More than any other director, Quentin Tarantino uses his films as love-letters to the genres he worships. Reservoir Dogs is a gangster film; Kill Bill is a pastiche of spaghetti westerns and Chinese and Japanese martial arts movies; and Jackie Brown is his ode to Blaxploitation. It’s surprising that this homage to Blaxploitation films is as subtle and character-driven as it is, since Blaxploitation films were rarely subtle or character-driven. It’s no less surprising that this subtle and character-driven film is a Tarantino movie. Undoubtedly, this is why it keeps popping up as the critics’ darling. Most of Tarantino’s films are pop-culture confections. He throws together as many generic conventions and pop references as possible, overlays an often anachronistic rock-and-soul-heavy soundtrack, and adds lots of bright colors, long takes, and quick edits. Jackie Brown contains many of these tropes – soul music, bright colors, and tracking shots abound – but these serve as framing elements for a human story. Jackie Brown is a thriller and an homage to Blaxploitation, but it’s also a mature examination of race, age, and genre.
Blaxploitation was a complicated genre to say the least. It rose to prominence in the early 1970s, after Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft became hits. Black audiences were hungry from representations of themselves in film, and the genre expressed the tense racial politics of the time. Unfortunately, white Hollywood quickly stepped in and codified the genre, churning out low-budget films that perpetuated unflattering stereotypes. The heroes and heroines may have been badass, but they were also ghetto, drug-involved, violent, criminal, and highly sexualized. It was a double-edged sword: on the one hand, black characters were finally at the center of their own genre, but on the other hand these films were increasingly degrading. The NAACP and other groups successfully campaigned for the end of the genre in the latter half of the 1970s, but this had the unintended effect of removing black characters from leading roles again. With the notable exception of Richard Pryor, black cinema as a cultural force wouldn’t return until Spike Lee in the 1980s. Blaxploitation films remain controversial, and it’s not difficult to see why they make some people squeamish:
Jackie Brown is a maturation of the Blaxploitation genre. Pam Grier as Jackie is Foxxy Brown 20 years later, working a dead end job with few prospects and smuggling money into the country for a gun dealer. Jackie and Cherry joke that Jackie’s lost the afro and her butt’s gotten bigger, but otherwise she’s the same. However, now she’s dealing with the real consequences of growing old in a world that doesn’t care if you’re a black badass, but does care if you’re black, middle-aged, and have a criminal record. The criminality, sex, drugs, and murder inherent to Blaxploitation are present (as well as a soulful soundtrack), but character motivations are more complex, and none of these genre tropes are glamorized or exploited for audience enjoyment. For those few of you who haven’t seen the film and want to see it, I won’t ruin the plot. Instead, I’ll skip to my favorite shot, which means I have to skip to the end.
To a certain extent, I believe choosing the first or last shot of a movie is cheating, because these shots tend to act as thematic bookends. However, I’m making an exception. This quiet character moment stuck with me most. At the end of the film, Jackie doesn’t ride off into the sunset, or go out in a blaze of glory. She doesn’t even really get the guy in the conventional sense. Instead, the audience is treated to a private moment as Jackie reflects inwardly and mouths the words to a song on the radio. This quiet, content ending is anathema for Blaxploitation, or even most Tarantino films. It’s a completely everyday action, so it ends the film on a personal note. In a movie that bucks generic convention for character development, this is a perfect ending.
It’s disappointing to me that 15 years after he made Jackie Brown, Tarantino made a movie with the unsubtle message, “Racism sucks so let’s shoot it in the face.” Tarantino touts Django Unchained as a Spaghetti Western that addresses the racial failings of the genre, but I don’t think he addresses those failings so much as he exploits them. Django Unchained shares too many uncomfortable commonalities with Tarantino’s beloved Blaxploitation films. The main character is a one-dimensional Revenge Machine bent on bloodily murdering anyone associated with slavery. Watching Django mow down every slaver in sight may provide audiences with some cultural catharsis, but how does Django’s fetishized revenge spree differ from the often-denounced, violent stereotypes of the Blaxploitation films? Re-watching Jackie Brown made me more disillusioned with Django Unchained. Tarantino clearly loves Blaxploitation as much as he loves Spaghetti Westerns, but these genres would be better served if he examined the complexities and controversies behind them, rather than paying shallow homage to the trappings of each. He did it once before, so clearly he can do it again. Until then, I think I need a time out from Tarantino.