Course Information

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 RomanceReservoir 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)?

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?

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.

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.