The violence of the Hollywood Western often stands in for, or erases, the violence of slavery. In The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), heroic Confederate veterans commit righteous murder, with nary a black person in sight. In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967) the horrors of war are depicted at length, but the horrors of slavery are delicately pushed to the side. Death and cruelty and the brutal crack of a pistol are embraced, the better to forget death and cruelty and the brutal crack of the whip.
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2013) is a deliberate rejection of that legacy; it’s the story of a freed slave, riding across the American South to free his wife. Tarantino’s new film, The Hateful Eight, is also a Western, and also deals with race—though not as a central plot element. Instead, in Hateful Eight, the history of slavery is a something of a background howl, similar to the blizzard that traps the characters in a Wyoming cabin. In Django, Django fights racism. In Hateful Eight, the characters live with it.
The main action of The Hateful Eight centers on bounty hunter John Ruth (played by Kurt Russell) who is bringing murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock to hang. Ruth and three fellow travelers are trapped by a blizzard at Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they meet four other travelers—some or all of whom may be trying to free Daisy.
In terms of plot, the film harks back to Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs (1992). It’s essentially a heist-gone-awry; the fun is in enjoying the colorfully unpleasant characters as they betray and blast each other to a bloody end.
The clever narrative and gleefully hyperbolic acting, though, are shadowed by the subject of race. To the extent that the ensemble has a central character, it’s not Ruth nor Domergue, but Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a black former Union soldier turned bounty hunter.
In some latter-day Westerns—1992’s Unforgiven is a good example—black cowboys show up unremarked, as if the old west was a retro post-racial utopia. Not in Hateful Eight. Warren comes into the plot by happenstance, but once he’s there, his race becomes hugely important for just about everyone.
Unrepentant Confederates like Chris Manix (Walton Goggins) and General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) take his presence as an excuse to trot out their racist ideology. Union partisan Ruth is less overt in his prejudice—he allies with Warren, and for a brief moment they seem to fall into the familiar white guy/black sidekick roles. But when Warren reveals he’s got his own agenda, Ruth quickly defaults to stereotypes, not to mention racist epithets.
Not that Warren is a victim. On the contrary, he’s quite adept at using white people’s racism and racial preconceptions against them. He also plays on white racist nightmares about black male sexuality. General Smithers has come out to Wyoming to pay respects to his dead son. Warren claims to have killed him—and then spins an elaborate story about having raped the man before murdering him. It’s not clear whether the story is true or not, but Warren knows that Smithers’s own racism will cause him to react to it—and this reaction seals his fate.
Smithers murdered black Union prisoners of war when he was a Confederate General, so Warren’s rape fantasy, and the violence it provokes, are a racial revenge narrative, very much in the spirit of Django. But where Django ends with a black man’s bloody retribution, Hateful Eight disposes of one evil racist, and then goes on with its plot. As it happens, Warren ends up having to ally with another racist (Confederate soldier Manix). Survival trumps racial animosity when you’ve got a common foe.
Not surprisingly, Tarantino doesn’t leave viewers with a happy ending. This isn’t The Defiant Ones (1958), where black and white outlaws join forces to show there is hope for America. Warren and Manix’s strategic alliance doesn’t have those transcendent connotations. Instead, the black man and the white racist team up not to end racism, but because they know, whatever they do, it isn’t going anywhere.
That is, after all, the Western tradition—you ignore race so you can shoot people. But when you put down those guns, the same racial prejudices will be waiting for you.
As the film nears the finale, Manix reads a letter allegedly sent by president Abraham Lincoln to Warren. “We still have a long way to go, but hand in hand we’ll get there,” the neo-Confederate reads reverently. It might sound like a declaration of hope, but don’t be fooled—there’s no room for salvation in this film. Django looked to the Western for racial salvation; Hateful Eight merely looks to it for genre pleasures. In doing so, it ends up being both bleaker and wiser than its predecessor.