The director's 1997 film Jackie Brown offered a thoughtful critique of blaxploitation-style manhood. Too bad his latest movie, Django Unchained, looks much less promising.
Django Unchained hasn't been released yet, but early reviews and publicity make it fairly clear that Tarantino is working off of, and partially celebrating, '70s blaxploitation films like Super Fly and Mandingo. These movies treated a black audience to visions of black men performing their masculinity through violence, sexual prowess, and often glamorized criminality in a way which Hollywood usually reserved for white protagonists. Blaxploitation was and has been controversial in among both blacks and whites, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, for one, has expressed reservations about Tarantino's reanimation of the genre, such a narrative has its problems:
I'm not really interested in replaying the problems of blaxploitation.... I worry about rendering enslaved black men as eunuchs restored, and enslaved black women as merely the field upon which that restoration is demonstrated. The fact is that is that very few enslaved black women had the luxury of waiting on freedom via black men. In so many cases, they had to make their own way. That is where I believe the nectar of narrative awaits. That is where I want to go.
As Coates acknowledges, it's hard to know how all of this plays out till the film is released. But it is worth noting that Tarantino actually has a film about the limits of blaxploitation masculinity, and about women making their own way. It's called Jackie Brown, and it was released way back in 1997.
The main antagonist in Jackie Brown is Ordell Robbie (Samuel Jackson), a thug and gun runner. When we first encounter Ordell, he's watching a video called "Chicks Who Love Guns," a kind of infomercial in which hot women in bikinis fire and laud the virtues of different weapons. That's a good summation of Ordell's interests—women, guns, and money. Not coincidentally, it's also a good summary of blaxploitation (and not just blaxploitation) markers of maleness. As Jackie Brown unfolds, in fact, it becomes clear that Ordell sees himself in no small part as a blaxploitation protagonist , whose hyperbolic cool, toughness, and masculinity is demonstrated by the $500,000 he's got stored in Mexico, by his three kept women (one of them white, as he notes with pride), and by his guns.
The name of the film is not, however, Ordell Robbie. Tarantino certainly enjoys flirting with the cold-blooded tropes of iconic masculinity—as in one cool-as-shit sequence in which Ordell, about to strangle someone, slowly pulls on a pair of red gloves while Johnny Cash's knowing "Tennessee Stud" plays on the soundtrack. The moment is broken, though, when Ordell exits the car and turns off the radio, shutting Cash down abruptly. The mythologizing, in other words, wasn't (or wasn't just) Tarantino's extra-diegesis—it was Ordell in-narrative psyching himself up. He needed Johnny Cash to get him in the mood for murder. Who says the media isn't implicated in violence?
Ordell's pretensions to masculinity are, then, actually and specifically portrayed as pretensions—and ones to which the man himself steadfastly fails to live up. One of his three women steals from him as soon as she gets a chance; his white surfer-girl chick Melanie (Bridget Fonda) despises him ("His lips move when he reads," she sneers), and his third girl, Sheronda (Lisa Gay Hamilton), appears to be loyal mainly because she is borderline mentally dysfunctional. Ordell's murders, too, are hardly in the glorious blaze-of-phallic-firearms mode. On the contrary, his two kills are predicated on the most tawdry kind of betrayal. In both instances, he uses his personal relationship with his employees to maneuver them into situations where he can simply shoot them mid-conversation at point blank range. When he goes after someone smart enough not to trust him, he ends up, in the first case, with a gun pointed at his crotch. Later, when he tries it again, he ends up dead.
The person holding the gun at the crotch is, of course, Jackie Brown, played with incandescent cool by blaxploitation veteran Pam Grier. Brown is a middle-aged (though still radioactively hot) flight attendant who uses her job as cover to ferry money out of Mexico for Ordell. While she may be in his employ, though, she's clearly far deadlier than her boss—or than anyone else in the film, definitely including the ATF guys who think they're using her to trap Ordell.
A big part of Brown's advantage is specifically that Ordell's macho baggage—and, for that matter, the macho baggage of the ATF agents—cause them to systematically underestimate her. She's also, and not unrelatedly, way better at picking allies than Ordell is. For example, she quickly charms and teams up with her bail bondsman, Max Cherry (Robert Forster). Max seems like an inauspicious partner—he's a ludicrously unhip, painfully white, fuddy-duddy small businessman. But in the end it's Max, all honesty, dutiful boringness, lived-in face, and hair implants who ends up as the movie's icon of masculinity—a very far cry indeed from Superfly or Shaft.
Part of that masculinity comes from taking responsibility for his own choices and his own limitations. At the end of the film, Jackie tries to convince Max to come with her to Spain with the money they heisted. Max refuses because, he admits, he's a little afraid of her—but not, he acknowledges, because she used him. As he says, he's 52; he may have fallen in love a little, but that doesn't mean that he didn't know what he was doing. Jackie Brown, then, assiduously rejects not only the tropes of blaxploitation manliness, but also the tropes of paranoid noir femme fatale. Just because you're a murderer with money doesn't make you a man; just because you're a strong woman doesn't mean all the men around you are dupes.
Jackie Brown, then, is not just a tribute to blaxploitation, but a critique of it—which means it's also a critique of all those mainstream gendered assumptions and fantasies which informed blaxploitation in the first place. From previews and reviews, it seems unlikely that Django Unchained, whatever its other virtues, will manage to be bracing in quite the same way. But then, there aren't many folks, of any gender, as cool, as smart, or as exhilarating as Jackie Brown.