Spoilers for The Hateful Eight below.
In some ways, The Hateful Eight doesn’t quite feel like the kind of Quentin Tarantino film we’re used to, largely due to its second act’s murder mystery whodunit style. And yet the The Hateful Eight is also quintessential Tarantino—and not just in his characters’ predictably liberal use of the word nigger. One scene in particular, which comes in the last few minutes of Act I, joins in on a long Tarantino tradition: Wrapping a graphically violent torture or kill scene in bizarrely sexual overtones.
At this point in the story, the eight major players (plus a minor character, a stagecoach driver) are holed up in Minnie’s Haberdashery waiting out a blizzard, all of them en route to a town called Red Rock for various purposes. Tensions are high among all of these strangers, but no relationship is more fraught than the one between Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Union solider and current bounty hunter, and General Sanford “Sandy” Smithers (Bruce Dern), an old, proud Confederate veteran.
After a few hours of disparaging exchanges and harsh glares between the two, Major Warren becomes surprisingly chatty with the General, and mentions that he once encountered Sandy’s son Chester; all Sandy knows is that his son died sometime after serving in the war. As Bob “the Mexican” (Demián Bichir) plays “Silent Night” on the haberdashery piano, Major Warren launches into an elaborate monologue in which he slowly divulges that Chester had taken up as a head hunter of black people post-war. When he encountered Sandy’s son, Major Warren says, he forced a pleading Chester to strip completely naked at gun point in the cold Wyoming mountains and walk several miles in the snow before Major Warren forced him to perform oral sex.
It’s a shocking, dramatic scene—the Major relishes his own storytelling, leaving out not a single graphic detail, including how Chester serviced his “big black pecker” before the Major finally killed him. This is intercut with a flashback so that we see (as the General, horrified, also imagines) everything he describes. And as the climax of Act I, the rhythm of the scene is perfectly calibrated, propelled by Jackson’s and Dern’s excellent performances and Tarantino’s visuals.
Tarantino’s intense sexualization of violence can be traced at least back to Pulp Fiction’s gimp scene, in which Butch (Bruce Willis) and Marsellus (Ving Rhames) are held captive by a pawnshop owner and a security guard with S&M gear, the latter of whom rapes Marsellus. As with Hateful Eight, it’s a pointed riff on black masculinity. (Specifically as it relates to the Civil War—the pawnshop owner even has a prominently displayed Confederate flag.) Elsewhere, Tarantino has found weirdly uncomfortable ways to bring carnal pleasure and violence together: In Death Proof (Stuntman Mike’s tricked out car designed to abuse and murder beautiful women); in practically every other scene in the Kill Bill movies (“Do you still wish to penetrate me?” Gogo Yubari asks while twisting a knife into a would-be suitor); and in Santánico Pandemonium’s erotic striptease-turned-vampire-spree in From Dusk to Dawn.
But the clearest echo in Major Warren’s vengeful speech is in the Tarantino-penned True Romance and in Django Unchained, which Tarantino wrote and directed. What both of these films have in common with Hateful Eight is how explicitly they play with America’s long, troubled relationship with black masculinity. The Django connection is pretty much deliberate—Tarantino has said that Hateful Eight was originally conceived as a novel starring Jamie Foxx’s eponymous protagonist rather than Major Warren. In the last third of Django, Django is shackled, muzzled, and dangled upside down, his black body fully exposed, for killing the dastardly slaveowner Monsieur Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his henchmen. Mandingo fight trainer Billy Crash gleefully prepares to sear off Django’s testicles before house slave Stephen (Jackson) halts him at the last second, informing him that the mistress of the house wants to sell Django instead. When a disappointed Billy leaves, Stephen stays behind to revel in Django’s predicament. “Seem like white folk ain’t never had a bright idea in they life was coming’ up with all kinds of ways to kill your ass,” he says. “Now mind you, most of them ideas had to do with fuckin’ with your foreign parts.”
Django could not possibly be more vulnerable and emasculated in this moment—once a freed man, he is now effectively reduced to a prisoner useful only for his body parts and what they mean to their white owners. In a racial paradox that can be traced back hundreds of years in American history, the hypersexuality of the black male body is perceived as at once threatening (i.e. Billy’s near-castration of Django) and lucrative (providing labor and offspring to boost human inventory). In Hateful Eight, Major Warren’s repeated references to his “big black pecker,” as well as the image of Chester performing oral sex on him, mimic the visual explicitness of Django’s torture.
In True Romance, blackness is disgusting, tainted. The exchange between Sicilian mafia don Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken) and security guard Clifford (Dennis Hopper)—for some time considered by Tarantino to be the best scene he’d ever written—says as much. “Here’s a fact, I don’t know whether you know or not: Sicilians were spawned by niggers,” Clifford says, with a mischievous glint in his eye. He then launches into a history of how relations with the Moors eventually led to Sicilians having darker skin and hair, making them the “wops” of northern Italy. “They did so much fucking with Sicilian women, that they changed the whole bloodline forever … It’s absolutely amazing to me, to think that to this day, hundreds of years later, that Sicilians still carry that nigger gene.” (Notice how Clifford doesn’t suggest that Sicilian men slept with Moor women.)
Here, the parallels to Hateful Eight are even more obvious—the scenes play out with an eerily similar tone. The soft piano music in the background; the stories of dubious nature (it’s never clear whether or not Major Warren is telling the truth, as just prior to this scene he’s admitted that he’s lied about owning a personalized handwritten letter from Abraham Lincoln); the use of white fear of black masculinity to goad an adversary and insult them in the grandest way possible.
Yet the most radical aspect of Major Warren’s climactic moment—and what separates it most clearly from both Django and True Romance—is that here, the black man maintains the upper hand throughout. In the former, the protagonist is at the mercy of both a white Southerner and a nefarious house slave; he doesn’t get his comeuppance until several scenes later. In True Romance, Tarantino merely plays with stereotypes without acknowledging them as racist. But Major Warren is a character with full agency—in that moment, at least, he has the power to boastfully and unequivocally confront the General. And he uses the General’s disgust for Major Warren’s own black body to his advantage, to burrow himself inside the old man’s head.
Finally, we learn that there was another reason why Major Warren tortured Chester: the white man told him that the General was his father while pleading for his life, which sealed his fate. Major Warren knew then as he knows now that the General had killed, in cold blood, captured black soldiers during the war. (“We had neither the time, the food, or the inclination to care for Northern horses or Northern niggers,” the General states flippantly in an earlier scene in the haberdashery.) “I never did give your boy that blanket,” Major Warren concludes gleefully, referring to Chester’s pleas for something to warm him as he froze in the snow. And then: “That blanket was just a heartbreaking liar’s promise. Sorta like when the Union issued those colored troopers uniforms that you chose not to acknowledge.” Faster than the General can jump up and shoot, Major Warren coolly puts a bullet in him.
It’s a classically Tarantino fantasy sequence, in which some sort of karmic balance is temporarily restored to the universe on a micro scale. And it couldn’t have come at a more apt time, considering that in 2015 the Black Lives Matter movement grew in size and influence, and a white supremacist murdered black churchgoers while claiming that black men “are raping our women”—an act that prompted political hand-wringing over the significance and relevance of the Confederate flag some 150 years after the end of the Civil War. So in a way, The Hateful Eight may be Tarantino’s most politically and culturally relevant film to date, despite being set so far in the past—as Major Warren’s speech unfolds, Tarantino lets us revel in it and recoil from it, exposing the irrational hatred and fear of black bodies for what it really is.