Instructor: Jason Silverstein, jsilverstein [at] mail (dot) harvard (dot) edu
Meeting Time: January 14 - January 25, Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, 10am - 12pm
Location: The Locke Room in the Barker Center
Description: Tarantino's films have been called the cinema of cool. They are highly stylized, aggressive, violent, and darkly comic. They are also racial, and, if you ask some people, racist. But what is the difference between racist writing and writing racism? We will watch excerpts from each of his films and discuss.
Readings: There is no required reading. Everything below is supplemental. But it will give you a sense of what we will discuss. And some of it happens to be really great.
January 14: The N-Word and Tarantino
January 14: The N-Word and Tarantino (and Dave Chappelle and Louis CK and Chris Rock)
When can, or when should, a white author use the n-word? In Jackie Brown, it is used 32 times – mostly by Samuel L. Jackson but twice by Pam Grier. Spike Lee famously ripped into Tarantino, afterJackie Brown’s release. Hell, he's been ripping into him about it ever since. After all, it is also heavily used in True Romance, Reservoir Dogs, and Pulp Fiction. But does context matter? What if the word is given to lowlife thieves (as in Reservoir Dogs) or black actors (as in Jackie Brown) or people whose lives are immersed in black culture (as in Pulp Fiction) or 1858 Mississippi (as in Django Unchained)?
- Chappelle's Show, "Frontline: Clayton Bigsby" (Blind Black Klansman)
- Chappelle's Show, "The Niggar Family"
- Chris Rock, from Bring the Pain (1996)
- Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, and Michael Eric Dyson - On the N Word
- Countee Cullen, "Incident"
- Harvard Educational Review book review of Randall Kennedy, "Nigger" (New York: Pantheon, 2002)
- Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Interviews Quentin Tarantino, "On the N-Word" (The Root, December 2012)
- Louis CK, Offended by the N Word
- Pulp Fiction The Bonnie Situation.pdf
- The Office, Michael Scott's Chris Rock Routine
- Touré, Can Whites Say the N-Word? (Time, October 12, 2011)
- Variety, Dec 16, 1997: "Lee has choice words for Tarantino"
January 16: Are You a Professional?
January 16: Are You a Professional?
“Are you a professional?” Mr. Pink, the consummate amateur, asks repeatedly in Reservoir Dogs. And when he does, he’s almost always trying to set himself, and his fellow diamond thieves, apart from a racist image of black criminals. Even when we have Marcellus Wallace, Pulp Fiction’s powerful black mob boss, he’s ultimately shown suffering a brutal rape by a perverted cop. On the other hand, we have Jackie Brown (who outmaneuvers a gun runner and the ATF to pull off a heist) and Django (whose story can be read as the hero's journey). How does racism work for these characters - does it uplift their pathetic little lives, or allow them to scheme on racist fools? What about when one character - Django - must adopt racist behavior as part of his professional bounty hunter character? And is there a difference between depicting, let's say, racism avenged (Django and Jackie Brown) and racism that goes unchallenged (Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction)?
January 18: Interracial Friendships
January 18: Interracial Friendships: Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and Django Unchained
If racial epithets are a hallmark of Tarantino’s work, so too are interracial friendships and interracial love: Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield (Pulp Fiction), Mia and Marcellus Wallace (Pulp Fiction), Max Cherry and Jackie Brown (Jackie Brown), and Django and Schultz (Django Unchained). How does race – and power – work in these relationships – between two hitmen, a mob boss and his wife, a bailbondsman and a woman in deep with all the wrong people, and a freed slave and a bounty hunter?
January 21: With Great Vengeance and Furious Anger
January 21: With Great Vengeance and Furious Anger: Revenge Fantasies of the Holocaust and Slavery
Tarantino’s signature story engine is the revenge plot – and his revenge plots often have a racial dimension: there’s Shoshanna who avenges her family’s murder by the Nazi SS (Inglourious Basterds), O-Ren Ishii who avenges her father and mother’s murder by gangsters (Kill Bill: Volume 1), and Django who avenges and rescues his wife from slaveholders (Django Unchained). Tarantino says revenge fantasy violence is a cathartic violence. To get there, he needs to take liberties with history. Do these liberties betray history, and undermine his project, or does the fiction work if it is honest, and reveals something about ourselves?
- Aisha Harris, Was There Really “Mandingo Fighting,” Like in Django Unchained? (Slate, December 24, 2012)
- Chappelle's Show, "Greatest Misses: The Time Haters"
- Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "How Accurate is Django Unchained?" (The Root, January 14, 2013)
- Jeffrey Goldberg, "Hollywood's Jewish Avenger" (The Atlantic, 2009)
- Jelani Cobb, "Tarantino Unchained" (New Yorker, January 2, 2013)
- Reginald Hudlin Interview: On Django Unchained's Moral Center (The Root, December 23, 2012)
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, "Toward a More Badass History" (The Atlantic, January 9, 2013)
- The Confessions of Nat Turner
- Touré, Tarantino's cinematic catharsis with Django Unchained (MSNBC The Cycle, January 4, 2013)
January 23: The Politics of Racial Storytelling
January 23: The Politics of Racial Storytelling: White People, Black History
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has said about African and African American studies, “it can’t be real as a subject if you have to look like the subject to be an expert in the subject.” But others disagree. Ishmael Reed, for example, doesn’t think Tarantino has the right “to tell the black story.” For some, there is a difference between the creation of fiction and the recreation of nonfiction. For others, any racial purity test for authorship echoes old racist drivel. But this is not only a question of inclusion. Because the question of who gets to tell someone’s story is also about who doesn’t get to tell it.
- "Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness" (PBS)
- Blackface montage from Spike Lee's Bamboozled
- Ishmael Reed, Black Audiences, White Stars and ‘Django Unchained’ (WSJ, December 28, 2012)
- Jamelle Bouie, Quick Thoughts on Django Unchained
- John Stauffer, "Across the Great Divide" (Time, 2005)
- NEH 2002 Jefferson Lecturer Interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
- Oscar-Nominated Producer Reginald Hudlin Talks ‘Django Unchained’
- Paul Mooney on the Movies (from Chappelle's Show)
- Roxane Gay, "Surviving "Django" (BuzzFeed, January 4, 2013)
January 25: Racist Writing/Writing Racism
January 25: Racist Writing/Writing Racism
We’ve talked about race, racism, and Taratino’s films – and explored the difference between racist writing and writing racism. We could look elsewhere: Chinua Achebe’s critique of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a start. Someone who defends Conrad might say, well, he’s writing about colonialism. Those aren’t his views; those are Marlow’s. But the author of Things Fall Apartdisagrees. He thinks the insulation between Conrad and the immorality of his universe is thin. Why? Because Conrad never hints at an alternate, more moral view of the world. How would we go about representing the racism in the world? Or, more simply, as is asked at the end of Burn After Reading: what have we learned here?
Resources on Slavery
- Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer's Project
- Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.
- Free the Slaves: An organization dedicated to ending modern slavery
- UNC North American Slave Narratives
- "North American Slave Narratives" collects books and articles that document the individual and collective story of African Americans struggling for freedom and human rights in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. This collection includes all the existing autobiographical narratives of fugitive and former slaves published as broadsides, pamphlets, or books in English up to 1920. Also included are many of the biographies of fugitive and former slaves and some significant fictionalized slave narratives published in English before 1920.