Film & TV

Quentin Tarantino Isn't Telling You What to Think

Here's a true story about a St. Louis murder that changed America.

In 1837, a black freeman named Francis McIntosh stepped off a Mississippi riverboat and blundered into two white cops chasing a drunk sailor who'd called them names. They ordered McIntosh to stop the perp; when he refused, they arrested him for breaching the peace. En route to the judge, McIntosh asked how long he'd be in jail for literally doing nothing. Five years. So then McIntosh did do something: He stabbed both officers, killing one.

Within hours, a white mob burned McIntosh alive. The state investigated the McIntosh lynching, but the grand jury declined to indict anyone.

Newspaper publisher Elijah Lovejoy decried McIntosh's false arrest and furious punishment as "awful murder and savage barbarity." The locals chased Lovejoy across the Mississippi River. But Lovejoy kept speaking out.

"As long as American blood runs in these veins, I shall hold myself at liberty to speak, to write and to publish whatever I please on any subject," Lovejoy wrote.

Then the mob came for him. They torched Lovejoy's printing presses and shot him five times. He was buried on his 35th birthday.

"His idea was the minute white blood is shed the way black blood is shed, that's when shit will start changing."

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You've probably heard about what happened next. Lovejoy's death radicalized white abolitionist John Brown, who later raised a small army that in 1859 overtook Harper's Ferry in a failed slave revolt. It was Brown's execution — the third death in the domino chain — that triggered the Civil War.

Historians call John Brown "America's first domestic terrorist." Abraham Lincoln called him "insane."

Quentin Tarantino calls him "my favorite American."

"His idea was the minute white blood is shed the way black blood is shed, that's when shit will start changing," Tarantino says over iced coffees on a brisk afternoon in his Hollywood Hills backyard. "And like all great Americans, he was hung for treason."

A decade ago, Tarantino thought about eventually filming John Brown's biopic — maybe when he neared 60 and could play the white-bearded rebel himself. Today, at 52, he's changed his mind. Biographies are too creatively limiting, even for a guy who happily rewrote history by machine-gunning Hitler.

Besides, adds Tarantino, "I'm dealing with a lot of the things that I wanted to deal with." His recent movies have explored what drew him to John Brown's story: When does violence deserve violence? Inglourious Basterds screwed with our code of ethics. Murder Hitler, sure, go ahead. But bash an unarmed Nazi to death with a baseball bat?

Django Unchained, set the year before Brown's Harper's Ferry raid, scales down the Civil War to one freed slave avenging himself on his masters. Yet the bitter twist is that in Django's hunt for justice, he allows innocent slaves to be torn apart by dogs and literally makes money off other men's dead bodies. The larger good demands the unpardonably bad.

Tarantino's new film pivots away from his sprawling epics, but it's no less political. The Hateful Eight is a pared-down thriller about murderess Daisy Domergue, a bounty hunter, a black Union soldier, two white supremacists, one cowboy, one hangman, one innkeeper and one stagecoach driver, all trapped in a rural outpost called Minnie's Haberdashery during a Wyoming blizzard. Count up the characters and you'll notice that the hateful eight are really nine — Tarantino's first clue not to trust anything you hear.

"Nothing is for sure in this movie," Tarantino says. "That literally is the goal." While writing his murder mystery, he'd ask friends what "facts" about these violent characters were true. Any statement people trusted, he'd sabotage. Tarantino laughs. "If they're going to be that gullible, then I must torture them!"

The Hateful Eight is a fun puzzle-box, a palate cleanser after Tarantino's ambitious sagas. But he's still got plenty to say about race, cruelty, and justice. The film is set six to ten years after the Civil War, soon enough that everyone remembers what side everyone else was on and what crimes they committed to defend it. Even Samuel L. Jackson's Union officer, Major Warren, is guilty of atrocities. "Their lives to one degree or another have been ripped apart," Tarantino says. "They're sheltering together, these survivors of an apocalypse. But the apocalypse is the Civil War.

"I didn't set out to make it this way, but this is a blue-state, red-state Western."

Right now, America feels as polarized as it has in a century and a half, and you see today's battle lines drawn when Jackson stares down Bruce Dern and Walton Goggins' Rebel fighters. In the wake of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray, you shudder when Goggins' Chris Mannix, the town's flagrantly racist new sheriff, nods, "When niggers are scared, white folks are safe."

"The script hits a lot of hot-button topics," Tarantino says, "but I'm on record as having written it almost two years ago" — when The Hateful Eight's first draft was leaked, and before Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray.

"Events have caught up with it," Tarantino says. "It just means that I'm doing what a writer is supposed to be doing. I'm connected to the Zeitgeist."

In his second and third drafts, he sharpened some jabs and softened others, such as when Goggins is asked if the people in his home state of South Carolina feel safe. "Because of the murders at Emanuel [AME Church in Charleston], I took it out," Tarantino says. "It was too on the money." However, he kept Ruth's disgust for "losers gone loco wrappin' themselves in the Rebel flag as an excuse for killin'," an insult made more relevant when, a month after the film wrapped, activist Bree Newsome braved South Carolina's state capitol and took down the Confederate flag.

In the months since, Tarantino has become an activist himself. The label caught him off-guard.

"I've never really been one in my public life to take a big political stand," he says. Until October, that is, when he joined a RiseUp rally in New York and spoke out against police brutality, declaring, "When I see murder I cannot stand by. And I have to call the murdered the murdered and I have to call the murderers the murderers."

The police reaction was swift. Both the National Association of Police Organizations and the Fraternal Order of Police, together representing roughly 571,000 officers (or just over half of the cops in America), vowed to boycott The Hateful Eight. Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, cautioned Tarantino in The Hollywood Reporter: "Something is in the works, but the element of surprise is the most important element. And a lot of it is going to be driven by Tarantino, who is nothing if not predictable."

"I don't like being painted as a cop hater, and I don't like the idea that maybe some man or woman wearing a blue uniform on the street who once liked me might think they don't like me now because I'm against them," Tarantino says. "It's not about that. It's an institutional thing going on, and I'm highlighting it — as are a lot of other people." He's made peace with the media frenzy. Bashing him kept police brutality in the news.

Since he started giving interviews in 1992, Tarantino has been open about his run-ins with cops. At 15, he was arrested for shoplifting Elmore Leonard's novel The Switch at Kmart. Over the next five years, he was arrested three more times, stemming from $7,000 in unpaid parking tickets on his silver Honda Civic. It was a hefty sum for a VHS clerk earning $200 a week, and it culminated in what he says was an eight-day stint at the L.A. County Jail in the fall of 1989 — where he claimed he overheard dialogue that made it into Reservoir Dogs.

In the fallout from Tarantino's current public squabble with police, the New York Post interviewed Los Angeles Capt. Christopher Reed, who told the paper that "a check of Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department jail records revealed no evidence that Mr. Tarantino was ever incarcerated in our jail system." The Post's headline gloated, "Watch cop-hating Quentin Tarantino lie about being a tough guy in jail." (Nicole Nishida, a Sheriff's Department spokeswoman, stated in an email: "The Sheriff's Department is unable to either corroborate or refute Mr. Tarantino's statements that he spent time in our jail system.")

If Tarantino did lie, it's unclear what he hoped to gain from exaggerating his punishment for unpaid parking fines. (He declined to respond to a request for a follow-up interview.)

Despite Tarantino's late-'90s streak of punching producers and cab drivers, when it comes to confronting America's racial politics, he's not violent John Brown. He's Elijah Lovejoy, another big, brave mouth who got in trouble for saying the word "murder."

In 1837, a big mouth got your printing presses smashed and got you shot. Today, the mob just boycotts your films.

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Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014.