This article contains spoilers for The Hateful Eight.
Audiences going blind into The Hateful Eight might have expected another historical revisionist work in line with Tarantino’s last two films, but the filmmaker had bigger things on his mind. The Hateful Eight tackles modern race relations head on, with the period setting barely even acting as a remove. The relentless repetition of ‘nigger’ strikes harder here than in any previous Tarantino film, partially because it’s a word we know is being murmured at Trump rallies and spit across social media in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Mannix, the racist sheriff, stands in for America’s institutionally racist police forces. You could have walked out of a showing of The Hateful Eight and found out that a grand jury refused to indict cops for the murder of Tamir Rice, and you wouldn’t be wrong in feeling like you never left the film.
There is a light early on in the film, though: the Lincoln Letter. Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Warren carries with him a personal letter from Abraham Lincoln, written during the Civil War, and it is like a holy relic. Perhaps the most evil act Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue commits in the first act is to spit on that letter, to profane the sacred paper. Even the vile racist Mannix wants to get a look at the thing; Lincoln is the martyr whose shed blood marked the full end of the Civil War, and whichever side you were on the items that he personally touched must have seemed sacrosanct. Dying elevates a man, even to his enemies.
But the letter is a lie. It’s a fake, and a strategic one at that. Warren uses it to pass through white society, to shield himself from the hate and violence that swelled up during the Reconstruction. The lie of the letter puts white folks at ease. “The only time black folks are safe is when white folks are disarmed,” he explains to John Ruth (Kurt Russell) when the deception is revealed.
The Lincoln Letter is revisionist history, and it disarms white folks because it allows them to feel like they’re on the good side of history. They were behind Abraham Lincoln, and Abraham Lincoln was such a good man that he personally corresponded with black soldiers. It’s virtue by proximity - I identify with this guy and this paper, therefore I am a good person. It’s easy. You don’t have to do anything, you just have to bask in the glow of righteousness. And that righteousness is thin - as soon as John Ruth learns the truth about the Lincoln Letter he becomes a racist: “So I guess it’s true what they say about you people. You can’t believe a fuckin’ word that comes outta’ your mouths.”
The lie makes Ruth feel good, the truth exposes him for who he is. That’s very much what Tarantino is doing in the gap between Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, his two racially charged Westerns, and people are reacting as you might expect.
Django Unchained (and Inglourious Basterds, to an extent) is a historical revisionist film that makes white people feel good. There’s a lot of terrible brutality and evil white people on screen and we get to cheer on the black man who stands up and destroys it all. It’s exhilarating and it’s fun and you feel like a good person for doing nothing more than rooting for Django to raze Candyland to the ground. You walk out of Django Unchained with the righteous glow of someone who stood up for something but you really just sat through a movie. You’re John Ruth in that stagecoach, feeling like a good person but not doing very much at all.
This isn’t a dig at Django Unchained - I love that film. I love Inglourious Basterds. I love Tarantino’s duology of historical revisionism, of films that give the stick back to those who got the short end of it originally. It’s the ultimate triumph of cinema, which is much more explicit in Basterds as Hitler dies in a burning movie theater, but it’s the same for both films - we don’t have to be beholden to the past. We can remake the past. We can save ourselves from it through the magic of the movies and imagination.
But at the same time we run the risk of disarming ourselves. Of forgetting the reality of today, and the way it is informed by the past. America’s 21st century racial problems begin in the 19th century, during the very same Reconstruction period in which The Hateful Eight is set. One hundred fifty years later we’re still feeling the impact of botched post-Civil War policies and a fire of white hatred that has passed from generation to generation. Many people didn’t recognize this in 2014, and the events in Ferguson acted like a wake up call to many white Americans who thought we had gotten past the hate, who thought we lived in a post-racial America, who thought the Civil Rights Era had put right what Reconstruction and Jim Crow had put wrong.
These people were believing the Lincoln Letter.
It’s worth noting that many of the people who thought we were living in a post-racial society reacted an awful lot like John Ruth when the falseness of their personal Lincoln Letter was revealed. There’s been a serious uptick in blatant racism in just the last year or two. You don’t have to look far to see it, and you only have to look at the GOP primary campaigns to see how strongly it’s resonating with a large segment of the population.
Django Unchained is the Lincoln Letter, and The Hateful Eight is where Tarantino reveals the lie, and forces us to examine the true state of the nation. It can be unpleasant, and many people have rankled at the way Tarantino rubs our noses in racism. There have been complaints about the use of ‘nigger,’ complaints that claim it’s Tarantino’s most juvenile use of the word, but I think it’s his most sophisticated. In the past he’s used it as a hipster or as a boundary pusher, but now he’s using it as a weapon. He’s using this word again and again instead of switching it out with the extremely varied slurs white people have for black people because he wants to ram the word home, driving it deeper each time.
Interestingly ‘nigger’ appears in The Hateful Eight less often than it does in Django Unchained, but it’s used so differently here that you’d be forgiven for thinking this was Tarantino’s record-busting usage. Many reviews have certainly treated it that way, seemingly not realizing how purposefully harsh the language choice is. In the past Tarantino has said that he was over-using ‘nigger’ to drain it of power (a very common kind of thing for a white guy being naughty to say) but in The Hateful Eight he’s bringing it back to full strength.
The Lincoln Letter isn’t the only lie meant to disarm in the film, by the way. The entire setting is a lie; we learn in the flashback that the Domergue gang slaughtered the owners and staff of Minnie’s Haberdashery - a staff that is mixed race, predominantly black. This is post-Reconstruction America, a lie built on the corpses of black bodies, and everybody is pretending that those corpses simply don’t exist. It’s only Warren, the black guy, who realizes that something is deeply fucked up at Minnie’s. The white characters are clueless, and the old Confederate general (Bruce Dern) happily keeps his mouth shut. Why should he speak against a turn of events that have left him seated cozily by the fire? He came out on top of that massacre, so he’s happy to ignore it. He’s glad to profit from it.
I think Quentin Tarantino has had an awakening in the last few years. The original draft of The Hateful Eight, the one that leaked online before production, didn’t include the Lincoln Letter reveal. The Lincoln Letter was real in that version. But in the years since that leak, in the years that Tarantino worked on the script and the movie, the situation in the US changed around him. That draft leaked in April of 2014; in August Michael Brown lay dead in a street in Ferguson. In November the movie, which Tarantino threatened to shelve, came back to life as casting started. At some point between April and November he had reworked the Lincoln Letter, and I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the protests in Ferguson happened right in the middle of that time span.
While the Lincoln Letter ends up being about more than his own filmography, it’s hard to not see it as a direct response to his own historical revisionism. The lies are comforting, he tells us, but here’s the truth we all have to face. And it’s hateful as hell.