Tarantino is criticized for aspects of 'Jackie' Response: The white filmmaker has supporters as well as detractors

for the latter, the language in the movie is particularly offensive.

January 25, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

One of the most remarkable things about 1997 was that two prominent white filmmakers -- both directors who can call their own shots -- made films featuring African-Americans in prominent roles. And, because those filmmakers were Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino, both approached their subjects in totally different ways.

Spielberg, who directed "Amistad" after producer Debbie Allen spent more than a dozen years shopping the project to Hollywood studios, filmed the African characters of the film at a reverent, painterly distance, his respect often approaching worship.

Tarantino, on the other hand, went in a slightly more irreverent direction. He made "Jackie Brown," an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel "Rum Punch," expressly in order to work with the blaxploitation actress Pam Grier, even changing the main character's race to do so.

So far so good. But when co-star Samuel L. Jackson opened his mouth, every other word seemed to be a racial epithet that is heard just as often between friends on the street as it is from white racists.

Immediately, Spike Lee was on national television excoriating Tarantino for misappropriating black culture. Most recently, Mary Curtis, features editor of the Charlotte Observer, wrote of Tarantino's obscenity-laced script, "Mr. Tarantino may think it's 'real'; I found it foul and clunky.

"I'm not saying whites can't write black characters or vice versa," Curtis continued. "But Mr. Tarantino seems to take great pleasure in promoting himself as a 'black' expert. And he also seems to have a special fascination with the N-word."

There's no doubt that Jackson's repeated use of racist and sexist insults was, at the very least, discomfiting. But was Tarantino himself racist? Or simply reflecting black culture?

"People don't know where Quentin ended and Sam began," Grier explains. "Quentin's an artist who's reflecting truth. There are neighborhoods where that's how people talk. They use it in several different ways. Hip-hop has turned it into something positive and meaningless. It's taken all the fire and hurt out of it and turned it around and defused it.

"Granted, they won't say the words of Compton in the Hamptons or Beverly Hills," Grier continues, "but it's a white artist writing for a black man speaking to another black man. Where's the issue here? Ang Lee won't change the words in 'Sense and Sensibility' or 'Ice Storm.' Nor would Spike Lee if he were doing a Japanese film."

Jeff Lee, president of BET Networks, said that rather than the language in "Jackie Brown," "The thing we judge Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg on are how many blacks were in craft positions on those films? Debbie Allen worked with Spielberg, and a lot of people of color worked on that film. If we're looking at the overall business, that's where the positives come. Let's not only put them on the screen but behind the screen in all those areas. And I think both those gentlemen did that."

Image Awards producer Hamilton Cloud sees Tarantino as an example of "the younger generation who are totally comfortable with rap music and black athletes, who have been on their walls since they were 8 years old. That's what makes us optimistic, because their perception of black people is totally different from their parents' generation."

"How cool that he had this thing for Pam all these years and then pulled it off!" Cloud continues. "That's radical!"

Perhaps the best thing about "Jackie Brown" is that there is something there to debate: The key to making sure 1997 isn't an anomaly is for images of African-Americans to proliferate even more in the years ahead.

Says Charles Richardson of Triad Communications, a film marketing firm: "From 'Soul Food' and 'Eve's Bayou' to 'Amistad' and 'Jackie Brown,' they all present some aspect of who we are that can be appreciated by our own audience and, more important, the audience at large."

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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