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See Quentin Kill

In 'Kill Bill,' Quentin Tarantino continues to cause critics to question his handling of race on the big screen.
When you think of the resounding flop of Jackie Brown -- the film Quentin Tarantino made after his 1994 Pulp Fiction changed contemporary movie history -- it's no wonder he offs Vivica A. Fox early in his new movie, Kill Bill: Vol. 1. He wasn't about to repeat the mistake of asking mainstream movie audiences to take a black person's emotional life seriously.

Vernita Green
Vivica A. Fox as Vernita Green.
Vivica A. Fox's character Vernita Green (a.k.a. Copperhead) may return in Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (to be released next Spring) courtesy of the film's fractured time scheme. But for now she is a typical example of Hollywood cannon fodder. It's another bait-and-switch role, used to lure black filmgoers to a movie and then be conveniently dispatched to appease white racist distaste. Vernita is a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (or DiVAS), a group of hit-women working for the film's shadowy title character Bill, a pimp figure. Although Kill Bill shows how one diva, The Bride (Uma Thurman), seeks revenge on Bill by first hunting down and killing her sister divas, this movie is no more an examination of patriarchy than was the Hughes Brothers' noxious American Pimp. Tarantino, always in trivia-mode, simply creates his own Charlie's Angels but ups the pop references and intensifies the violence quotient. Vernita's death is not taken seriously, but then Tarantino takes nothing seriously besides his adolescent fascination with the low end of popular culture.

Tarantino is the first white filmmaker to forge a career based on disreputable, underclass taste -- the movie culture that black urban youth were raised on and affectionately viewed as their own. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill owe their inspiration to '70s blaxploitation movies -- a Hollywood trend that catered to the domestic fragmentation that occurred in America after '60s political dissent, responding specifically to the social conflagrations of riots and rebellions that shifted the tax base and demographic make up of most U.S. cities. (Abandoned urban movie houses were blighted, left to feature the kind of trash-product that had been the traditional fare of drive-ins.) Blaxploitation anticipated a lasting cultural fragmentation. The pop audience that the '60s seemed to unite became newly segregated into distinct racial and generational enclaves. The young folk who grew up on blaxploitation (and who would innovate hip hop culture) withdrew into disaffected sub-cults -- claiming grade Z action movies, even the cheaply made and hastily dubbed kung-fu imports, as aesthetic ideals divorced of any social or ideological thinking.

Young, white Tarantino witnessed and participated in these changes. As a new era's hipster, Tarantino embarked upon a different kind of white flight. He gravitated toward sleazy black pop but without acquiring any political identification. He could reject the traditional, bourgeois film content and claim a timely, original approach: His films emphasized the pleasure of pop without moral conscience, yet were rife with racially tinged violence. Blaxploitation was thereby reborn as something postmodern -- a white-identified entertainment form that took lack of social progress for granted and celebrated the post-80s tenets of greed and narcissism.

This was coincidental with hip hop's dubious achievement of "nigga," unearthing former opprobrium and transforming it into publicly accepted address. Tarantino, in his own way, affected a similar transformation, appealing to the public's unaddressed racial anxiety and seeming to relieve it through ruthless evocations of racism and hostility. That was the novelty of his early '90s screenplays that incorporated vicious, racist utterances into slangy, kitsch-obsessed dialogue (in Reservoir Dogs, True Romance and Pulp Fiction the various "nigger" references were clearly hostile, not salutary). Tarantino's irresponsible comic lingo matched the blithe way he dramatized brutality devoid of purpose.

It's no coincidence that Pulp Fiction made a star of Samuel L. Jackson, who embodied Tarantino's devolution of blaxploitation heroism (a prototype that was always community conscious) as a figure of single-minded, craven, remorselessness. Tarantino's regard for blaxploitation -- like his passion for Japanese animation and Hong Kong action flicks -- is a simple matter of white appropriation. Kill Bill has the most panache (and the biggest budget) of any grade-Z action flick ever made. But it is a questionable triumph. All it demonstrates is the tendency for dominant culture (Hollywood, America, white supremacy) to co-opt the styles and implied needs of subcultures, deracinate them and then produce something spectacularly conceited.

Kill Bill may be mindless, but it is not meaningless. Tarantino's move away from the concerns of blaxploitation -- and the black female heroine of Jackie Brown with Thurman's blonde valkyrie -- reveals his true allegiance. He's not a black filmmaker the way some have claimed Bill Clinton was a "black" president. Tarantino has simply hoovered-up all the same pop trivia that had been consigned to the poor, urban class and serves it back as a demonstration of the success and approbation that can be had simply by forsaking such issues as social inequality, historically-determined class roles, genuine spirituality and injustice. Consider: He is exactly like a black teenager watching Shaft, Three the Hard Way or The Chinese Connection, unconcerned with how movies portray substantive human dilemmas except that he's now 45 years old, free of the social traps that beset unenlightened, underprivileged black youth and shows no particular connection to the one black female figure in Kill Bill.

Vernita Green's death is as startling and outrageous as all the others in Kill Bill, the first step in the film's supposedly humorous series of slaughters. Tarantino stages Vernita's murder in her own home, after she and The Bride have demolished the living room in a brawl. It's kind of witty but also not. The juxtaposition of domesticity and surreal violence only leads to a vicious shocker: Vernita's daughter arrives home from grade school in time to watch her mother nailed to the kitchen cabinet by a knife. It takes a near-idiotic mentality to detach this scene from its sociological and psychological horror and then laugh. Movie-nerd Tarantino goes for shock, but he also aims for pain. His penchant for pop effects does not erase the fact that this is a black woman butchered by a white woman. The basic elements of the scene are part of its message, crucial to its effect. Disregarding motherhood, family, class and race tension conveys no lesson, it only exacerbates.

There's not enough back story to Vernita and The Bride's relationship to make up for Tarantino's apparent indifference. As with the Jackson-Travolta pairing in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino is incapable of portraying realistic black/white relationships; he retreats into his own screwy blaxploitation fantasy. Vernita's death in Kill Bill is another heartless narrative furbelow in a storyline and movie that, in the end, simply continues Hollywood's white-supremacist conventions.

Armond White is film critic for the New York Press. White was staff writer for The Nation for 12 years (1984-1996) and is the author of two books on pop culture.
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