Jan/Feb 2023  •   Nonfiction

The Bad Guy Problem: Examining Cinema's Most Convenient Excuse

by Gregg Maxwell Parker

Photo courtesy of NASA's image library

Photo courtesy of NASA's image library

Warning: this essay contains racist, homophobic, and misogynistic slurs. A lot of your favorite movies do, too.

We all have to make a living

My friend Sean and I sold the first screenplay we wrote together. We started it in August, sold it in September, and by November, the film was in production. This never happens. Though the resulting movie is not my favorite, that sale propelled us into an unexpected vocation: we were now professional screenwriters.

At 26, we didn't have an understanding of our creative goals, how to build a long-term career, or really what we were doing at all. With no plan and a need to pay rent, we took the kinds of jobs available to those at our level: action movies with modest budgets, the types of films where people solve problems with punching and kicking. Not exactly high art, but it sure beat doing data entry.

Over the next six years, we sold several features and did rewrites on half a dozen more. Most of the movies we worked on never got produced, and for the ones that did, we usually didn't receive credit—nor should we have, given most of our work was stripped out before production. This is normal. It would be nice if I could point to something on screen and say, "That's my writing, exactly as I intended it," but as an awful man once said, "that's what the money is for."[1]

As a writer in Hollywood, you end up talking about a lot of projects—not just your ideas, but properties other people own and need someone to work on. We'd meet with executives at production companies and they'd tell us about a script or treatment they'd purchased needing a rewrite, or a novel or comic book needing adapting. We'd read the material and give our thoughts, and sometimes[2] we'd be hired to do whatever work was required.

After a while, we noticed a worrying pattern in action movies: quite often, they included scenes we found to be offensive, unnecessary, and gross.

Take one of our earliest jobs: the script featured a scene where a teen girl is attacked by a ruthless group of drug dealers and has to fight her way out and escape. Standard action scene. It was the dialogue before the fight we found disturbing.

The main drug dealer, a skinhead, calls black people on a television "niggers" and makes vile sexual comments to this underaged girl. We didn't get why this was in the script—these lines weren't required for us to understand what was going on. Why include them?

The explanation was one we'd hear time and again: because he's the bad guy.

You see, the thinking goes, this skinhead is a bad dude, and we have to let the audience know that, so when he gets killed, it'll seem like he deserves it. Therefore, he says the N-word and makes perverted comments about a girl's hymen.

"Okay," I remarked on the car ride home, "but you had to think that stuff up in the first place. Like, I would never conceive of lines like that because it wouldn't occur to me to ever say that to a person. Why is that shit even in your head?"

In our view, this dialogue was not just disgusting, but unnecessary: the audience gets the drug gang is bad; we don't need to add racism and sex crimes on top of it. It seemed like the fact that this character was a villain was being used as an excuse to say the N-word and sexualize a young girl.

Thankfully, the director agreed, and those lines were removed, but that wasn't the last time we ran into the Bad Guy Problem. Over and over, we saw stories where women (sometimes young girls) were kidnapped, tortured, and raped, villains were pedophiles, and all kinds of racism and homophobia. Always, it was a Bad Guy doing these things, and in nearly every case, it seemed to us the story could be told without those scenes.

In general, we chose not to involve ourselves in projects that made us queasy, opting in later years to focus on adventure stories and movies about families rather than straight action, but the number of times we had the Bad Guy conversation made me notice just how prevalent this phenomenon was in movies I'd long enjoyed.


The Bad Guy Problem in action

So the genie says to the white guy, uh, um, "What's your one wish?" And the white guy goes, "You mean to tell me all the niggers and spics are out of America?" Genie goes, "Yeah." He says, "Well, um, I'll have a Coke, then." —The Boondock Saints[3]

Troy Duffy's 1999 cult hit includes a scene where a mob boss (Carlo Rota) demands Rocco (David Della Rocco) tell him a joke. Rocco tells a racist joke, interrupted by the mob boss and his compatriot (Ron Jeremy), who demand he say "nigger" instead of "black guy."

Rocco uses the word "spic" with no trouble, but only says the N-word when prodded. Duffy wants us to like Rocco, so he uses two Bad Guys to force him to cross the one line not crossed elsewhere in the film (which features the words "fag," "retard," "mick," and "wop," a man groping an unconscious woman, and a woman punched in the face).

In True Romance, Cliff (Dennis Hopper) tells a gangster (Christopher Walken) "Sicilians were spawned by niggers,"[4] using the word a half-dozen times. Cliff is not a villain, but perhaps he was only using this language to goad, knowing the racist gangster would be enraged by this idea, again allowing us to forgive the person saying the word because the other guy is worse.

It's notable that in Quentin Tarantino's early draft of the script, the man angrily shoots Cliff, furious over what he's said, whereas in the film, he laughs, making the defense of this speech murkier. Audiences seem okay with it: the film has a 93% score on Rotten Tomatoes from critics and fans.

In Pulp Fiction, the N-word is said by both Lance (Eric Stoltz) and Jimmie (Tarantino). Are they Bad Guys? Lance is a drug dealer, and Jimmie hangs out with gangsters (including Samuel L. Jackson's Jules), though we never see them do anything particularly "bad." They certainly aren't model citizens, and the film doesn't make heroes of them.

Tarantino's use of the N-word has been widely discussed, though much of the criticism has revolved around Tarantino the writer and instances of the word spoken by black characters. Whether a white writer should write black characters saying this word is a separate issue; the question here is whether a character is a gangster (or influenced by gangsters) is justification for going out of your way to show white people calling black people the N-word.

Tarantino has defended his dialogue, saying, "That's the way my characters talk—in the movies I've made so far. I also feel that the word 'nigger' is one of the most volatile words in the English language and anytime anyone gives a word that much power, I think everybody should be shouting it from the rooftops to take the power away."[5]

Here he employs two corollaries to the Bad Guy Problem: the It's Shocking argument, which says his goal is to disturb the audience and that these scenes are not intended to be fun, and the My Characters Would Say That argument, which states it's acceptable because that's how these people would talk if they were real.

The debate over whether his characters "would" say that is tough to argue: first of all, "realism" does not describe most of Tarantino's work; if he can kill Hitler and burn the Manson Family with a flamethrower, he can soften the language of a drug dealer. As someone who lived in LA for 15 years (and may or may not have known drug dealers), it certainly doesn't sound to me like something they "would say," but I didn't create the characters, so I can't say he's wrong. In Tarantino's mind, they would say those things. But if that's the case, why make a movie about them? Why not make a movie about some of the many drug dealers who don't say the N-word?

Samuel L. Jackson echoed Tarantino's sentiment in a 2019 interview,[6] arguing of his character in Jackie Brown, "Wouldn't Ordell say that?" The answer is yes, he would, as constructed. But Tarantino chose to make him a guy who would say that word, and made him look badass as he said it, normalizing its use rather than including any sort of discussion around it.

The lack of response from other characters is confusing. When Lance says, "Am I a nigger?" Vincent says nothing. Would it have been that hard to have Vincent take issue? Or maybe have Jules say something to Jimmie after he says the N-word four times? The notion these things are supposed to be disturbing or a signifier of a Bad Guy is undermined by how the other characters say nothing about it, rendering it "normal" in context.

That's what makes Pulp Fiction different from Django Unchained, where the word is spoken by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a slave owner. Django is given the chance to express how he feels, even getting revenge on some of his oppressors. That's a long way from Pulp Fiction, where Jules just stands there and takes it, voicing no objection.

Mario Van Peebles pointed out the absurdity of this scene: "Tarantino stands there telling Sam Jackson, 'this is not the dead nigger storage' or whatever. Now you know that there is no way ever in his life Tarantino would say that to someone who looks like Samuel Jackson. No way! He's just thinking, 'I can finally say nigger to a black person—I must be cool.'"[7]

Jackson has said the character of Bonnie, Jimmie's wife, was not originally written as black, but they "tried to soften it by making his wife black,"[8] meaning the story was altered just to accommodate Tarantino's casting of himself as the guy saying the N-word. It's difficult to see those lines as essential; Jimmie's speech could have been cut or rewritten, but Tarantino wrote himself that part so he could get to say the word "nigger" in a movie.

I'm not accusing Tarantino of being "anti-black." I don't think he goes around saying the N-word all day long.[9] That's the point: he's using his film as an excuse to get away with something he wouldn't want people to see him doing in everyday life.

Pulp Fiction has more defenders than Boondock Saints or True Romance because it's a better movie, but perceived quality shouldn't be an excuse to avoid discussion. Remember: calling a movie "good" is entirely subjective—there's no agreed-upon criteria for what makes something "good" or "bad," and I don't think "good" movies should receive less critical analysis than "bad" ones. Quite the opposite: I think "good" movies should inspire more criticism because if they're considered "good," that means they're representative of what we like to watch, and can therefore tell us something about our culture. Do you think these "good" movies wouldn't be as good if they didn't contain slurs?

Tarantino has been willing to take a critical look at other "great" filmmakers. He praised Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, but took issue with any attempt by the filmmaker to Bad Guy his way around the film's content:

"I always thought Kubrick was a hypocrite, because his party line was, I'm not making a movie about violence, I'm making a movie against violence. And it's just, like, Get the fuck off. I know and you know your dick was hard the entire time you were shooting those first 20 minutes, you couldn't keep it in your pants the entire time you were editing it and scoring it. You liked the rest of the movie, but you put up with the rest of the movie. You did it for those first 20 minutes. And if you don't say you did you're a fucking liar."[10]

Who's to say what an artist's motivations were? When filmmakers say they don't agree with their racist characters, we have little choice but to take them at their word. Thus, the Bad Guy Problem provides an easy excuse to present characters [that you created] saying and doing things [that you made them do] that you don't wish to defend.

Tarantino isn't the only celebrated director to cast himself in a part that "allowed" him to say the N-word. In Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese plays a character who says the word "nigger," the only time in the movie that word is spoken.[11] This was something I only noticed recently; in fact, even though I'd seen some of Scorsese's movies several times, there were a lot of things I hadn't noticed.


A white boy gets a talking to

When I was 24, I worked at a call center. Glamorous, I know. My coworkers and I would bide our time between calls by engaging in lively arguments about movies and sports that often devolved into shouting. One day, someone mentioned Martin Scorsese.

"I will never forgive him after Gangs of New York," said Donald, a middle-aged black man with a booming voice. "After the way he treated black people in that movie? Nuh-uh."

"Well, that was necessary to accurately represent that time in history," I said in defense of what was, at the time, one of my favorite Scorsese films. "The Irish in New York didn't want to fight in the war, so that was how they would have spoken about black people. He wasn't saying they were right."

"It's more than that," he said. "There was not a single black person in that movie who wasn't insulted, demeaned, or attacked."

"Yeah, but—"

He cut me off.

"Watch it again," he said.

So I did.[12] Here's what I found.


Gangs of New York: representation and the History excuse

"That's the spirit, boys. Go off and die for your blackie friends." —Gangs of New York[13]

I went into my rewatch of 2002's Gangs of New York, nominated for 10 Oscars and called the best picture of the year by Richard Roeper and Peter Travers, half expecting to be bombarded with disgusting racism. However, through much of the film, my rationale of "Bad Guys + History = Okay" held strong.

It's true the film features a great deal of bigotry: Asian characters are referred to as "chinks" and black characters are called the N-word many times, but Irish characters are also called slurs, as Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) repeatedly voices his hatred for Irish immigrants.

"If only I had the guns, Mr. Tweed, I'd shoot each and every one of them before they set foot on American soil,"[14] he muses.

Amsterdam (DiCaprio) has a black friend named Jimmy (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) who's treated like an equal in the gang, not reduced to servitude. And while the Civil War is called "another rich man's war" and the draft an "abuse of executive power," these scenes illustrate the viewpoint of the crowd that perpetrates the deadly riot at the film's climax.

I went on thinking this wasn't so bad until I got about halfway through, when Bill watches a shirtless black man dance (not the first shirtless black man to dance in the film) and refers to the "rhythms of the dark continent."[15] He then says the following:

"A jig doing a jig."

The film continues without this black man uttering a line.

Was that necessary? Did we need to see him yet again degrade a black person to understand he's bad? He killed Amsterdam's father in the opening scene—we get he's the Bad Guy. And we've heard plenty to let us understand the sentiments of the era: just a few minutes earlier is a play featuring a man dressed as Abraham Lincoln.[16] Everyone boos Lincoln, and Bill shouts, "Down with the Union!" as another man yells, "Leave the nigger dead!"

What struck me was not just how unnecessary this scene felt, or the fact that the actor was not given a single line, but the language itself: "A jig doing a jig." It made me queasy, just like I'd felt reading some of the gross things in scripts we were given in the early days. I understand Bad Guys say racist stuff... but you had to think of that line. Someone had to sit at a keyboard and think up "a jig doing a jig." I could write my entire life without thinking that phrase. I may not be a filmmaker on the level of Martin Scorsese, but I'm confident he could have made a decent movie without that line.

While Bill is the film's villain, he's not a simplistic Bad Guy. After the opening fight scene, Bill orders his men not to harm Priest Vallon's body and keeps a picture of Vallon on his wall, calling him an "honorable man" several times to show the respect he has for his opponent and the sacred nature of their battles.

Jenny (Cameron Diaz) tells Amsterdam that Bill "never laid a hand on me until I asked him to." The only reason to include this line would be to let us know Bill isn't "all bad." He's a killer, but not a rapist or child molester. At the end of the film, Bill is buried side-by-side with Amsterdam's father, honorable foes in death.

They found enough time in this 167-minute film to include the "jig doing a jig" scene and the one where we're told Bill isn't a rapist, but there are other things it seems they couldn't quite fit in. Over the course of the movie, black people have fewer than 10 lines—fewer than the number of times we hear the word "nigger."

While Jimmy's friends defend him when he's called the N-word in a church, we also learn almost nothing about him. He doesn't get the chance to describe his experiences, his thoughts on the war, or do much of anything besides being Amsterdam's black friend.

I was reminded of what Barry Gross said about Hemingway's treatment of Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises: "Hemingway never lets the reader forget that Cohn is a Jew."[17] That's true here: when Jimmy appears on screen with one of the Bad Guys, you can bet he's going to be called the N-word. Scorsese takes every opportunity to associate Jimmy's face with the most offensive term imaginable.

We also hear the word said by those who aren't necessarily Bad Guys, just characters passing through. And though black vs. white conflict is present, the conflict of Natives vs. Irish takes center stage. As Professor Benjamin Justice pointed out, "It's as if to say being prejudiced against Irish people makes one evil; being prejudiced against black people is irrelevant."[18]

The biggest difference between the black and Irish characters in Gangs is the Irish are given plenty of chances to tell us what life is like for them, to respond to how they're treated, while we see almost nothing from black characters. We hear from those who are against the war and the draft, but never any voice explaining why the war may be worth fighting. We hear from those who attack black people in the riots at the end of the film, but not from the black people themselves. If the violent mob is indeed the Bad Guys, why do we hear their reasoning over and over, with hardly any focus on those they kill?

In the film's climactic riots, black people are shown brutally murdered, though we only see a few brief instances. As critics have noted, the film leaves out some of the racist mob's most violent acts, like burning down a black orphanage. Far more time is dedicated to the moment white rioters are shot by soldiers, given slow-mo treatment like fallen heroes.

This is where the History excuse falls short: the black people killed in those riots were human beings whose lives were more than how they died. Why not show these families mourning their parents, children, siblings? The only mourner of a black person we see is Amsterdam, tending to his dead black friend to show us what a swell guy our white hero is.

I now understand what Donald was trying to get me to notice: black people treated as worthless pawns to further the stories of valued white people. The film is not without merit, and the story of those riots deserves to be told, but it's reasonable to expect if you're going to show black people being murdered by an angry mob, then black characters should have more than 10 lines in your film.

"Gangs of New York is a struggle between the Nativist gangs, and the Irish gangs,"[19] said Scorsese, describing the Nativists as people "whose families had fought and bled here in America," and that there was "extraordinary suffering" experienced "on all sides."

He failed to mention black Americans, who are merely side characters as the film attempts to, in Justice's words, "memorialize the immigrant Irish as the soul of a new nation." As for including a greater range of opinions about the war, Scorsese had a rather confusing argument:

"How many young people know that there was a Civil War? So what do you do? Do you explain about the Civil War?"

If you really believe young people don't know the Civil War happened, that's all the more reason to discuss it (and what led to it) in your film about American history. Black people were a part of that history, and to relegate them to the sidelines is to tell an incomplete version of the truth, one placing European immigrants front and center in defiance of the facts.

The Bad Guy defense and the History defense are at the ready for fans of the film, along with the About Race defense, which says you have to employ slurs when addressing racial issues—after all, how can one discuss race without showing racism?

Sadly, after 20 years, Gangs doesn't really hold up: it's not Scorsese's most beloved work, and few would judge his career by it. So how does Scorsese treat black characters in his other movies? What is the relationship between slurs and representation in Scorsese's most popular and acclaimed films?


They can't tell their stories if they never speak

"The Knights of Columbus were real headbreakers. True guineas. They took over their piece of the city. 20 years after an Irishman couldn't get a fucking job, we had the presidency, may he rest in peace. That's what the niggers don't realize. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it's this: no one gives it to you. You have to take it." —The Departed

These are the first lines spoken by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in 2006's The Departed, which won Scorsese his first Best Director Oscar as well as Best Picture at the 79th Academy Awards.

This is not the only instance of racist language in the film. Sgt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) says of law enforcement officers, "A lot of 'em just want to slam a nigger's head through a plate glass window."[20] Sean (Kevin Corrigan) shouts, "If they knew shit, they wouldn't be Puerto Ricans!"[21] There's also the "No tickee, no laundry"[22] scene and instances of Irish, Italian, and homophobic slurs.

What makes the opening monologue particularly noteworthy is how completely detached from the story it is. I'm guessing many readers won't even remember how the movie starts: archival footage of what appears to be the 1974 school bussing conflict in Boston, followed by Nicholson wandering around a warehouse giving this speech. Only after this does the movie cut to the scene where Costello meets a young Colin. In Roger Ebert's review, he incorrectly states the film "begins with" this subsequent scene, forgetting entirely about the racist rant preceding it.[23]

Do we need this speech to understand Costello is a Bad Guy? In the very next scene, he asks a young girl if she's gotten her period yet,[24] and we have plenty of chances to see he's a gangster who kills people.

Is there a racial conflict at the heart of the movie needing to be set up? Not really. There are Italian gangsters in the film, but black gangs are never mentioned. There are three black characters: a man in archival footage, a woman in Frank's cocaine orgy[25] who doesn't have a speaking part, and Brown (Anthony Anderson).

Brown has more than a dozen lines, most of them procedural, asking the leads questions or giving them necessary information. He doesn't get the chance to tell us how it feels to be a black cop in Boston, or much about what his life is like. The most personal Brown gets is when he tells Costigan (DiCaprio) if he passes the academy, he will receive a blowjob. Costigan makes fun of him, and Brown tells him to fuck himself.

"You're a black guy in Boston," says Costigan. "You don't need any help from me to be completely fucked."[26]

That's all we hear about race from the only major black character: the white lead mocking him for how unpleasant it must be to be black in Boston. We hear the thoughts of white men and Bad Guys on race, but we don't hear from a black person. Maybe they didn't have time.

They did find time to add depth to Costello's character in a scene where he tells Costigan to consider going back to school, followed by an interaction where he warns priests against molesting children.[27] By encouraging a young criminal to go straight and protecting kids in his neighborhood, we see that he's not "all bad."

If including racial slurs were necessary to understand how bad this guy is, why offer him this sort of complexity? Just like Bill Cutting, Costello is portrayed as a complicated human being (Ebert calls him "a smart man"), while the black characters are one-dimensional.

The opening monologue, the "period" exchange that follows, and Costello's rant against the Chinese gangsters are included for one reason: because they could. If this were a movie about a workaholic who falls for her lazy coworker while snowed in at a ski resort, they couldn't get away with dialogue like that. But since it's a gangster movie, they could. They used the fact that Costello is a gangster as an excuse to say disgusting things with no repercussions.

Rewatching Scorsese's films, I saw this repeatedly: characters of varying degrees of villainy given not only plenty of opportunities to say racial slurs, but plenty of chances to give speeches defending their worldviews, while the few black characters say hardly anything at all.

In Raging Bull, black boxers are referred to as mulignans[28] more than once. While there are several black fighters, not one black person has a speaking role in the film. Sugar Ray Robinson, LaMotta's most famous opponent, speaks no lines of dialogue.

In Goodfellas, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) says to his wife, "You know who goes to jail? Nigger stick-up men, that's who. And you know why they get caught? Because they fall asleep in the getaway car, Karen."[29]

This is foreshadowing. Later in the film, Stacks (Samuel L. Jackson) is tasked with getting rid of a truck. Instead, he gets high and falls asleep, allowing the police to find the truck.[30] If Scorsese is the genius everyone says he is, then he was fully aware of the connection between these two scenes.

1999's Bringing out the Dead is the rare Scorsese film to feature several black actors in major roles. It also features Wolls (Tom Sizemore) calling a cab driver a "Senegalian rag-head motherfucker"[31] and a Latino man "Pedro," saying he's going to teach him "how to be an American."[32] He attacks the man with a bat and nearly kills him until Frank (Nicolas Cage) steps in and saves the man's life.

To me, the use of slurs in these films is different from the racism in movies like A Day at the Races or You Only Live Twice, where the filmmakers thought this behavior was okay for their heroes to display. I don't think Scorsese would have had Frank say the lines spoken by Wolls, because he knows that might make audiences feel less empathy toward a struggling paramedic. Slurs are only excused when they're spoken by gangsters, criminals, Bad Guys.

Does Scorsese consider these men to be Bad Guys? He said of Henry Hill, "I think the audience should get angry with him. I would hope they would be," and that it was not his desire to elicit "great sympathy for the characters in a phony way. If you happen to feel something for the character Pesci plays, after all he does in the film, and if you feel something for him when he's eliminated, then that's interesting to me."[33]

He obviously has affection for his characters. Of Nicky's violent death in Casino, Scorsese said, "I can't even watch that scene. It's upsetting, because I like those characters." And he wants the audience to care about them, too. Speaking of an earlier scene where a man's head is crushed in a vise, Scorsese suggested he should have concentrated more on the perpetrators. "It has to do with the humanity of it. What it did to them mattered as much as what it did to the guy whose head was in the vise."[34]

Regardless of whether these characters are villains, antagonists, or Bad Guys, they are the most important people in the story. It's their emotions and experiences Scorsese wants to focus on. If these movies were About Race or History, then black characters would also get to talk, but they don't, because the movies aren't about them; they're about the people who hate them.

It may be argued because slurs are spoken toward Italian and Irish characters, this somehow excuses the anti-black language because they're "offending everyone." I don't buy that argument because the words are not equal in terms of their significance in our culture. Further, the Italian and Irish characters get far more chances to respond or voice their own philosophies than black characters do.

In addition to racist language, these movies contain plenty of anti-gay slurs and insults aimed at women. The men at the center of these stories display intense hatred for blacks, women, and gays, and they have the bulk of the dialogue while the people they demean rarely respond. The representation of black and queer characters would be dismal even if the films didn't contain slurs, but since they do, it's all the more troubling.

Representation does not have to be 1:1 in every film: you don't always have to have an equal number of black actors to white ones or gay characters to straight ones. But if you're going to employ terms like "dumb fucking Heeb"[35] and "dumb Jew motherfucker,"[36] it should perhaps matter if you repeatedly cast non-Jewish actors in Jewish roles,[37] including a man who reportedly yelled anti-Semitic slurs on set,[38] or that your choice for "King of the Jews" was a pasty blue-eyed guy from Wisconsin.[39]

But that shouldn't matter! He should be able to cast whomever he wants! Okay, then: cast a white actress as an Asian woman; cast a cis woman as transgender; cast a Cuban as Marilyn Monroe and a non-Cuban as Castro; make Spider-Man black, and let's see if people have something to say about it. These are issues our society cares about, yet some folks seem to be exempt from the cultural conversation.

I don't think Scorsese shares the views of his racist, homophobic, and misogynistic characters. But this is only a generous assumption on my part: there's nothing in the films to indicate he doesn't think it's perfectly acceptable to say "nigger," "cunt," and "cocksucker" casually and maliciously. No character voices the opinion this isn't okay, so in order to believe Scorsese doesn't support this behavior (and believe I'm not enjoying anti-black or anti-gay films), I have to offer up the Bad Guy defense myself.[40] Why am I going to so much trouble?

The question is not only why filmmakers keep using this excuse to joyously engage in disgusting behavior, but why we as viewers go along with it. In rewatching the above films, what shocked me most was how I'd let all this slip by before. I'd seen each of these movies at least twice, but it took a black person pointing it out for me to see the Bad Guy Problem taking root. Perhaps I wouldn't have been so quick to excuse these films if one had offended me personally.


Why are we laughing again?

"Basically, you know, if the kid was retarded, I would, you know, drive it up to the country and just, like, you know, open the door, and let it, say, 'you're free now, you know, like, run free.'" —The Wolf of Wall Street[41]

What sets 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street apart from the films previously discussed is it was billed as a comedy, with DiCaprio winning Best Actor, Musical or Comedy at the 71st Golden Globes. Therefore, if the film was successful (and judging by the fact that it's Scorsese's highest-grossing film, it was), audiences must have found it funny. What exactly were they laughing at?

There are few black characters in the film, relegated to service professions: a driver, a waiter, a wedding singer, and of course the Belforts' maid, whose dialogue includes lines like, "Ain't got no warrant, just come up in people house like that,"[42] and "Mr. Jordan done lost his mind!"[43]

Racial slurs are not a major component of the film, though homophobic language is. The most prominent gay character, Rudy (Joe Zaso), is beaten and called a "faggot."[44] This word is said several times throughout the film, with no discussion of how its use might be seen through the eyes of a queer person.

While the homophobia was disappointing, what was repugnant to me was how the filmmakers went out of their way to mock the disabled. When Donnie (Jonah Hill) is asked what he would do if, because he and his wife are cousins, their child were to turn out "retarded," he responds with the speech quoted above, then laughs and assures Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) "we would take it to like an institution or somewhere."

Is this scene necessary? Does it help us understand Donnie in a way we couldn't otherwise? Donnie was based on a real person, Danny Porush. The filmmakers changed the character's name after Porush threatened to sue over the film's factual inaccuracies.

If the character was so different from his real-life counterpart, they had to change his name to avoid legal repercussions, then there's no arguing this scene was required for veracity. They could have had Jordan and Donnie talk about anything. The only reason to have them talk about this is if you think it's funny. It won't surprise you to learn an intellectually disabled individual is not given equal time to discuss their experiences.

In one of the film's opening scenes, the office engages in a game where they hurl a little person at a target. Later, we see the planning of this event,[45] a long sequence in which Belfort refers to a little person as "it," says, "I'm gonna throw the shit out of this little fucking thing," and discusses shooting him with a tranquilizer gun, while his friends make similar dehumanizing comments. The little people in question have no lines of dialogue.

Even if one felt this scene were necessary to demonstrate the boorish attitudes permitted at Stratton Oakmont, it's not necessary for it to drag on as long as it does. The only reason to leave all this dialogue in the film is if you think it's funny. The party in question where little people were tossed around? There's no evidence it ever took place.

Later, Jordan and Donnie take drugs, as described in the narration, "so strong, I'd discovered a whole new phase: the Cerebral Palsy phase."[46] DiCaprio proceeds to act out this drug-induced paralysis in a way conjuring stereotypical images of the physically and intellectually disabled: he drools, grunts, clenches his fingers and makes spastic arm movements, while both he and Hill speak in what I can only describe as a "retard voice."

In the theater where I first saw the movie, this scene got more laughs than any other, and there is only one reason why: the audience was enthralled by the idea taking strong drugs makes one act and sound like a "retarded" person. The sequence ends with Jordan saving his friend's life, and his driving while high is played for laughs.

I cannot judge this scene impartially. As a child, I dealt with an extremely mild form of Cerebral Palsy. Every night before bed, I strapped a pair of plastic braces on my legs and hoped no one would ever find out I wasn't normal. I stood by meekly while classmates mocked the "special" kids they'd never bothered to talk to, terrified that if I didn't pass by unnoticed, I might become the one singled out. At my worst, I joined in the cruelty to try and fit in.

As I watched this scene alone in a crowded theater, the audience howling, those same feelings rushed back. These people didn't know I had Cerebral Palsy, and after hearing their laughter, I would never tell them. I saw how they reacted without knowing a person with CP was right next to them: they were ecstatic, thrilled to see this in a movie, relieved to throw off the burden of having to feign compassion for people with disabilities.

I'm lucky enough to be able to hide this part of myself when I want. Not everyone gets to choose who knows these things. If a person with a more visible impairment had been right there, would the audience have laughed as much? Stifled it? Laughed even harder?

The message was clear: This movie is not for you. It's for people who don't have Cerebral Palsy. No character with CP appears in the film—of course not. They're not in on the joke because they weren't allowed to be.

This isn't one of those cases where an actor does lots of research and meets with disabled people to understand their lives. DiCaprio just rolled around and drooled on himself and said yeah, this is what CP is like, right? That ignorance is what audiences find so funny, gloating about how they don't know anything about Cerebral Palsy because they don't have to because they're so damn normal.

At the time, I was annoyed at how unsophisticated this mockery was, but now I just feel stupid for having been a part of that laughing bully mob as Scorsese's characters spouted racial slurs and insulted women and gays in so many movies. I'd ignored it because it didn't affect me—but that's the problem: most of the time, the people writing, directing, and starring in movies look like me, so most movies are for me. This one wasn't, but getting pissy only when something bothers me personally isn't good enough.

Writing in Senses of Cinema, Michael Green had this to say about Tarantino's use of the N-word, and I think it applies here:

"When he 'demands the right' to write characters who say 'nigger,' he doesn't realize that he does have the right, as a powerful white man working in American movies, to control all the content in the way that traditionally marginalized people do not."[47]

That's the issue: you're not going to see a $100 million movie directed by a little person about what it might have been like to be at Stratton Oakmont that day. The only version of this story you're going to get is Scorsese's, and he's chosen to tell it solely through the eyes of cruel bullies.

It is the right of every American to mock the handicapped if one wishes. I've made and laughed at jokes way crueler and more offensive than anything in Wolf of Wall Street. But if you're going to punch down, own up to it. I doubt Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Jonah Hill would ever openly laugh at someone's disability outside the context of a film. They used the excuse of telling a story about Bad Guys to gleefully revel in behavior they couldn't get away with otherwise.

DiCaprio has defended the film, saying it's "not condoning this behavior" but "indicting" a world he's "repulsed" by.[48] Yet he also says they were "laughing hysterically" while filming the Quaalude scene. He wants us to believe he was disgusted by Belfort's behavior, but seems to have had a blast pretending to be Belfort.

You see, it's not him who was mocking the disabled. It's the Bad Guy in the movie who did that. If this is an indictment of real-world behavior, if they're just being "honest about the portrayal of who these people are,"[49] why include so much stuff that didn't really happen? There's nothing "honest" about pretending a man threw little people around so you can get to do it in a movie.

In one scene, Jordan gives a defiant speech, listing nice things he did for a colleague as she proclaims, "I fucking love you, Jordan. I fucking love you."[50] Even Belfort has said this scene is "totally inaccurate,"[51]though he now sells a mug featuring the dialogue he never actually spoke, clearly proud of how it makes him look.

In the film, Belfort claims his company is going to be "targeting the wealthiest 1%,"[52] borrowing the language of the Occupy movement to make it sound like he's some sort of hero bandit. There's also a scene where he mentions CDOs to the FBI, implying Belfort foresaw the 2008 collapse and could have helped avert it if only the government had listened to him.[53]

The film doesn't mention Belfort still hadn't paid back the money he owed. In 2003, Belfort was ordered to pay more than $110 million in restitution, but as of 2018, still owed more than $90 million. Between 2013 (when the film was released) and 2015, he reportedly earned more than $9 million and paid none of it toward his restitution.

No screen time is given to Belfort's victims, the people he swindled out of their savings. DiCaprio says this was a choice, that they "consciously didn't want to show the wake of their destruction. Didn't want to see the people affected by that." Instead, there are more than a dozen scenes where Jordan and his friends employ sex workers, use drugs, and show off his cool yacht and helicopter. The filmmakers don't miss a chance to show us how much fun it is to be a rich guy.

The argument against giving screen time to Belfort's victims is they aren't what the movie is about. It's about Jordan Belfort, based on his book and told from his point of view. But why is this movie about him? Why make this movie at all?


Whose story is worth telling?

I remember when I first saw the trailer for Scorsese's 2019 film The Irishman.

"I guarantee you," I said, "there'll be a scene where someone hurts De Niro's wife or daughter, and he beats the shit out of the guy, pistol whips him, and says, 'if you ever touch her again, I'll fucking kill you,' demonstrating his protective love with violence."

Was I right? Pretty close! I may not have gotten all the details, but you know the scene I mean.[54] I knew it would be there because violence as a sign of love is a recurring trope in Scorsese's films. The same scene is in Goodfellas,[55] when Henry beats Karen's neighbor and gives her a bloody gun to hide, and she tells the audience, "It turned me on."

The Bad Guy Problem allows you to have your cake and eat it too: if you think this behavior is excusable because he's protecting his loved ones, you're fine—his only crime is going a bit too far. If you find it reprehensible, then hey, this guy's a gangster; we're not promoting this behavior, just showing it to you.

Beyond the violence itself, the reactions to that violence—particularly by women—are worth examining. Women don't just tolerate violence in Scorsese's films; they're attracted to it. After Henry Hill beats his wife, chokes her, and holds a gun on her, she still wants him.[56]

In Gangs of New York, Amsterdam holds a knife to Jenny's throat, and in a later scene, he screams in her face, slaps her, and pins her arms to her sides. After she makes it clear she does not want to kiss him, he kisses her forcefully, then fucks her,[57] actions constituting a violent rape. Instead, she loves him.

In The Departed, Costigan screams at Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), tells her she's a terrible doctor, and threatens to kill himself.[58] She gives him drugs, goes out with him, and fucks him.

The portrayal of women across Scorsese's oeuvre is a separate topic worthy of its own analysis, but limiting ourselves to the Bad Guy films previously mentioned,[59] there are some curious patterns. After these women are screamed at, beat, sexually degraded, and blamed for everything that goes wrong, what happens to them? Often, nothing at all, because they aren't in the movies after that.

In Raging Bull, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Irishman, the male leads begin the films married, only to leave their wives for younger women.[60] Once these splits happen, we never see the "first wife" again. They simply go away.

In Wolf of Wall Street, Naomi (Margot Robbie) is introduced to us by Jordan as "the one with my cock in her mouth."[61] When Naomi decides to leave Jordan, he calls her a "vicious cunt," "fucking bitch," and "fucking whore" before punching her in the gut.[62] After that sequence, she is never seen again.

Raging Bull features violent spousal abuse. After the couple's divorce, the film does not follow Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) as she copes with the trauma of years-long physical and emotional abuse. Instead, we spend the rest of the film with confessed rapist Jake LaMotta.

Well, yeah, that's because Raging Bull is about Jake. The Wolf of Wall Street is about Jordan. It's his story. It's not about the women...

Exactly: why are the stories of destructive men worth telling while the stories of those they hurt aren't?

The Irishman makes some effort to show the damage caused by Frank's behavior, but only in the form of his daughter refusing to talk to him. Jimmy Hoffa's wife is merely a voice on a phone once her husband is gone. Imagine a world where the woman whose husband disappeared was seen as important enough to make a $225 million film about. We don't live in that world. We live in a world where a man who claims to be a habitual murderer is allowed to tell his version of events without his dubious narrative being questioned.[63]

Scorsese has dismissed any discussion of the film's veracity, saying, "I don't really care about that." De Niro added, "We're not saying we're telling the actual story."[64] The film doesn't include any perspective other than Frank Sheeran's, just as Goodfellas only includes Henry and Karen Hill's perspectives,[65]Wolf of Wall Street only includes Belfort's perspective, and Raging Bull only includes LaMotta's. Abusers aren't just the people Scorsese finds most interesting; when they say what happened, he takes them at their word and disseminates it as truth.

It's nonsense to suggest depictions of racism, homophobia, and violence against women are acceptable if the movie is "based on a true story." Blindly trusting the word of Henry Hill or Jake LaMotta without consulting other sources would be a dereliction of duty in another profession.

When asked why women have so comically few lines in The Irishman, Scorsese said it was "not even a valid point," and that "if the story doesn't call for it... it's a waste of everybody's time."[66]

Scorsese apparently thinks his films "call for" extensive use of racial, homophobic, and misogynistic slurs, but don't "call for" giving black people lines or any focus on the victims of the monsters he makes films about. No one forced him to make these movies in the first place; it is not outside of his power to tell stories involving greater representation and less hate speech. He's one of few filmmakers who gets to choose what he works on, and I don't think it unreasonable to question his choices.

Bad Guy movies don't belong to the abused wives, traumatized children, grieving families, or anyone else hurt by these men. They belong to violent criminals who show no remorse. Why? Because those are the stories we want to see. When Scorsese tells stories from the point of view of abusers, we reward him for it.


Why we like these movies

Why has an essay about action movie tropes become so focused on a single filmmaker? Because unlike even a celebrated artist such as Tarantino, Scorsese has become essentially immune to criticism. Any time some interloper dares malign his films, an army of defenders rushes out to make over-the-top comments about the man's brilliance,[67] as though a wealthy and powerful Hollywood figure might wilt in the face of anything less than absolute praise.

Even those willing to disagree with Scorsese can't seem to do so without couching it in admiration or calling him a genius for fear of appearing as though they don't hold proper reverence for the master as he denigrates the art of others. This is usually connected to the "Scorsese vs. Marvel" debate, an argument a bit like the chef of a Michelin-starred restaurant criticizing McDonald's for making uninspired food without anyone pointing out that the Michelin-starred restaurant is serving shark fin soup. I've eaten shark fin soup, and it's delicious, but the fact that I like it doesn't excuse me from having to acknowledge the ethical issues it presents.

Roger Ebert called Scorsese "the finest director now at work."[68] He obviously didn't think an abundance of slurs disqualified a person from that distinction. He did have a problem with a film where Chris Tucker accuses another character of racism, calling it "aggressive" and "hostile."[69] He was more outraged by a comedian calling someone racist than by use of the N-word in films where black people are mostly silent.

Is it fair to limit this discussion to only a few of Scorsese's narrative films? Am I incorrect in assuming these to be his most popular and highly-regarded films? How exactly do we determine which are his most celebrated movies?

Box office grosses are skewed by inflation and international distribution, which is why the list is dominated by more recent films. For the curious, here's the top 10 in terms of worldwide box office:

The Wolf of Wall Street
Shutter Island
The Departed
The Aviator
Gangs of New York
Cape Fear
The Color of Money

We could look at which ones turned a profit in theaters, though again this limits us to box office grosses.[70]The most profitable were The Wolf of Wall Street, Shutter Island, The Departed, Cape Fear, and The Aviator. Several Scorsese films have failed to earn back their production budgets while in theaters: The Age of Innocence, Silence, Bringing out the Dead, New York Stories, Kundun, The King of Comedy, and Mean Streets.

Box office can be a poor indicator of popularity for R-rated movies. I imagine many of Scorsese's fans discovered him on video like I did, and video, TV, and streaming revenue isn't included here. What a movie's earned in the years since its release demonstrates lasting popularity, but that data isn't readily available.

That said, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street all made back their productions budgets at the box office, and The Irishman was one of Netflix's most-watched movies. What's more, all those films were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Looking at Oscars, Scorsese's success isn't limited to his Bad Guy films. The Departed, The Aviator, Hugo, and Raging Bull all won multiple Oscars, while Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, The Age of Innocence, Goodfellas, and The Color of Money each received one, and many others received nominations. But this isn't really useful unless you think having 5 Oscars makes Hugo more influential than Casino.

Awards only show what was popular among a small set of people at a certain time. What I want to know is not only which films earned money and accolades upon release, but which have left a lasting cultural impression. Though web polls are certainly flawed, here's how Scorsese's films[71] have been ranked by users on the most popular film websites:

Goodfellas (8.7)
The Departed (8.5)
The Wolf of Wall Street (8.2)
Taxi Driver (8.2)
Shutter Island (8.2)
Casino (8.2)
Raging Bull (8.2)
The Irishman (7.8)
The King of Comedy (7.8)
After Hours (7.6)

Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer:
Goodfellas (96%)
Taxi Driver (96%)
Mean Streets (95%)
The Irishman (95%)
Raging Bull (94%)

Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score:
Goodfellas (97%)
The Departed (94%)
Casino (93%)
Raging Bull (93%)
Taxi Driver (93%)

Position on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies:
24 - Raging Bull
47 - Taxi Driver
94 - Goodfellas

And in the 10th Anniversary Edition:
4 - Raging Bull
52 - Taxi Driver
92 - Goodfellas

None of these lists is official in any capacity, but looking at box office, awards, and popularity with critics and viewers, I don't think it's a stretch to say Scorsese's most recognizable and highly-regarded films are Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and The Departed, films about violent men replete with racial, homophobic, and misogynistic slurs.

Some may say Bad Guy movies represent merely a fraction of Scorsese's output, and he shouldn't be judged only by his most disturbing films. Others may say these films aren't his most popular because people love to watch racism and violence toward women, but because these are Scorsese's best films. However, these two defenses conflict.

If you believe these are his best films, then why can't he deliver that same quality to another subject? And if you believe all his films are equal in quality (as the Academy seems to), then why aren't the others as popular? There must be some reason beyond quality why Scorsese's movies about violent men have connected with audiences in a way that's stood the test of time more than his other films.

For those in the back: I'm not saying these movies are "bad." You may like whichever movies you wish, and you may pretend your preferences are based on objective analysis rather than emotional reaction if that makes you feel smart. I like Scorsese's movies enough to have written this lengthy piece, but I can accept he sure seems to trod over the same ground an awful lot. He's made one movie about Tibet; how many has he made containing the words "fag,"[72] "faggot,"[73] and "cocksucker?"[74]

If this were one film, it wouldn't be remarkable, just an artist attempting to tell a story about destructive people; it's the repetition that's concerning. These are not isolated stories, and their popularity is not solely the filmmaker's responsibility. It worries me that what is seen as the preeminent art of our time is the cinema of male cruelty, obsessed with the most immature version of masculinity.

As someone who never got to have any control over the projects I worked on, it disappoints me when those with an incredible amount of artistic freedom can't seem to stop making movies about pathetic bullies who shout slurs and hit women. It isn't brave of Scorsese to make yet another Bad Guy movie; it would be brave of him to do something completely different.

An anomaly in contemporary cinema is Letters from Iwo Jima. While making Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood and his team decided to film a second movie showing the battle from the Japanese point of view, resulting in a synthesized yet contradictory narrative allowing all stakeholders the opportunity to speak for themselves and be seen as human. It's even stranger considering it came from the director of American Sniper, a film where Iraqis are referred to as "savages" with disturbing conviction.[75]

Would Eastwood make a movie from the POV of Iraqis? I don't know, but while Letters was a hit internationally, it grossed less than $14 million domestically on a $19 million budget, showing perhaps American audiences have no wish to question their assumptions—or maybe Americans just really hate subtitles.

What would it look like if Scorsese or Tarantino did the same? A movie from the perspective of those shot in the bank in Reservoir Dogs? From the point of view of the Hoffa family? An epic about black New Yorkers during the Civil War? I don't know if Scorsese would even make a film about black gangsters, since that isn't a story we tell. It's too common in American movies to see black criminals presented as idiotic thugs, Latino cartel goons as bloodthirsty monsters, or Asian crime lords as slimy perverts, while Italian and Irish criminals are shown as family men who care about honor and only kill out of "respect"[76] or because it's "business."[77]

I think maybe I have a different view of this because I've studied literature. If you're going to read any book written before last week, there's a good chance it'll have something offensive in it. Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler—the list goes on: great writers whose books contain statements about blacks and Jews that, to put it mildly, have not aged well. Doesn't mean the books aren't good, but not acknowledging it would be an act of fear—namely, the fear that liking something containing racist language makes *you* racist.

If you really like Scorsese's movies for their beautiful shot composition and pacing, then you ought to be willing to admit many of their disgusting elements are not just unnecessary, but purposely cruel. If not, then maybe you aren't being honest about why you like what you like. If you're willing to criticize films you don't like, you need to be willing to criticize your favorites, and even yourself.


Where I fit into all this

My first book has the N-word in it—twice. It also contains the word "fag." When I started doing standup more than a decade ago, I had a joke including the word "midget." I believed then—and still do—that including these offensive terms was necessary in order to tell the stories I wanted to tell, and shying away from difficult subjects and difficult language would be a disservice to the audience.

Would I do it again? I'm not sure. Writing this essay has challenged my thinking on the subject. I was forced to honestly ask myself: did I put that stuff in there because I felt my art would suffer without it, or because I could? These are difficult decisions, and I think they should be difficult. I don't ever want to toss around those terms thoughtlessly. Art should make people uncomfortable sometimes, but WHO it makes uncomfortable, and WHY, is important.

I tried writing a version of this section where I explained the "midget" joke and why it was intended as an indictment of language and the presumptions of comedy audiences, not simply basking in the freedom to use a slur, but... honestly, it was too much work. I can't imagine most of these movies would include this language if the creators had to defend those choices, or if audiences had to defend why they're all too eager to let that language slip by without comment.

The question the artist needs to ask is: am I so sure this offensive language is vital to my art, I'm willing to let others feel attacked? Would I be willing to explain to a black person why I used the N-word? And am I willing to give affected characters the chance to explain how this feels to them?

I eventually quit telling the joke. Even if my motives were "pure," I don't think the audience was laughing for the reasons I'd hoped they would, and I didn't want to make them laugh through cruelty. I couldn't ignore the reaction to my work, and decided it wasn't worth it. That was my decision; if I'd decided what I had to say was worth the potential for bullying and went on telling it, I would expect to be scrutinized. And if I made a half-dozen movies where men hit women and use dehumanizing language, I'd expect to be scrutinized for that, too.

Audiences have always given me a lot of leeway, whether as a comedian or as an author; no one has ever walked up to me or messaged me online to complain I offended them. People generally seem to understand I'm attempting to make art, and that these individual attempts are not a complete reflection of who I am as a human being. Not everyone gets this luxury; digging up a person's old jokes to try and ruin them has become a sport to some people. I want artists to have the freedom to try things that might be over the line, because sometimes crossing the line is how we discover a greater truth.

But I also I think it's legitimate to question the use of offensive terms. There's a difference between offering an opinion disagreeing with the majority and demanding someone's work be scrubbed from planet Earth. And I don't think artists have to respond to criticism—the artist makes the thing, and then we talk about it; that's how it works. They hear what we say, and that informs what they make next. The cultural conversation continues as both artist and audience mature over time. The disappointment comes when it feels like the artist hasn't grown.

Watching his films, I feel Tarantino has grown, and I have a feeling if he made Pulp Fiction today, he might not cast himself as a guy saying the N-word to a black man. I could be wrong, but that's my hunch. As for the audience, I'm not sure if they view his films with any more thoughtfulness than they did 25 years ago. But is that his responsibility? If racist teenagers run around quoting the speech in True Romance, is that on Tarantino? It reminds me of what The Simpsons said about Fox News: "Not racist, but #1 with racists."[78]

There are those who think certain words should never be used,[79] even in art,[80] or that artists should hold themselves responsible for the reactions to and interpretations of their work.[81] I don't necessarily agree with these viewpoints, but I think the discussion is important.

I generally feel artists should put whatever they want in their work, and see what happens; but that attitude only works if the audience is willing to think critically about what they're seeing, and not shy away from discussing elements that could be used to try and inspire real harm. While we're not talking about why this racist language is worrisome, someone else is making memes to try and position hate as a rebellious stand against oppressive wokeness.

I don't regret my past work, but I also don't think it "doesn't count" when the word "fag" is said by a rude character I made up. Unlike some people who've gotten rich off homophobia,[82] I can admit I know what that word means and I know what I'm doing when I use it.

I believe any word or subject matter can be used in art. But it's important to take a look at these tropes and their place in our culture, not grant one individual immunity because their work is "good" or because they tell stories about Bad Guys. If you're not willing to subject your own art (or that of your favorite artists) to that level of scrutiny, then perhaps you aren't being honest about why you like the things you like.


Why we *really* like these movies

"Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg?" —A Few Good Men[83]

I've long wondered what this line is doing in this movie. Out of nowhere, Jack Nicholson's Col. Jessep calls out Kevin Pollak's Lt. Weinberg in what sure sounds like an anti-Semitic taunt. What's even weirder than how he just tosses this out in the movie's climactic scene is no one comments on it. Hey, that thing you just said about Weinberg... what was that about?

The only explanation I can come up with for why that line exists is the filmmakers were worried Jessep was too likable and wanted to make sure we understood he's bad. Even after he got a guy killed and let two of his men take the fall, lied about what happened, demeaned a female officer by saying "if you haven't gotten a blowjob from a superior officer, well, you're just letting the best in life pass you by,"[84] and told Tom Cruise he was wearing a "faggoty white uniform"[85]—even after all that, they worried audiences might take his side, so they made him hate Jews, too.

It didn't work. I've heard people quote this scene while espousing their love for the US military. Viewers like Jessep and are convinced by the things he says.

And why wouldn't they like him? He's the tough military man, he gives the movie's iconic speech, and he's played by Jack Nicholson, a man who is 70% testosterone and 30% sunglasses. Jessep is so charming, you walk away from the film remembering what he said about how we want him on that wall more than anything else in the movie. Nicholson commands the room, the screen, and our memories.

The same is true of R. Lee Ermey in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Gunnery Sergeant Hartman bullies one of his Privates until the man kills Hartman and himself. Such behavior generally makes someone a villain, yet I'd wager there isn't a high school in America where the boys' locker room hasn't been home to a chorus of teenagers shouting lines like "only steers and queers come from Texas," or "I'll bet you could suck a golf ball through a garden hose."[86]

Regarding this dialogue, Kubrick said, "I just think the dialogue is so good it goes beyond the question of 'should he be saying this? Is it right or wrong?' The most important thing is that it's dramatically effective and interesting and it's true. It's both funny and frightening."[87]Full Metal Jacket is definitely frightening at points; it's also, for a certain type of viewer, fun and quotable.

I'm sure some (if not all) of these directors would say they aren't trying to make us like these characters, that they want the language and violence to be repulsive. Is it working? Is the audience disgusted by the joke in Boondock Saints, the speech in True Romance, or every minute of Wolf of Wall Street, or are they laughing along with the characters? You know the answer.

These guys are tough. They're rude. They're brash. They say things they're not supposed to. They smoke cigars and objectify women and they're all man, baby. Viewers don't watch these movies and imagine themselves as Lt. Weinberg or Pvt. Lawrence; they imagine themselves as the macho tough guys. Even if we take the filmmakers at their word that they intended for us to be horrified by these bullies, that's not the effect they have on us.

We like movies about assholes, gangsters, drug dealers, rich guys, criminals, and all kinds of violent, abusive jerks for one reason, and it's not complicated: because they're cool.

People don't wear Scarface T-shirts because of the film's examination of illegal industries being a path toward wealth for immigrants shut out of mainstream American society; they wear them because it's cool to deal drugs, shoot people, and sleep with Michelle Pfeiffer. The reason my friends and I loved quoting American Psycho wasn't because of its satirical takedown of 1980s Wall Street culture; it was because we enjoyed fantasizing about what it would be like to have tons of money and act like a shallow dick. Taxi Driver is a disturbing movie about a disturbed man, but the part everybody quotes is when De Niro says cool lines to the mirror and brandishes his gun like a badass.

You like Goodfellas because you like to imagine what it'd be like to be a gangster. You like The Wolf of Wall Street because you like to imagine what it'd be like to be super rich. Just like Tarantino said about Kubrick, you put up with the anti-hero's downfall; you put on the movie for the first half, when you get to fantasize about being a shallow, violent asshole.

Some of Scorsese's movies were so cool, their subjects made money off them. After being kicked out of WITSEC, Henry Hill appeared on TV and radio, published multiple books with the word "Goodfella" in the title, and opened a restaurant called Wiseguys. Jordan Belfort has appeared on TV, hosts a podcast, and does public speaking, with the words "Wolf of Wall Street" always front and center to provide brand recognition. He's been hired to host a documentary for Discovery Plus, and recently charged $40,000 for a two-day seminar on cryptocurrency.

Here's the Netflix synopsis for The Wolf of Wall Street: "Audacious, risk-taking Wall Street stockbroker Jordan Belfort amasses wealth with his brash, drug-fueled attitude—drawing the attention of the FBI." You'd think the FBI were Dean Wormer coming down on the cool party boys, not that a wife-beating criminal swindled people out of millions and never paid the price.

Audiences like watching people be bad: we enjoy Tony Soprano and Don Draper and Walter White; we like laughing at the selfish assholes on Seinfeld and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia; we like seeing Daniel Plainview and Frank Underwood's diabolical plans come to fruition; we like watching John Wick kill. Bad Guys are fun.

But what happens when those Bad Guys aren't just crooks, but racists and abusers? Here we come to the Bad Guy Problem's central dilemma.

There are two ideas at work: 1) Bad Guys are cool, and 2) Bad Guys are often racist, homophobic, and abusive to women. As these conflicting ideas are presented on screen, "cool" is winning out. We ignore the racism because these guys are fun to watch. The answer to whether these movies "glorify" violence and hatred is silly: of course they do. You can't cast Samuel L. Jackson and Jack Nicholson in movies and expect us to dislike them. They're insanely likeable, and anyone they play, we're gonna like, regardless of how vile that person is.

Of course, we don't abide everything. We'll watch Dexter, a show about a serial killer, but he's not indiscriminate—he kills bad people. Would we watch a show about a rapist or pedophile hero? I don't think I would. We won't let those things slide, but we will let it slide when a character rants against miscegenation.[88]

We can't pretend this isn't happening, or that it has no effect because it's "just a movie." When a movie villain shoots someone, no one actually dies. But when a villain calls someone a nigger, a faggot, or a cunt, a person really said that, and we really heard it, regardless of whether they "meant it." The more we hear it, the less we're bothered by it.

And don't forget how often filmmakers strive to add complexity, so that Belfort is the type of man who gives money to a new hire struggling to pay the bills, Costello is the type to tell Costigan to go to college, and Bill the Butcher, though a killer, isn't a rapist. Like Jessep, the abusive men in Scorsese's films get the chance to explain their philosophies and tell the abused how it's their fault. The Bad Guy gives the coolest speech. He's complex. He's thoughtful and deep. And if someone questions the racist or homophobic things he says, you can excuse it with, "he's a Bad Guy," and spend another night reveling in hate.

Without the Bad Guy excuse, we would have no choice but to think Scorsese, Tarantino, and Kubrick think it's perfectly acceptable to say racist and homophobic slurs and to treat women, gays, and anyone who doesn't match one's own physical description as undeserving of dignity. That may not be what they want us to think, but are we going to keep ignoring these things because History, because About Race, because Bad Guys? If I'm going to expect my own work to be subject to interrogation by a discerning public, shouldn't the most celebrated directors of our time be held to the same standard?

Remember: everything you see on screen is a choice. Tarantino chose to write a character who said the N-word and cast himself in the part. Scorsese chose to make movies about violent, racist, gay-hating, wife-beating bullies, chose to disseminate their worldviews without properly questioning their narratives, and chose not to give the people his characters insult and humiliate the chance to respond.

I'm routinely disappointed by Scorsese's choices, but remember it's also a choice to exalt films that treat survivors as less worthy of attention than their abusers. I tire of the way we keep enjoying the same narratives over and over without discussing why our culture views the stories of bigoted sociopaths as the most valuable ones to tell. I can't look at movies I love like Pulp Fiction or The Departed in the same way I once did. I've had to confront my own childish indulgence of the Bad Guy fantasy because at a certain point, I had to grow up.


I make a choice

Recently, I've been thinking about whether I want to write screenplays again. It's been a few years, I no longer live in Los Angeles, and I earn money in other ways, so for the first time, I'm in a position where I don't have to write any script I don't want to. With that freedom, I've come to the decision I no longer want to work on any movie where the hero uses a gun to save the day. I still love action movies, but I'm sick and tired of the mythology that says what the world needs is more good guys with guns, and I don't want to take part in that anymore, so I'm not going to.

But the bad guy can have a gun, right? If it's clear he's bad, he can use the gun in a negative way, to show how bad he is. Maybe a cool gun, a badass one with gold plating.

And he wears cool clothes and has a hot chick on his arm. And maybe he puts the gun to her head during sex and calls her a stupid bitch. And when she mouths off, he pistol whips her, letting her know who's boss.

And maybe he gives a cool speech about how ungrateful cunts are good for nothing but choking on cocks. And he goes out in a blaze of glory with bullets whipping by as he shouts the N-word at a bunch of dumb black gang members who aren't given names, and then after his death we learn he was robbing rich people to pay for his friend's daughter's chemo, showing he wasn't the simplistic bad guy we thought he was when he beat a cop to death with a hammer while calling him a faggot.

That's fine, right? I mean, he is the bad guy...



[1] Mad Men, "The Suitcase," 23:18.

[2] The percentage of these meetings that go nowhere is shocking. Most production companies have no money and expect writers to work for free.

[3] The Boondock Saints, 31:00.

[4] True Romance, 53:45.

[5] Quentin Tarantino: Interviews; Peary, Gerald, Editor; University Press of Mississippi; 1998; p.76.

[6] https://www.indiewire.com/2019/03/samuel-l-jackson-defends-tarantino-n-word-only-allows-three-takes-1202050911/

[7] https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/godfather-and-son-1581035.html

[8] https://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2019/03/sam-jackson-warned-quentin-tarantino-over-n-word-use

[9] Though he has been willing to say it publicly: https://www.colorlines.com/articles/quentin-tarantino-drops-n-word-less-minute-press-conference

[10] MacFarquhar, Larissa. "The Movie Lover." The New Yorker; October 12, 2003.

[11]Taxi Driver, 42:00.

[12] 13 years later. It took me 13 years to do this.

[13] Gangs of New York, 16:45.

[14] 20:00.

[15] 1:20:00.

[16] 1:15:00.

[17] https://web.archive.org/web/20220319052530/https://www.commentary.org/articles/barry-gross/yours-sincerely-sinclair-levy/

[18] https://www.socialstudies.org/system/files/publications/articles/se_6704213.pdf

[19] https://kevinbaker.info/interview-with-martin-scorsese/

[20] The Departed, 14:00.

[21] 21:00.

[22] 1:06:00.

[23] https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-departed-2007

[24] 2:30.

[25] 1:18:00.

[26] 6:30.

[27] 46:00.

[28] A slur for black people: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5757643/Miami-judge-52-facing-suspension-using-Sicilian-racial-slur-black-defendant.html

[29] Goodfellas, 48:00.

[30] 1:39:00.

[31] Bringing out the Dead, 1:41:00.

[32] 28:00.

[33] https://scrapsfromtheloft.com/movies/goodfellas-martin-scorsese-interview-1990-gavin-smith/

[34] Singer, Mark. "The Man Who Forgets Nothing." The New Yorker; March 19,2000.

[35] Casino, 50:30.

[36] 1:55:30.

[37] I've found no evidence Robert De Niro, Lorraine Bracco, Willem Dafoe, or Jim Norton have ever been Jewish. If information to the contrary is available (or regarding Lori Anne Flax, about whom little has been written), I will gladly update this section.

[38] https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2014/08/robert-de-niro-king-of-comedy

[39] As a pasty blue-eyed guy from Wisconsin, I want to make it clear that I should never be cast as a Jew from the Middle East under any circumstances.

[40] The same thing happened in my screenwriting days: the Bad Guy defense was never offered by the writers of these scripts, people I never met or spoke to. Executives and producers offered excuses for writers after the fact.

[41]The Wolf of Wall Street, 26:00.

[42] 2:08:00.

[43] 2:43:45.

[44] 1:04:00.

[45] 44:00.

[46] 1:59:00.

[47] Green, Michael; "Cinema, Race and the Zeitgeist: On Pulp Fiction Twenty Years Later;" Senses of Cinema; issue 72, October 2014.

[48] https://variety.com/2014/film/news/leonardo-dicaprio-addresses-wolf-controversy-were-not-condoning-this-behavior-1201013148/

[49] https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/goldstandard/la-et-mn-dicaprio-wolf-of-wall-street-20131230-story.html#ixzz2p1FQUGw0

[50] 2:10:50.

[51] https://www.finews.com/news/english-news/25957-jordan-belfort-wolf-of-wall-street-switzerland-speeches-donald-trump-greg-coleman-3

[52] 32:00.

[53] 1:31:00.

[54] The Irishman, 27:00.

[55] Goodfellas, 40:00.

[56] 1:14:00.

[57] Gangs, 1:24:00.

[58] Departed, 58:00.

[59] Excluding Bringing out the Dead, which was included due to the number of black characters with speaking parts but doesn't belong in a discussion of Scorsese's most popular films.

[60] In Raging Bull, Jake screams at his wife, grabs her by the hair, shoves her, and tells her he will kill her.

[61] Wolf, 2:30.

[62] 2:41:00.

[63] See https://www.lawfareblog.com/are-claims-new-film-irishman-true; see also https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2000/10/was-nixon-robbed.html

[64] https://www.indiewire.com/2019/11/robert-de-niro-confronts-irishman-claim-untrue-story-1202189196/

[65] Scorsese has called Goodfellas "as close to the truth as possible" and referred to the film as "anthropology." https://scrapsfromtheloft.com/movies/goodfellas-martin-scorsese-interview-1990-gavin-smith/

[66] https://www.thesun.co.uk/tvandshowbiz/10303283/do-women-speak-the-irishman/

[67] Guillermo del Toro said, "If God offered to shorten my life to lengthen Scorsese's- I'd take the deal," a hyperbolic proclamation meant to sound strong without ever needing to be followed through on, the type of statement more suited to a talk show blowhard than an intelligent artist.

[68] https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/cape-fear-1991; see also https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/gangs-of-new-york-2002

[69] https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/rush-hour-2-2001

[70] For budgets and grosses, I'm relying on Box Office Mojo and whatever information is available on the Internet. I cannot vouch for the veracity of budget information.

[71] Narrative films only. No documentaries.

[72] Goodfellas, 24:00; Raging Bull, 15:00, 52:00; Taxi Driver, 44:00.

[73] The Departed, 2:15:00; Raging Bull, 13:30; Wolf of Wall Street, 1:04:00, 1:50:00, 2:33:00; Casino, 51:30.

[74] Wolf of Wall Street, opening scene; The Irishman, 49:00, 1:03:00, 1:15:00, 1:37:28, 1:50:00, 1:56:00, 1:58:45, 2:03:30, 2:12:00, 2:25:00, 2:27:30, 2:43:00, 2:46:30.

[75] American Sniper, 59:30.

[76] Irishman, 39:15.

[77] The Godfather, 1:11:50.

[78] https://www.businessinsider.com/the-simpsons-fox-news-racist-2010-11

[79] https://www.edweek.org/leadership/opinion-its-time-to-completely-ban-the-n-word-in-schools/2019/10; see also https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/14/school-stops-teaching-huckleberry-finn-community-costs-n-word

[80] https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2016/08/24/airline-removes-old-chris-rock-comedy-special-over-faggot-gags/

[81] https://uproxx.com/viral/patton-oswalt-calls-out-comedians-racist-jokes-alt-right-irony/

[82] See https://www.nme.com/news/music/eminem-98-1233282 and https://www.rollingstone.com/tv-movies/tv-movie-features/how-triumph-the-insult-comic-dog-mastered-the-art-of-pooping-on-politics-251883/; see also the repeated use of "fag" on South Park(including S9E13 and S11E13) before the creators made an entire episode (S13E12) dedicated to claiming they didn't mean the word to describe gay people.

[83] A Few Good Men, 2:06:40.

[84] 43:00.

[85] 45:30.

[86] Full Metal Jacket, 5:00.

[87] https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/movies/features/kubrick1987.htm

[88] Bringing out the Dead, 31:00; Goodfellas, 1:02:00