Five Reasons I’m Teaching a Class on Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino

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Ever since I announced I’d be teaching a college class that combines the works of Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino, I’ve received the same question: Why? And within seconds comes the clarification: I mean, why teach those two together?

I suppose this is a valid question. After all, the two directors do not see eye to eye on much of anything. Here’s a quick refresher:

Feuding Directors and the Use of the N-Word

The feud between Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino began 16 years ago with the release of Jackie Brown (1997), Tarantino’s homage to 1970s blaxploitation films like Shaft (1971) and Foxy Brown (1974).

In an interview with Daily VarietyLee reacted to Jackie Brown’s excessive use of the N-word (it’s uttered 38 times): “Quentin is infatuated with that word,” Lee complains. “What does he want to be made—an honorary black man?” For the same reason, Lee has criticized Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), True Romance (1993), and Pulp Fiction (1994).

Within a week of Lee’s Jackie Brown comments, Tarantino struck back on the TV program Charlie Rose, explaining his “rights” as a screenwriter: “As a writer, I demand the right to write any character in the world that I want to write. And to say that I can’t do that because I’m white […] that is racist.”

For a while, the Lee-Tarantino rivalry mostly went dark, but then about this time last year Django Unchained (2012) galloped into theaters.

Surprising (virtually) no one, Lee vocalized his disapproval of Tarantino’s slave-revenge film/fantasy, which cites the N-word over 100 times. In an interview with Vibe TV, Lee vowed not to see Django, claiming it “disrespectful to my ancestors.” And later, in his usual sentence-case style, he tweeted, “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.”

On this occasion, Tarantino simply countered that he would not “waste time” responding to Lee. Thus ends the quarreling…for now.

Actors, Making Their Points (and Making Amends)

Sometimes the directors’ discord extends to the actors with whom they work, most notably Samuel L. Jackson who has made pictures with both filmmakers. Although Jackson was cast in Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991), he has publicly supported Tarantino’s output and disparaged Lee’s: “Jackie Brown is a wonderful homage to black exploitation films,” Jackson submits in an interview for Jet. “It’s a good film and Spike hasn’t made one of those in a few years.” (Ouch.)

And Lee’s response to Jackson: “for him to get up there and defend Tarantino: to me, it really smacks of ‘House Negro’ defending the master.” (Double ouch.)

As Spike Lee discusses in his interview earlier this month on Oprah’s Next Chapter, such remarks explain the absence of Jackson from Lee’s films over the aughts. The two men have, however, recently made amends, and Jackson is featured in a prominent role in Lee’s Oldboy, which is in theaters now.

Like Samuel L. Jackson, Jaime Foxx has also criticized Lee for his comments about Tarantino and Django Unchained: “I respect Spike; he’s a fantastic director. But he gets a little shady when he’s taking shots at his colleagues without looking at the work. To me, that’s irresponsible.”


Lee and Tarantino: An Ideal Pairing

Based on these accounts, then, it’s perhaps understandable that students, friends, and random people I encounter are curious as to why I would pair Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino in a college film course. But honestly, I’ve never questioned the juxtaposition. Rather, because of the ongoing animosity between the two, I’ve contrasted the filmmakers’ works for some time now. To that end, here are five more reasons that I am creating a 10-week class on Tarantino and Lee.

The directors are…

1. Marketable.

Like my recent class on Seinfeld (which filled almost immediately after registration opened), the two names attached to this course will draw students, hopefully a diverse group of them.

Indeed, a full class with varying perspectives on these popular filmmakers is good for the university, our department, and (most importantly) classroom discussion.

2. Relevant.

With the Django Unchained controversy still fresh on our minds (as well as its almost-weekly comparison to Steve McQueen’s now-playing 12 Years a Slave) and Oldboy‘s release, students will technically be learning in the moment, watching unfold the discourse surrounding these directors and their most recent works.

Moreover, because of the same, students will be (made?) aware of the success of some recent pictures by black directors for whom Spike Lee helped to pave the way (e.g., The Butler12 Years a SlaveFruitvale StationThe Best Man Holiday).

3. Auteurs.

Despite directors or showrunners like Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan who pooh-pooh the auteur theory (“it’s a load of horseshit,” Gilligan gripes), I still think it’s a useful starting point when discussing directors like Lee and Tarantino who have a decent-sized oeuvre, or body of visual work.

The basic premise of the auteur theory is that film directors, like writers with pens or painters with brushes, use the technical apparatus of film (cinematography, editing, sound, etc.) to stamp their personalities on their works—yes, even though filmmaking is a highly collaborative process. The films of Tarantino and Lee most certainly have individual looks, tones, and styles.

4. Prime catalysts for discussions about race (duh).

Most incoming students will not have considered Tarantino’s films from Lee’s perspective or vice versa. But after we pit the two directors alongside each other, they will learn there is “a different set of standards,” as Lee puts it.

Here’s Lee again: “I called up Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax, and said, ‘Harvey, if I brought you a script that had 38 Jewish cocksuckers in it and 38 kikes in it, would you make that script?’ And he said, ‘No.’ And if I went to any other executive in this business, they would say the same thing. But if you put nigger in it, that’s all right.” While never a pleasant discussion, it is one of which students (and filmgoers in general) ought to be aware.

5. Conflicted in their representations of women.

For many feminists, Spike Lee has “a woman problem.” Some complaints: he’s unsure whether to demonize or praise women, his male characters are always far more three-dimensional than his female ones, and he relies too heavily on the “conniving siren” trope.

Conversely, Tarantino’s women characters—who are generally fierce, capable, feisty, and complex—often fare better in both scholarship and the media. Still, some viewers wonder if the director is responsible for fetishizing [sexual] violence against women, and many are still scratching their heads about Kerry Washington’s passive, mannequin-like character in Django Unchained. These are discussions, like those centering on race, in which students need to participate.

At the time of writing, only 7 spots remain in the class. Wish you could join us…

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PhD. Film, Shakespeare, TV. Child of pop culture. Advocate of social media. Gene Kelly junkie. Co-editor of Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty-First Century. DePaul University.