Why I taught a class on rivals Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino

Directors Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee don’t see eye-to-eye on much of anything. Author provided

With Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus in the news for the film’s straight-to-Vimeo release, and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight currently in production (see Samuel L. Jackson’s Camera+ page for updates), it’s a good time to share my experience teaching a college class on these two directors. More to the point, I’d like to explain why I chose to teach it at all.

Last year, when I announced I’d be teaching a class that combines the works of Lee and Tarantino, I heard the same question: Why?

And within seconds came the clarification: I mean, why teach those two together?

It’s a valid question. After all, the two directors don’t see eye-to-eye on much of anything. Here’s a quick refresher.

Feuding directors

The feud between Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino began 18 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 Variety, Lee 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, declaring 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 subsided – until Django Unchained (2012) galloped into theaters.

Not surprisingly, 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 to never see Django, calling 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.

Lee and Tarantino: an ideal pairing

Based on these accounts, it’s perhaps understandable that many aren’t sure why I paired Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino in a college film course. But 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 created a 10-week class on Tarantino and Lee.

The directors are:

1) Marketable

Like my upcoming class on The Walking Dead and my class on Seinfeld, the two names attached to this course drew a diverse group of students. A full class with varying perspectives on these popular filmmakers is good for the university, our department and, most importantly, classroom discussion.

2) Relevant

When I taught my class on Lee and Tarantino (spring 2014), the Django Unchained controversy was still fresh in our minds (along with the film’s constant comparisons to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave) and Spike Lee had just released Oldboy. To this end, students were technically learning in the moment, watching the discourse surrounding these directors unfold.

Moreover, students became aware of black directors currently working in the industry for whom Spike Lee paved the way, like Lee Daniels (The Butler), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), and Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man Holiday).

3) Auteurs

Despite directors and showrunners (like Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan) who pooh-pooh the auteur theory (“it’s a load of horseshit,” Gilligan griped), 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 onto their works – yes, even though filmmaking is a highly collaborative process. The films of Tarantino and Lee most certainly have distinct looks, tones and styles. As expected, students distinguished these immediately and were able to converse about them with excitement and ease.

4) Catalysts for discussions about race

Most incoming students had not considered Tarantino’s films from Lee’s perspective, or vice-versa. But after we pitted the two directors alongside each other, they quickly learned 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’s one that students (and filmgoers) ought to participate in.

5) Conflicted in their representations of women

For many feminists, Spike Lee has "a woman problem.” Some common 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 female 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, that students need to participate in.