When I first saw Spike Lee’s Greek comedy adaptation Chi-Raq in early December, I made a very conscious decision not to review it, because it felt like I would be speaking on behalf of a group that I had no business attempting to speak for.
My issues with Chi-Raq dealt primarily with what it lacked: focus and subtlety. But I also took issue with Lee’s sudden strike of South-Park-libertarian “Truth is in the middle” disease, which borders closely on Cosby-esque “Pull your pants up” respectability politics. From its outdated and comical portrayal of gangs to describing the heroine as being “so fine she made Darren Wilson and George Zimmerman want to kiss her” (fucking eww, Spike), there are many flaws with Chi-Raq, stemming from its depiction of the Chicago gang violence and youth culture. This is a film which, at best, can be described as “not nearly as tone-deaf as Spike can be.”
But this is a situation where, as a white man, the best thing for me to do is keep my mouth shut and try to gather as many perspectives from those actually affected as possible. (Click that link, seriously.) It feels wrong for me to criticize Spike Lee’s take on African-American culture, because I’m not going to pretend I know more about African-American culture than Spike Lee does.
Fortunately for me, Quentin Tarantino feels differently.
The Hateful Eight, much like Chi-Raq, takes all of its creators’ most notable qualities, both good and bad, and amplifies them one hundredfold. This makes both films difficult to review if you enjoy both Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino while being acutely aware of their faults. In Tarantino’s case, one of those faults is being the only man in America who craves the Black community’s approval more than Bernie Sanders. Spike Lee himself has criticized Tarantino for “wanting to be labeled an honorary black man.” I may not feel comfortable claiming to know what life is like in America for a Black man, but Tarantino definitely does. Or rather, he feels comfortable having his friend Samuel L. Jackson be the vessel through which he says it. (Another interesting and somewhat telling comparison of Lee and Tarantino is that they both use the same actor as their mouthpiece.)
Perhaps we should have known from the title, but The Hateful Eight is Tarantino’s meanest and most nihilistic film.
It sports a final message that can be read at best as declaring “Black and white men will put aside their differences as long as there are women to abuse.” It’s basically that awful and pretentious John Lennon song dragged out over three hours. But because this is Tarantino, there’s also plenty of plot twists and nods to older, more obscure cinema. Hateful Eight is more than a Western, it’s a political treatise, whodunit, morality tale, character study, and Mamet play at the same time, and it really can’t balance being all of these at once.
Basically, The Hateful Eight paints its setting, general store Minnie’s Haberdashery as a giant metaphor for American/world politics… until that becomes inconvenient. The latter half of the painfully slow first act takes great care to let you know that character X represents subgroup A, that this part of the cabin represents this specific political viewpoint. (The impending result is a great joke about Georgia and Philadelphia which got applause in my screening.) But it just drops all that in the second act for a while, only to pick it back up again when only three characters are left on-screen. Similarly, Chi-Raq can’t quite settle on a tone, yelling directly to the audience “This ISN’T a joke” literally two minutes after having a Zucker-esque sequence in which a character is diagnosed with “low booty disease” causing him to yell “booty booty booty, I need the booty booty booty.” Having typed that sentence, I now empathize with Spike a bit more, as it was a great deal more fun to write than it was to watch.
If I praised the anger and bitterness in Adam McKay’s The Big Short, I must also do the same in Chi-Raq and The Hateful Eight. However, while McKay’s vitriol was pointed and named specific targets, Lee and Tarantino’s is much more scattershot, really angry at anything and everything in the world, and not particularly caring where their ire ends up. Here is where Chi-Raq surpasses Hateful Eight, because Lee at least seems to have reason to be angry, and is trying to speak for a very angry group. Tarantino, in true Quentin style, wants to speak for everyone.
As the title of this article implies, I disliked both of these films, but it’s very difficult to do so and to articulate why. Chi-Raq is lively and at times hilarious, and Hateful Eight is Tarantino’s best-looking film, at the least. He continues to work his magic on overly-expository dialogue which never feels expository. It also features at least two interesting and robust characters played by Kurt Russell and Walton Goggins, but once one of them is removed, the film takes a major nosedive. It should be pointed out that the biggest misstep both films make is putting women at the forefront of their stories, then painfully underwriting those women. Tarantino’s only in-universe excuse for the constant mistreatment of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is that she was in a gang, the real-world rationale is probably that he was attempting to demonstrate how terrible men are to women. It’s a Funny Games-esque judgement of the audience for laughing at abuse, while writing the abuse with perfect comedic timing.
To recap, Chi-Raq and The Hateful Eight are comparably interesting failures, both of which coast on their respective filmmakers’ pedigrees and dubiously-existent street cred.
But each of them collapse under the weight of their own haphazard storytelling methodologies. They’re both more obsessed with telling you that they have something to say than actually saying it. Most of all, they both represent the most extreme outliers of their respective creators, proof that auteur theory is very real and that sometimes having a studio or focus group to rein creators in isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, while Hateful Eight feels like the most logical progressive step in Tarantino’s oeuvre, Chi-Raq doesn’t feel like it could have come from the man who made Do The Right Thing.
What we have here is is the story of two once-fresh voices getting older but not necessarily wiser: Lee is an old man yelling at clouds, Tarantino has been so successful at fellating himself that he is starting to choke now. This makes both films entertaining to watch for a time, but ultimately so self-indulgent that neither sit right by the end.
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