Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tackles the ethics of altering history

Why filmmakers should be allowed to take artistic liberties with historical events

Although Tarantino ahs been criticized for inaccurately potraying the motives of the Manson Family, Nathan believes filmmakers should be allowed to take artistic liberties.
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When I heard the new Quentin Tarantino movie was about the Manson Family, a radicalized cult, and their 1969 murder of American actress Sharon Tate, I was concerned. The writer-director is known for delighting in gore, and I feared the film would glorify the crimes and their perpetrators.

However, as a Tarantino fan, I didn’t count him out right away. And he didn’t disappoint.

Tarantino’s mission was to meticulously reconstruct 1960s Hollywood and resurrect one of its most beloved stars, Sharon Tate. In doing so, he let his audiences enjoy a day in the life with her in the place and period she lived.

If you haven’t seen the film, be warned there are spoilers ahead.

The movie is set in 1960s Los Angeles, and while both Tate and the Mansons are part of the story, it really centres around fictional film and television star Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his stunt double Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt. These two characters find themselves on the edge of irrelevancy as their 1960s Hollywood fame threatens to give way.

Rick desperately clings to his career and dreams of socializing with his next-door neighbour Sharon Tate, who embodies the bygone era that Tarantino so loves. Meanwhile, Cliff is content living on the fringes of the Hollywood scene. While running errands for Rick, Cliff picks up a hitchhiker and takes her to an old Western film ranch on the outskirts of town, where she lives with a cult of hippies: the den of the Manson Family.

Our two protagonists exist in the middle of an era on the brink of collapse. They float close to Tate and the promise of stardom while simultaneously inhabiting the fringes with the cult members, who bring the decade to a bloody end.

However, Tarantino’s depiction of the cult’s crimes purposely deviates from the true story in order to deliver a satisfying twist ending that deflates the Mansons’ power while commemorating Sharon Tate and a Hollywood that no longer exists.

As the Mansons idle outside of Tate’s home, Rick comes out of his house to berate them for the noise. At this point, they decide to kill him instead of Tate.

Instead, the aspiring murderers meet their own gruesome fates. When they invade Rick’s home, they’re brutally taken down by a formidable Cliff. It’s as graphic a scene as you’d expect from Tarantino. 

It was at this point that I understood what Tarantino was doing. This film isn’t meant to be a faithful retelling of history. Rather, it’s cinema as wish fulfillment. Tate and her friends live in a fairy-tale ending, which is appropriate given the title. What’s more, Rick is finally invited into Tate’s home now that her death has been prevented. Rick’s career will be just fine.

Functionally, this ending follows the same tricks Tarantino pulled in Inglourious Basterds, which features Hitler being gunned down by the Jewish heroes in a theatre of burning Nazis. While we all know this never happened, it’s satisfying to see evil people meet terrible ends. Likewise, it’s fulfilling to witness good people escaping harm.

Although I see Tarantino’s subverted portrayal of the Manson group as one of the film’s strengths, it’s also the source of one of its most potent criticisms, which is about the missing details of the Manson Family’s motivation.

On Twitter, director Boots Riley questioned Tarantino’s writing choices by pointing out that Charles Manson was a white supremacist, and that the Tate murders were part of a plan to incite a race war so as to kill Black Americans. Tarantino doesn’t touch on this. Instead, the killers are portrayed as having a different reason for their violence.

One could argue that it’s irresponsible of Tarantino to ignore the cult’s racial hatred because this obscures a harsh reality for the viewers in favour of lampooning the director’s detractors.

Boots Riley has a point. The Nazis and the Holocaust are more widely known than Manson’s failed efforts to incite a race war. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood opens itself to the same criticisms of the era it recreates in that it’s severely lacking Black representation. The average audience member could walk away from the movie without ever knowing about the Manson Family’s racism, an integral part of the real story.

Despite this, Tarantino should be given artistic liberties with his portrayal of historical events in service of his story.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t a biopic about Charles Manson. There are plenty of those. His psychology isn’t relevant to this story. In fact, he only appears for a brief moment. Furthermore, while journalists and documentarians have a commitment to facts, fictional storytellers do not.

No reasonable person should walk out of any film, whether based on real events or not, and assume everything they saw was an accurate depiction. Fiction inspired by history doesn’t have to adhere to real events, because the onus is on the audience to separate reality from fiction.

Moreover, Tarantino doesn’t explain the Tate murder in the film either. The audience is expected to know about them beforehand in order to appreciate the subversion. This specific film expects the audience to know what happened, just as fiction in general relies on audiences to engage critically.

Tarantino was justified in revising the history of Tate and the Mansons as a tool for creating his ode to 1960s Hollywood.

In an age of overwhelming reboots and sequels, it’s refreshing to see an auteur at the top of their game, making successful movies off of original ideas. That’s something to be celebrated.

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