Is “The Hateful Eight” racist? Homophobic? Sexist? Is it all three? Quentin Tarantino films are controversial, but none have been as divisive as his 70mm Western spectacular, which has been, especially among critics, deemed officially problematic. Some have said it’s the juvenile movie his detractors often say his films are: merely out there to push buttons. Others go farther: they accuse it of the very bigotry it may or may not be condemning.
This has made discussing the film a little uncomfortable. When accusations get that extreme, and when people get that upset about it, one doesn’t want go in, guns blazing, about how one disagrees. So I say this cautiously and respectfully: I don’t think it’s racist, homophobic or sexist. I think it’s an examination of those traits, not an embodiment thereof. I don’t think it’s just trying to get a rise. And like “Django Unchained,” it makes bigotry one of its main focuses, if not the main one.
Nothing in Tarantino films can be taken at face value; everything is loaded with multiple meanings. When he quotes older movies in his own movies, it isn’t mere fanboy homage; he’s repurposing his old faves to his own devices. Likewise, he doesn’t come out and say what “The Hateful Eight” is trying to say. Finding the way to the center of “The Hateful Eight” is like being lost in a labyrinth. Not only is there no moral center — a good person, like Django, who stands for something good — but Tarantino goes out of his way to offend, only to subtly tip his hat that he’s on the side of the angels.
Every character is a villain, but they’re more than venal: They’re each a strand, and often two or three, of bigot. Everybody who’s not Samuel Jackson’s Major-turned-bounty hunter Marquis Warren hates him because he’s black. Some, like the ex-Confederates General Smithers (Bruce Dern) and maybe-sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), have deep-seated loathing. Others, like fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), have a very, very, very begrudging semi-respect. (Ruth calls black people “darkies,” because he thinks they prefer it.) Warren has been able to survive because he’s found a way to navigate through a sea of racism, often through deceit. His most prized possession is a letter from his good pen pal, Abraham Lincoln, which he later reveals is a forgery. To live among white people, he has to keep on his toes.
Warren, however, is not the most hated person in “The Hateful Eight.” If there was a ladder of bigotry amongst the film’s characters, he’d be three rungs from the bottom, followed by Demian Bichir’s “Bob,” a Mexican in a broad Speedy Gonzalez accent, and then, all the way down there, bandit Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), i.e., the lone principal woman. Domergue spends the movie routinely beaten into submission, most often by Ruth, to whom she’s shackled on way to a hanging.