesting his films rather than talking about them at length, as I lack the eloquence, academic acumen, and patience, frankly, to discuss them with fellow cinephiles.
So what brings me here to this long-winded exercise in epistemology? The aforementioned discourse surrounding the film has troubled me more than usual. More precisely, the discourse of cinema in general has bothered me for some time, and Once Upon A Time seems to be the flash point that has prompted me to address it. I see valid points of praise and criticism being made, but the abject dismissal of both have wrought an unhealthy atmosphere. And I’ll not beat around the bush; from where I stand, the primarily white male critics scoffing at the concerns presented by women and/or people of color has a stink about it that other journalists and industry professionals have taken great pains to bring to light. As someone who enjoyed the film but recognizes the problems within, I wanted to take this opportunity to truly fight through the torrent of emotions evoked by this particular piece of art, that I might reach a sense of mutual understanding with all involved.
One thing being viciously argued about is gratuitous violence against the members of the Manson family and how it relates to Tarantino’s history of women being abused in his movies. The deranged racism of Charles Manson and the horrifying brutality that the killers inflicted upon Sharon Tate and the other victims of the massacre is a matter of historical record. As such, many argue that the glee of revisionist revenge fantasy is warranted, while others struggle to find deeper meaning to the cinematic savagery beyond cheap exploitative thrills. For my part, I wondered aloud how the film would come off to those not familiar with the history of Charles Manson and his cult, and responses to an informal social media query revealed that quite a few viewers, myself included, had no point of reference.
As someone born in 1983, my frames of reference for psychotic cults and high profile murders were the Branch Davidian compound set ablaze in Waco, TX and the ill-fitting bloody glove presented as evidence in the OJ Simpson trial. Moreover, because my family is from Guyana, the infamous Jonestown Massacre and the specter of Jim Jones looms heavier in my mind. Just the same, the idiomatic expression “don’t drink the Kool-Aid” resonates to my ears louder than the name Manson (who brings to mind the controversial shock-rocker appropriating his iconography, rather than the madman himself). All of this is to say that in the contemptuous back and forth between those who see Tarantino fans as just gore-porn sycophants that won’t admit to their illness, and his defenders who believe any expressions of empathy for the brainwashed members of the Manson family is tantamount to being a Nazi Sympathizer, legitimate concerns and critiques are being lost to the void of anger.
More controversial still is Tarantino’s depiction of the legendary actor and martial arts master Bruce Lee, played with exacting conviction by Mike Moh. Film Journalist Walter Chaw recently published an incredibly personal and deeply moving essay on Once Upon A Time, which was supplemented by a Twitter thread where he extolled the virtue of emphasizing the flawed humanity of Bruce Lee as opposed to his continued glorification and idolization, itself rooted in racial bias. In the ongoing struggle for diversity of cultural context and opinion in film criticism, his analysis is undoubtedly invaluable to our understanding. On the other hand, a recent interview with Shannon Lee, the daughter of Bruce Lee, revealed that she was extremely upset with the depiction of her father, despite the effort to honor him. In what she likened to “mockery”, she expressed dismay that the further context of his unending struggle with institutional racism in Hollywood was not brought to bear in regards to his bravado and temper. Who is right? Who has the “Correct Take”? Is there even such a thing in this situation?
In considering these viewpoints, I fear that they will be used as cudgels against dissenting opinion. We’ve seen this before; the New Yorker essay written by a Japanese woman which provided a positive assessment on Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs was bandied about on social media as a way to discredit the rationality and concerns of Asian-American film critics. The same was true during the Ghost In the Shell western adaptation debacle wherein interviews with Japanese fans, film producers and even the director of the original film all were said to “approve” of Scarlett Johansson’s casting, giving ammunition to fanboys to demand that detractors shut up about the racist aspects of the production. One fascinating thing I’ve noticed in my social media sphere is how other black film critics are also reacting negatively to the depiction of Bruce Lee, which I think speaks to how his legacy developed differently in different parts of American culture. Whereas white viewers might have seen him as an exotic twist on the Ubermench concept, many black viewers saw him as a bridge between two different cultures fighting against the common tyranny of racism. Lee showed this unity on screen casting African Americans such as Jim Kelly and basketball icon Kareem Abdul Jabbar in his films; likewise, the influence of Lee and other Asian martial arts actors was evident in the infusion of Asian martial arts into the black power movement of the 60s and 70s.
These are just two main points of contention with Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. There are multitudes more to be found online and in public discussion. And that contention is important. If this medium is to mean anything at all, we need to fight and wrestle and struggle with what that meaning is. That pushing back against the status quo is important to the progress of art and culture. It’s been said that when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. I imagine that when you’ve been controlling the conversation for so long, other people getting a turn to speak feels like you’re being silenced. We have to recognize that even though you may be tired of The Discourse, there are many other people who have been cast to the sidelines for so long finally getting their voices heard. And in the end, if we can at least recognize the courtesy for all to be allowed to speak their piece, we will truly gain something worthwhile from all the noise.