Tarantino thinks that Martin Scorsese and Columbia Pictures made a “societal compromise” by casting Harvey Keitel in the role.
Quentin Tarantino has never made a secret of his love for “Taxi Driver,” frequently listing the Martin Scorsese film as one of his favorite movies of all time. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Tarantino devoted a chapter in his new book, “Cinema Speculation,” to discussing the film. But readers may be surprised to learn that his thoughts on the 1976 movie aren’t entirely positive.
Tarantino argues in his book that “Taxi Driver” studio Columbia Pictures significantly watered down screenwriter Paul Schrader’s vision for the film, and that it could have been even better if Scorsese shot the original script without revisions. His biggest complaint is that the race of several side characters, namely the pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel), was switched from Black to white. The filmmaker argues that Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle is a fundamentally racist character, and showing more of his interactions with Black people would have made the film stronger.
“The film makes it obvious he sees black males as figures of malevolent criminality,” Tarantino wrote of Bickle. “He’s repelled by any contact with them. They are to be feared or at the very least avoided. And since we watch the film from Travis’ point of view, we do as well.”
Tarantino went on to lament the fact that Schrader was “asked by the producers and Columbia Pictures to change the character of Sport from black to white because the race riots a few years earlier still cast a long shadow.”
He dismisses the studio’s concerns that casting a Black actor would have prompted rioting or caused a safety concern, saying that studio executives had a similar problem with his own film, “Django Unchained.”
“Is it possible Columbia could be timid about a provocative film like ‘Taxi Driver’?” Tarantino asks. “Hell yeah, over thirty years later Columbia Pictures was timid as hell about the reaction to ‘Django Unchained.’”
Tarantino maintains that casting more Black actors and having Bickle unleash violence against them would have brought Bickle’s racism more to the forefront.
“And who couldn’t handle that?” Tarantino wrote. “Black audiences? Or is it more likely that the white folks financing the movie were the ones made to feel uncomfortable by the imagery in Schrader’s original script? So uncomfortable that a fear of black males causing violence in cinemas was conveniently trotted out as an excuse to change Schrader’s Sport from black to white?”
Tarantino gives Scorsese the benefit of the doubt, writing that he believes the director’s safety concerns were more sincere than the studio’s. But he doesn’t let the director off the hook, as he ultimately believes that the decision to cast a white pimp hurt the film.
“Any way you slice it, Scorsese, and producers Michael and Julia Phillips, and Columbia Pictures changing the pimp character of Sport from black to white was a societal compromise,” he wrote.