Quentin Tarantino isn’t a stranger to controversy. He’s been courting it for the lion’s share of his career: He has a penchant for violence that borders on fetishism, and his scripts boast an inexcusably stomach-churning amount of racial epithets. Even in the beginning of his career, with Reservoir Dogs he chapped the asses of cinephiles everywhere by lifting plot elements wholesale from Ringo Lam’s City on Fire. So when Tarantino showed up at an anti-police brutality protest in New York City on October 24th, he knew he was crossing contentious ground.
But he’s clearly been taken off-guard by the flak he’s received for joining Rise Up October to decry police violence in the United States. It only took a day for New York’s finest to voice their displeasure over Tarantino’s presence at the rally, and call for a boycott of his upcoming film, The Hateful Eight. Unsurprisingly, in less than a week the dust-up has escalated, though it’s police unions who have done most of the escalating: Last Thursday, the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, claimed they have “something in the works ” for Tarantino to go along with the boycott.
The FOP’s warning to the director reads as both sinister and absurd in equal measure. Their executive director, Jim Pasco, clarified that this is an economical rather than a physical threat, but what that could possibly mean is up in the air, especially since police unions all over the country are already holding a standing boycott of The Hateful Eight. Is there a better way to hit Tarantino in his wallet than that? In the meantime, the rest of us have to hang tight until Tarantino blithely stumbles into Pasco’s nefarious trap and springs financial ruin upon himself.
That the police would bother with Tarantino beyond the reach of a boycott is deeply troubling. Abstaining from watching The Hateful Eight while trying to persuade audiences to do the same feels, at least, like a rational response. When the owners of corporations like MillerCoors donate to personhood campaigns, you can buy their products. When artists make political comments that you consider disagreeable, you can stop buying their art. But the menace of Pasco’s words is beyond the pale.
Sure, the cops aren’t lying in wait to administer savage beatings to Tarantino, but we’re still talking about institutional intimidation here. The FOP has reacted in the extreme to extreme interpretation of Tarantino’s words: “When I see a murder I cannot stand by. And I have to call the murdered the murdered. And I have to call the murderers the murderers,” he proclaimed to the crowd gathered at the rally, which folks like Pasco and Patrick Lynch, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association’s president, have taken as a swipe at police officers everywhere instead of police officers like Daniel Pantaleo, Sean Williams and David Darkow, Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, Robert Bates, Michael Slager, und so weiter und so fort.
What’s going on here? Where does Pasco get off dropping the hammer on Tarantino like this? By threatening Tarantino he’s clumsily wiped away the nuance of the debate and made himself into the indisputable bad guy. Really, if you weren’t on Tarantino’s side before Pasco delivered his statement, you may be on his side now, which doesn’t bode especially well for the boycotting campaign, whatever its intentions.
Of course, boycotting The Hateful Eight isn’t even a smart move in the first place. Except in the most clear-cut circumstances, measuring a boycott’s efficacy is nigh impossible. Take, for example, Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall, the film that is to gay pride what The Help is to the Civil Rights Movement. Stonewall tanked spectacularly at the box office, ostensibly thanks to a dedicated boycott by LGBT activists who (rightly) saw the film as a gross insult to the watershed moment in the history of the pride movement and lobbied against it by consequence.
On paper, that sounds like an instance of boycotting success, but in an alternate reality where the boycotters went to the theaters along with the meager crowds that did turn out for the film’s opening weekend, Stonewall still would have had to ice skate uphill to turn a profit. A $187,674 domestic gross points to general audience apathy more than successful grassroots activism (though you could maybe argue that the petitioning and boycotting was successful even if it wasn’t impactful). In all likelihood, you can chalk up the film’s commercial failure to toxic reviews and bad marketing more than anything socially compelling, even if such toxic reviews were fueled by disgust for the film’s portrait and message. (But who really reads reviews anymore, right?)
Or how about the case of The Da Vinci Code, a movie shunned by the Vatican for the perceived slights it made upon Christianity? It still managed to rake in a meager worldwide gross of $758 million. The sequel, which premiered three years later to the sound of the same hullabaloo still scored a global box office tally of around $485 million. The latter, at least, saw a big drop in revenue compared to its predecessor, which could mean that the second time was the charm for the Catholic Church and that Christians all over the planet chose not to spend their money on a ticket to the film; it could also just mean that nobody wanted to see it, much like nobody really wanted to see, say, Ender’s Game or The Golden Compass, two films also subject to boycotts and which wound up flopping so hard that crediting their failure to boycotting feels generous. Granted, those boycotts come from nearopposite points of view, but rarely do such perspectives hold sway in the grander scheme of box office dollars. Plus, The Golden Compass and its sequels have already been greenlighted for a TV series, so it looks like not even an optimistic member of the Catholic League could point to the group’s efforts as instrumental.
Let’s also not forget the time that Men’s Rights Activists decided that Mad Max: Fury Road went over the line by injecting femininity into an American pop culture landmark (that isn’t actually American at all). Admittedly, Mad Max: Fury Road didn’t set the box office on fire, but it remains one of 2015’s most critically lauded films. (And while the film squeaked over the profitability line in international returns, it did well enough to justify a sequel, so there’s that.) Much like Ender’s Game and The Golden Compass, Mad Max: Fury Road’s monetary struggles no doubt had more to do with issues far afield of the offense certain groups have taken, be it an absence of an established brand identity of high mainstream standing, or even just the fact that they weren’t very good movies.
So boycotts are dicey propositions, which means that a police-driven boycott of The Hateful Eight won’t matter to Tarantino or the Weinstein Company in the long run. It’s fair to note that his last film, Django Unchained, didn’t do so hot domestically; it isn’t wrong to posit that a police boycott could visibly impact Tarantino’s bottom line stateside. But The Hateful Eight costs about half of what Django Unchained cost, and besides, if there’s a chance that the boycott might hurt its box office take, there’s just as much of a chance that it’ll end up working against the unions by driving ticket sales. (What’s that old saying about bad publicity again?)
It’s perfectly, 100% acceptable for the police to kickstart a boycott of The Hateful Eight, and of Tarantino’s work in general. Issuing a blanket threat to Tarantino himself, even a threat that’s fiscal in nature, isn’t. Perhaps Pasco knows that the boycotting campaign is an impotent, aimless countermeasure to Tarantino’s celebrity activism; he’s taking on a Hollywood titan at precisely the wrong time of the year, the time when hype and buzz is at its strongest as the industry’s award season peaks over the horizon. Let’s face it: A boycott is a pretty dumb reprisal against one of the few must-sees left in the year that doesn’t involve Jedis. (Speaking of pointless boycotts …) The announcement Pasco made last Thursday adds up only to so much chest-thumping. It’s dangerous and repugnant, and it should be beneath all members of our country’s law enforcement (emphasis on “should be”).
There’s been little development in the fracas between Tarantino and America’s police unions since Pasco’s original proclamation. We don’t know yet where he intends on striking Tarantino, or where. But even if the threat goes nowhere and adds up to nothing, the damage is done: To the reputation and already tarnished image of the police, to Tarantino and to the sanctity of our First Amendment. Tarantino had “no business” speaking his mind at the Rise Up rally, as Lynch put it in his own remarks, but there’s a certain legal document that says otherwise. Maybe Pasco and his colleagues should be more worried about that than the pronouncements of a single filmmaker, speaking among a mass of thousands.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.