Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood… and the Manson Family

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Quentin Tarantino has never been one to shy away from raising a furore to get his point across. One way or another. It is therefore unsurprising that his return to cinema, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, has been the subject of much discussion. Yet I am not about to talk about Bruce Lee. His daughter, Shannon, has broached every point that I might have introduced, far more eloquently than I would have been able to. What I am going to talk about is Charles Manson.

Despite enjoying the film upon first viewing, I found myself uncomfortable upon leaving the cinema, though I hadn’t a clue as to why. It was only on discovering this tweet from Sorry To Bother You, director Boots Riley, that I understood what it was that had been troubling me:

Re Once Upon A Time In Hollywood:

The Manson Family were overt White Supremacists who tried to start a race war w the goal of killing Black folks.

They weren’t “hippies” spouting left critiques of media. They were right-wingers.

This fact flips Tarantino’s allegory on its head.’

– Boots Riley (@BootsRiley) August 24, 2019
image courtesy of @onceinhollywood via instagram

It was the Mansons. Particularly the Manson girls.


Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth introduces the viewer to the Manson girls. His desire for Margaret Qualley’s Pussycat, in turn, renders the other Manson girls idealised hippies. Flower-children. This depiction wouldn’t necessarily be problematic but for the fact that even at their cruellest, the Mansons are still idealised hippies. Qualley spewing vitriol after a passing police car; the Tate-Labianca murderers going after Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton instead of Sharon Tate because people like him taught them how to kill.

They stick out within a film otherwise so dedicated to portraying the truth of the period. This point isn’t to say that historical accuracy should be paramount in every movie set at some point in the past, as can be seen in Tarantino’s darkly comic revisionist finale. Instead, it is worth questioning why Tarantino – amid a highly controversial American administration- chose to further alter history by skating over the Mansons’ white supremacy to portray them as delusional leftists?

It may have been a human error as much as it may have been malicious. Not being Tarantino, I can’t make any definitive statements either way. Nevertheless, I can present my opinion as a cinema-goer to leave you to decide on what you think.

My concerns surrounding the film chiefly manifested in the sequence on Spahn Ranch, after Cliff Booth talks to the elderly Spahn. As he exits Spahn’s house, he is beset by the Manson girls: shrieking incomprehensibly at him without daring to move from where they are standing, whilst he strides towards his car, unflappable. The single interaction he has with another man during this particular sequence who isn’t Spahn is with James Landry Hebert’s Steven ‘Clem’ Grogan, whom he pummels for having stuck a knife in one of his tires.

image courtesy of @tarantino_news via instagram

This is watched by the Manson girls.

All still shrieking. All still refusing to interfere. Throughout this entire sequence, my mind drifted back to Tarantino’s recent history with women, such as his ire at reporter Farah Nayeri’s question as to why Sharon Tate didn’t have more dialogue in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood and the discovery, in 2018, of his negligence on the set of Kill Bill leading to Uma Thurman being injured. Whilst Tarantino has navigated these controversies as well as you might expect of one so well-versed in contention, it is difficult to remove the art from the artist as so many would suggest when the art portrays the Manson girls as you might expect left-wingers to be represented in a cartoon: screaming their hatred for violence, for fascism, without taking any meaningful action.

To equate the Mansons with leftists, regardless of your own beliefs, is irresponsible writing at best. Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s centre on extremism, mentions that although at the time of the Tate-Labianca murders, many white supremacists distanced themselves from Manson mainly based on aesthetics, as of late there have been many promoting the supposed accelerationism of Manson’s Helter Skelter.

Hester Skelter is Manson’s theory of a racial war that would lead to his cult enslaving black people; beginning with The Beatles’ White Album, which he thought was about his theory of racial war and would call young white women to join his’ family.’ Though they may be cloaked in drug use and hippie aesthetics, the ideals of the Mansons are those of the white supremacist. Therefore to code the Mansons as leftists is to rewrite history.

Despite my apprehensions about Tarantino’s misinterpretation of the Mansons, I didn’t dislike Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. Far from it. Whilst Tarantino’s coding of the Manson girls as leftists left me unsettled; I was enraptured whenever Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate was on-screen. Though there was as much lascivious camerawork to be expected from a man whose main fetish is the fun fact of many film fans, the narrative treated her with a tenderness that is rarely found in Tarantino’s cinematography. Sharon’s sister, Debra, even expressed her appreciation for the film, allowing her to ‘see her sister again’ as she was in life.

image courtesy of @tarantino_news via instagram

Tarantino’s revisionist finale, too, felt righteous in all its cartoonish fury. The choice to brutalise the Mansons instead of portraying the murders was an expert one, allowing for Tarantino’s exaggerated violence without disrespecting a woman whose family have had to watch her die all over again in countless exploitative films.

I critique Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood not because I dislike it but because there are things that I know can be done better; that I know, it can be done better just by watching the film itself. Whether you agree with me is another thing entirely. Yet it is as Albert Camus said: ‘Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.’ Or, to paraphrase Tarantino, fiction is in part ‘as real as a doughnut, motherf**ker.’ What might be human error may still echo into the landscape in which it was created.

Therefore I encourage you to consume all forms of media with a critical eye. Whatever your conclusion might be.

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