When Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film begins with a brown wood-sculpted Jesus on a black crucifix, mounted against white snow-clad mountains, we know that the stagecoach trying to get a blizzard off its ass would set the stage for a story about persecution.
The writer-director wastes no time when the white bounty hunter John Ruth, the Hangman (Kurt Russell) who has hired the stagecoach, points a gun and says “Hold it, black fella” when Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson) a black traveller approaches to ask for a ride to Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they are headed.
The Hangman has a prisoner, Daisy Domergue, who greets the Major with “Howdy, Nigger.” When John Ruth tells her that “darkies don’t like being called niggers… they find it offensive” she says: “I’ve been called worse.”
And right from Scene 1, the politics and the race/gender equations in Tarantino’s cold West Wyoming are clearly defined. A white bounty hunter might even team up with a black one and consider him an equal but the woman is the punching bag.
There’s a reason film criticism needs to be and is taught around all film and journalism schools around the world. Because depiction is not always endorsement and spotting the difference between a character’s beliefs (and this includes misogyny) and the storyteller’s requires some understanding of cinema, politics and closer attention to how the arguments play out, especially in a film that’s designed to be a political commentary on persecution. And discrimination that prevails in America.
The Hateful Eight is a 12 Angry Men-esque narrative that slowly tries to persuade us away from our most hateful judgments. Let’s take a closer look at the Eight and understand their character graphs, just so that we can grasp the politics of the much-hated auteur’s heavily misunderstood complex masterpiece.
Major Marquis Warren: A black trigger-happy bounty hunter who once fought against the confederate army in the Civil War as a part of the Union, is now an outlaw trying to fit in. The character (Tarantino named after Hollywood screenwriter and director known for his Westerns) carries with him the Lincoln Letter now part of legend. Of course, it’s mythical. He wrote it and is protective of the lie he has created. To him, it’s real. He is willing to punch Daisy when she spits on it but later admits it’s not real when he gets called out and explains he made it up because it got him on the stagecoach. He’s willing to trust the most racist of the bunch, the Lost Cause Southerner Chris Mannix, former when it comes to a life and death situation. And by deed and action makes the white supremacist buy his Lincoln letter.
John Ruth, The Hangman: A white misogynistic yet patriotic law abiding bounty hunter who believes in bringing prisoners to justice and lets in a black traveller only because he respects the reputation of the man having heard stories of Marquis being pen-pals with Abraham Lincoln himself. He feels hurt when he finds out that the Lincoln letter he admired was not real. He loses to Daisy. She is the reason he dies.
Daisy Domergue: The strongest and deadliest of the eight if you consider it took all the other men to come together to bring her down. She might get beaten black and blue by both the above men but she’s the one smiling through it all because she’s got a secret. She’s unbreakable even with her hands cuffed almost throughout the film. She is the reason they all die. It’s brilliant subversion. To put a character in chains and make her the supervillain in a universe full of villains. The only thing she dies for is justice. By hanging, as John Ruth would have liked her to.
Chris Mannix: Was on the other side of the law fighting for a rebel renegade as a part of the Southerner’s Lost Cause. His father headed a outlaw gang called the Mannix’s Marauders but now he’s supposed to be the new Sheriff of Red Rock, where they are all headed. Is he lying? Lying or not, he wears his ideology of white supremacy (“When niggers are scared, that’s when white folks feel safe”) as his badge of honour refusing to believe in the Lincoln Letter only to slowly realise that the only one who cares for justice he’s supposed to deliver as the new Sheriff in town now is the black man. Like the Lincoln Letter, it does not matter if he’s the new Sheriff or not, what matters is that he decides to embrace justice and kill Daisy by hanging when it’s just easier to shoot her to death and thereby, also embraces the new world order – or what Lincoln would have liked. He’s the antagonist our anti-hero Marquis has won over by end of the film.
Senor Bob: A Mexican pretending to be the caretaker of Minnie’s Haberdashery but hardly convincing. He turns out to be part of the Domergue gang but within the gang, he’s relegated to subservient duties of attending to horses in the stable and making stew. His character exists just to remind us of the outcasts and how they were treated on an every day basis. Minnie was a black woman facing discrimination herself and yet she despised Mexicans.
Oswaldo Mobray: Whose first lines describe the world as a “White Hell” for a black man (Incidentally, the final chapter is called Black Man, White Hell) and that’s our first clue that this was going to be judgment day. Minnie’s Haberdashery could well be a purgatory where the sinners have to pay for their sins and redeem themselves. Oswaldo claims to be the hangman of Red Rock. Again, we don’t know if he’s lying at first but he sure defines justice in a civilized society as opposed to frontier justice. “The real difference is the hangman… It’s my job… The man who pulls the lever that breaks your neck will be a dispassionate man… that dispassion is the essence of justice. For justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of being not being justice.” And this could well be Tarantino’s definition of delivering dispassionate justice to Daisy.
Joe Gage: “Looks can be deceiving,” as Gage warns John Ruth about all the characters in the film and we realise that it’s true. Everyone is pretending to play a role. Michael Madsen has the least to do in the film and most of his action is offscreen – like poisoning the coffee. He wants to go home to see his mother for Christmas. And as Senor Bob is playing Silent Night, Joe Gage is poisoning the coffee… in case you thought the Jesus Christ on the crucifix was just some cool image to begin the movie with. This is also probably the weakest character of the bunch because it’s almost an extended cameo.
General Sandy Smithers: Fought the Civil war for the Confederate army opposite Northerners, in the same battle as Major Marquis Warren. And the two have unfinished business… which Warren settles after telling the General how he killed his son with a graphic story that forces the General to point a gun at him. Thus giving him the licence to kill. As if dealing with gender, race, politics, religion and identity wasn’t enough, with Sandy Smithers throws age into the equation to represent old-school white pride and breaks it down with a story about a white man made to suck a black cock. And just like that, Tarantino throws in sexuality into the mix of issues America is facing.
These eight villains will be judged in White Hell that used to be good old Minnie’s Haberdashery – a world in the middle of Wyoming where Americans hung out together and kept Mexicans away. The eight villains get what they deserve. Marquis who forced a white man to suck his cock, gets his dick shot. Daisy gets death by hanging. John Ruth the misogynist gets death and his hand yanked off his corpse. Chris Mannix embraces the Lincoln Letter or the hope it represents and the four passengers die brutal deaths for the cold-blooded massacre they staged at Minnie’s Haberdashery earlier that day.
The film ends with a reading of the contents of the mythical Lincoln Letter. And endings are always the key to read the politics of the film. My critic friend Raja Sen who read the early draft of the script says that the Lincoln Letter was real in the first draft of the script. But here, it had changed. When we first see it, we see it with the glow we saw around the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. It’s seems magical and surreal because it is. That letter is hope.
Tarantino had revised the draft to make it fictional to make it all the more poignant especially after the controversial killing of Michael Brown. Tarantino was among the most vociferous of protestors to call out institutional racism in the police force. And suddenly, the brown Jesus at the beginning of the film could be Michael Brown. Hence, we can assume that Mannix is indeed the new Sheriff.
And what’s most important is that Mannix bleeding to death wants to read the letter he knows is not real.
Here are the contents of the letter:
I hope this letter finds you in good health and stead. I’m doin’ fine. Although I wish there were more hours in the day. There’s just so much to do. Times are changin’ slowly but surely. And it’s men like you that will make a difference. Your military success is a credit not only to you but your race as well. I’m very proud every time I hear news of you. We still have a long way to go. But hand in hand, I know we’ll get there. I just want to let you know you are in my thoughts. Hopefully, our paths will cross in the future. Until then, I remain your friend. Ole Mary Todd is callin’. So I guess it must be time for bed.
Mannix likes the ‘Ole Mary Todd’ touch. The most racist of the younger bunch of the eight has been “disarmed”. The scripted Lincoln Letter has spoken to him. It has served its purpose.
As the credits roll to “There won’t be many coming home,” we realise that Hateful Eight is Hollywood’s own cowboy Quentin Tarantino’s scripted Lincoln Letter to white supremacists.
It’s also significant that he has crafted his Lincoln Letter not with classy elitist arthouse idioms but has embraced his love for the widely looked-down upon forms of art – the grindhouse pulp-fiction narrative – that acquired high art status only after he put his stamp all over it.
The big difference between how Robert Rodriguez treated his Grindhouse film Planet Terror and how Quentin Tarantino treated his Death Proof was that while Rodriguez simply recreated the exploitative genre of B-movies, Tarantino embraced it with his sensibility and treated the B-movie a touch of class. He was bringing the untouchables into the mainstream. The perverse, the exploitative, the gory, the violent, the foul-mouthed were given the legitimacy of a celebrated filmmaker’s signature.
If his earlier films tried to borrow from all his influences, The Hateful Eight borrows from his own. He recycles more than one moment here but that will make for an entirely different essay. While most filmmakers choose a white canvas to define black, Tarantino here has chosen a black canvas of all things dark to define white. I’m not talking race here but Tarantino’s spin on noir and contribution in defining neo-noir.
The point I want to leave this piece is simple.
If The Hateful Eight brings out your contempt for gore, tone, violence or language, maybe you are guilty of every thing you accuse the racist, the sexist and the fundamentalists of: Discrimination. Also, persecution.
You don’t become intellectually superior than another class of people just because of what you like to watch. Simply put, if you are an art-Nazi, The Hateful Eight is Quentin Tarantino making you suck his pecker for close to three hours.
“Starting to see pictures, aint ya?”
(This post will be updated after a couple of more viewings in the future given that there’s so much in this film waiting to be discovered. If you liked this piece, you might also like my dissection of Inglourious Basterds)