Black Like Him

The French new-wave directors Tarantino reveres, such as Godard and Truffaut, used the conventions of American crime pictures to bring out the poetry in pulp; they were going for the soft center in the hard-boiled. Tarantino's use of pulp is a far simpler proposition. Essentially he's a movie freak who works his own riffs on the pop junk that formed him. (After Pulp Fiction he announced that his next project would be an updated Man from U.N.C.L.E.) In Jackie Brown he's combining the B-picture crime movie with Seventies blaxploitation, but somehow the energy of both genres has eluded him.

He tries for a deliberately unslick look, but he hasn't really stylized the plainness. In blaxploitation films, with their sallow lighting and cheapo decor, the stylization came from the outlandish actors, the costumes, and, of course, the soundtracks. Blaxploitation films survived the Seventies to become major hip-hop touchstones; they're like fancy-dress balls with a great backbeat, and their influence on the posturing and theatricality of rap is in-your-face obvious. With his affinity for black culture, Tarantino may have wanted to bring back the swagger and pomp of blaxploitation, but all he captures is the bleariness. Who needs that? He's paying homage to bad junk and missing the good junk.

In Pulp Fiction and especially in Jackie Brown, Tarantino appears to be setting himself up as a Nineties version of Norman Mailer's White Negro. In a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, Samuel L. Jackson is quoted as saying, "Quentin wants to be black. He watched a lot of black exploitation films growing up. He has a lot of black friends.... And he likes to write black characters. He's like my daughters' little white hip-hop friends. They're basically black kids with white skin."

Tarantino is right to mainline the energy of black pop; it's what gives his films much of their pulse and surprise. But there's something phony in all this as well, and not just because Tarantino is white. The "street" blackness in Jackie Brown is like an episode of In Living Color that's been left on the stove too long. Jackson's Ordell, with his black kung fu master look, is a bad ass in the tradition of his bad ass from Pulp Fiction, and he doesn't wear well. Plus Ordell must set the record for saying nigger the most times in a movie. Is this what Tarantino thinks black people do to be superhip?

Ordell's partner-in-crime Louis, played by Robert De Niro in what appears to be a tranquilized state, is no match for him; he's just a floppy white guy. And Ordell's dopehead surfer-chick girlfriend (Bridget Fonda) is just sassy decoration. After so many movies in which black characters have had roles subservient to whites, there is some justice and humor in seeing the racial tables switched. It's a kick. But it's also a con. It's racial vaudeville for all the black wannabes in the audience.

Tarantino is saddled with cult status because of Pulp Fiction, but cults have a way of breaking up. That might not be a bad thing for him. Jackie Brown looks as if it was made by a director who has moved beyond what made him a star but hasn't yet figured out what to do next. It's a marking-time movie. Maybe when he is no longer expected to capture the imagination of a generation, he'll be better equipped to recapture his own.

Jackie Brown.
Directed and written by Quentin Tarantino, based on a novel by Elmore Leonard; with Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, Michael Keaton, and Bridget Fonda.

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