Blaxploitation and Tarantino: Racism in The Hateful Eight
Major Marquis Warren slowly walks over to General Smithers sitting in his chair quietly, holding a bowl of stew for each of them. He sets down the bowl in front of the general and immediately hears Mannix angrily ordering him to “leave that old man alone.” Warren quickly retorts that he shared a battlefield with Smithers and has gained the right to sit and eat with him. After Warren quiets Mannix, he calmly looks over to Smithers and requests, “May I join you?”
“Yes you may.”
In this moment, the tension is already quite high from the past few scenes. The racism Smithers shows towards Warren has only been met with fierce adversity, and it is clear that Warren holds great contempt for the aged Confederate general. For some reason, however, he seems to be making a sort of amicable gesture towards Smithers. It seems that the presence of dinner has caused him to disregard his hatred for a season and just sit with the general to have a normal interaction.
This is perplexing. Why do Smithers’ apprehensions towards Warren seem to evaporate for a moment? The previous hostility the two men showed each other subsides at the beginning of this scene largely because of the general peace and tranquility dinner time holds in the story. It is quiet. The arguments are present but shortened by a large margin. Above all, it seems the two men reach a small middle ground of mutual respect when Warren acknowledges the fact that they shared a battlefield. The respect of war between the two men is admirable, but are Warren’s intentions for this conversation pure?
It is important to note that Warren still holds animosity towards Smithers because of the black Union troops he murdered during the Battle of Baton Rouge. They reference this decision Smithers made during that battle in a previous scene, and Warren clearly struggles to keep a peaceful composure. This reference is closely related to another historical event in the Civil War known as the Fort Pillow Massacre. Over three hundred black Union soldiers were killed in this event, even though they should have been taken in as prisoners of war. The brutality of these events infuriates Warren and produces a much more aggressively negative view towards Smithers.
The General and Major of two recently opposed militaries sit and eat. Tarantino uses the piano playing from Bob in the background to give the scene a sense of suspicious peace. He slowly plinks out the notes of “Silent Night”, which is used to make the mood eerily calm and pleasant. Warren converses with Smithers casually at first but rather quickly transitions into a claim that he knew the general’s son and was there the day he died — a claim that sparks a distinct curiosity from Smithers.
The feel of the scene takes a turn as Smithers begins to get more vulnerable and broken down. At first, Smithers and Mannix both aggressively accuse Warren of lying about knowing his boy, but the struggle within Smithers becomes more and more evident as the story progresses. Warren begins to nonchalantly develop his story of how he claims to have known Smithers’ son and how he is the one who killed him. Warren describes how he caught the general’s son trying to hunt him down and kill him, which obviously motivated Warren to disarm and kill the son. Warren doesn’t just skim through the story and explain what happened briefly; that would make it too easy for Smithers to practice self control. He progresses his story using painfully specific detail. He tells Smithers how he made his son strip completely and walk through the snow for two hours until he collapsed from the cold. He describes how he brought the general’s son to the breaking point of desperation and then made him give Warren oral sex in the freezing cold.
Smithers sits and listens to the recounting of these events in utter horror. He grows with a contempt for Warren that is more powerful than he could ever control. This contempt — this fear, to be more accurate — is the key component of this scene.
Tarantino is using a specific concept in this altercation known as Blaxploitation. Blaxploitation, a sub-genre of the exploitation genre of film, developed in the US in the 1970s in order to exemplify the black culture and its interaction with white people. Its main function in a story set during the nineteenth century is to show how black people were gaining power and even sometimes retaliating against the white people who oppressed them. This specific scene from The Hateful Eight was formed in order to illustrate the epitome of a white person’s fears at the time — the possibility of a black person exercising dominance over them.
The fear in Smithers’ eyes is remarkable. At this point in the story, it is becoming more clear that Smithers is losing control and will eventually attack Warren. He sits through this excruciating story and continues to build up anger and hate for Warren. The scene is specifically targeting the aspect of blaxploitation that relates to the fear of black sexuality. Smithers is quite apparently horrified that a black man would ever sexually violate his own son so viciously. In reality, this story Warren tells is just a ploy to gain justification to kill Smithers, but Warren is asserting himself as an aggressive and dominant character which directly plays into this theme of blaxploitation. Tarantino is exhibiting the switched roles between the two characters, giving Warren far more strength and confidence than the general who fought against him and brutally oppressed his race. This switching of roles is quite indicative of the overall message that the Blaxploitation genre projects.
Marquis Warren’s role in The Hateful Eight exemplifies the concept of blaxploitation precisely. It gives him the platform to enact his wildest dreams of revenge and dominance on behalf of the black soldiers that were killed by Smithers. Throughout the movie, Warren is developed as one of the most dominant characters in the story, which is out of the ordinary in this time period. Reconstruction Era America was a time when racism was certainly being combatted heavily, but in actuality, there was still a great deal of hatred and discrimination that largely played into any relationship a white man had with a black man. This hatred has been proven in history to be quite detrimental, as it has also essentially given rise to movements such as the Ku Klux Klan. Bitterness that lingers in a person’s life often results in even more alarming actions and decisions, and that is made clear with the development of the KKK because of this racism. On top of that, the fact that these two men shared a battlefield against each other develops some underlying bitterness between them.
When considering all this, it is rather predictable that Warren’s story would have such an alarmingly strong effect on the general. Through the fear he cultivates from Smithers, Warren takes a position of dominance in the scene and uses his control to fulfill his motive of ending the general’s life. However, these qualities of blaxploitation have historically had quite intriguing effects on our country.
From 1966 to 1982, there was an organization known as the Black Panther Party, or BPP. This group essentially existed to promote the rights and protection of black people in the US but had a bold outlook on the potential ways to do so. The BPP took steps to arm citizens in defense of police brutality and also promoted black nationalism on a large scale. This party’s views were strongly influenced by Malcolm X, especially in the ways they both sought to use force as a problem-solving method rather than peace.
With these views in mind, it would seem relatively natural that the Black Panthers would support the Blaxploitation genre, given that both entities advocate for black people to have power and control which often entailed authority over white people; however, it seems that the Black Panthers developed a stance against the Blaxploitation movement on a basis that just so happens to exemplify a theme of Blaxploitation itself. In a 1972 interview with a man named Bobby Seale from the BPP regarding Blaxploitation, he indicated that the whole party was protesting the genre. The man’s basis was essentially that white people were getting the money from the movie (the movie they were currently protesting had many white producers) and were exploiting the black community for their own personal gain.
This presented a thought: the Blaxploitation movement was promoting black power and dominance but seemed to be doing so in a way that did not actually develop any such things in the real world. This reality shows the fact that while it did have a powerful effect, Blaxploitation was initially flawed in its conception because it was not authentically carrying out the messages it projected as a genre. The Black Panthers addressed this early on and thankfully seemed to get more of what they wanted out of the movement later on in history, as black people began to dominate the Blaxploitation genre in all aspects of production.
Although the BPP seemed to have some qualms about Blaxploitation films, most of the productions did elicit an overall promotion of black dominance that was developed and exemplified effectively on multiple levels. Tarantino uses Marquis Warren to display Blaxploitation themes throughout The Hateful Eight, which gives the film a depth that increases its cinematic quality overall. The story is simply far more interesting when analyzed through the lens of Blaxploitation, and Tarantino uses the genre set in a Reconstruction Era cabin to highlight his themes of racism and its effects on our nation throughout history. Even in this day and age, there is still full validation for exposing these effects in order to encourage the nation to understand these issues more and take action where needed.
Smithers’ rage permeates the room as he absorbs the gruesome account of his son’s murder. As the anger inside him becomes too much for him to harbor without taking action, the general makes a quick grab for the gun in order to shoot Warren. The weapon isn’t in his hands for more than two or three seconds before Warren takes his gun out and shoots Smithers in the chest.
Warren sits down calmly, having achieved his goal and asserted his dominance over Smithers once and for all. With that final moment of tranquil suspense, Tarantino completes his message.
“The Panthers Protested Blaxploitation?” The Museum Of UnCut Funk. N.p., 20 Dec. 2012. Web. 23 Feb. 2016.
“Panthers Lead Protest of Blaxploitation Films.” San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive. N.p., 27 Sept. 1972. Web. 23 Feb. 2016.
History.com Staff. “Fort Pillow Massacre.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 01 Jan. 2009. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.