Western movies, extremely popular several decades ago, have now turned in a niche genre; once or twice in a year, an unsophisticated viewer can notice a western action movie being shown in a cinema—mostly if it was filmed by a more-or-less renowned director. However, the times when westerns were popular have gone long ago.
Such a decline in popularity can be explained easily. The setting where westerns take place—the Wild West, the 19th century, the end of the Civil War, racial tensions, the repressions of Native Americans—is something modern culture permeated with political correctness would probably be uncomfortable digesting. Modern action movies address topics that seem to be more accepted and appreciated by the public: the war on terrorism, for example. At the same time, a huge layer of American history is being ignored, as if the problems it is connected to were solved long ago, once and for all.
This is not true, however. Modern American society still faces problems such as racism (both white and black), ethnic discrimination, and crime, on a daily basis. Almost the same way as a century ago, one will discover that the northern states are probably a bit more democratic than the southern ones. This is natural: historical and cultural paradigms that had prevailed for a long time cannot disappear in a moment; so, speaking in terms of the historical process, the days when slavery and later racial discrimination were denounced and banned have gone not so long ago.
One of the movie directors who not just gave the genre of westerns a second breath, but also addressed a bunch of the aforementioned important problems, is Quentin Tarantino. I am not going to call him a prophet of free speech or something (although, compared to other “glossy” Hollywood directors, desperately trying to keep up with modern political correctness trends, Tarantino looks like Django Unchained, one of his own creations). What I am saying is that Quentin Tarantino is not afraid to a) repeatedly work within a semi-dead genre such as westerns and give it a number of “second shots,” and b) show things exactly the way they were in those times. And a good example of such an attitude is one of his recent movies, “The Hateful Eight.”
I am mostly talking about the demonstrations of racism here. “Django Unchained” was a cruel and truthful depiction of slavery, and a story of a black man breaking free and having his revenge. “The Hateful Eight” is, on the other hand, a bit less shocking in terms of showing humiliations black people suffered back then, but at the same time somehow more truthful in showing moods white people had (and still have) towards black people. The movie is not about racism, but it is definitely soaked in it.
One of the main characters is a black bounty hunter, major Warren—a veteran of the Civil War and a cruel man. On his way to the town of Red Rock, where he seeks to deliver his “collected bounty” (a bunch of dead bodies of famous criminals) he teams up with another hunter, John Ruth, convoying a dangerous female criminal. Along with the future sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix—a southerner and a war veteran whom they meet along the road—and O.B. Jackson, a stageman, they arrive to a haberdashery shop looking for a resting place from a severe snow blizzard. There they find a Mexican administrator of the haberdashery, and several white people, one of them being general Smithers: a legendary man fighting for the South in the years of the Civil War. Rather soon, it turns out that many people in the room—including Warren—are not whom they pretend to be, or at least not what they appear like.
“The Hateful Eight” is not about racism. It is a thriller, a detective story based on suspense and violence; however, a big chunk of the plot builds up solely on racial prejudice: hatred that Smithers feels towards Warren because he is black (and later, for what Warren done in the past, but this is a spoiler); distrust that Mannix has towards Warren, for the same reason; Warren’s suspicions towards the Mexican guy, Bob, because he knows that the shop’s owner, a black woman named Minnie, never allowed a single Mexican to even enter her haberdashery. Details like this are subtle, but they build up the story, and Tarantino proves himself to be masterful with handling such details.
I discussed this movie in the context of racism mainly because I like Tarantino’s manner to throw everything “in your face.” This looks and sounds like a sobering shout, a revolver shot, making you open your eyes and perceive reality, instead of tip-toeing around the problem, seeking to both solve something and not insult anybody. Tarantino speaks in a straightforward, rough manner; his movies definitely insult, offend, and make hundreds of thousands of people feel uncomfortable—but instead of talking about the ugliness of racism, he shows it. And this, in my opinion, is one of the strongest ways to make people think, change something, reevaluate their past and present, and maybe find new, more effective ways of treating old wounds.