How Quentin Tarantino Can Diversify the Very White Cast of ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’

An image of the all-star cast brought excitement, but also eye rolls

DiCaprio Fanning Tarantino Robbie Pitt

When a picture began circulating of the incredible cast for Quentin Tarantino’s feverishly anticipated “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” — including everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to Brad Pitt to Al Pacino to Margot Robbie — fans were understandably thrilled. But their excitement was followed by a wave of concern: Is the cast really going to be this white?

It’s possible. The film centers around the Manson murders, and the story is a very white one: Charles Manson’s followers and their victims were white, leaving Tarantino few casting options. (Remember, Manson was trying to spark a race war, which might explain why he chose white followers. Remember also the swastika he eventually carved into his forehead.)

Fortunately, Tarantino does have some opportunities to cast at least two non-white characters. And they may be two of the most interesting people involved in the story.

First, there’s Bruce Lee. The American-born, Hong Kong-raised martial arts master has a very, very strange connection to the Manson killings, which we explain in our new “Shoot This Now” podcast that you can listen to on iTunes or below. The part about Bruce Lee starts at the 15-minute mark:

Collider reports that Tarantino is currently looking for an actor to play Lee, so that would add at least some diversity to his film, which premieres next summer, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Manson murders.

An African-American man also figures into the Manson story, but almost everyone seems to have forgotten him. It’s too bad, because he may be the most Tarantino-esque character in the whole Manson saga.

As Manson family member Charles “Tex” Watson recounted, Bernard “Lotsapoppa” Crowe was a drug dealer who had a dispute with the cult leader. Manson shot “Lotsapoppa” (after repeated attempts were foiled by his gun not going off) and left him for dead.

“At the ranch the next day, Charlie couldn’t stop talking about how he ‘plugged blackie,’” Watson wrote. “We all assumed Crowe had died, especially when a report came on the news that the body of a Black Panther had been dumped near U.C.L.A. the night before. This made us a little uneasy, since we hadn’t figured on getting involved with the Panthers…”

But Crowe was not the dead Black Panther. And, in fact, he wasn’t dead.

“Much later I learned that Bernard Crowe — who in fact never had anything to do with the Panthers — had not been killed, only wounded,” wrote Watson.

What actor wouldn’t want to play a drug dealer who becomes the sole survivor of Manson’s attacks, and gets to rise Lazarus-like from a shooting? That sounds like a solid role.

Better still: Since “Inglourious Basterds” taught us that Tarantino doesn’t mind altering historic events in extremely satisfying ways, “Lotsapoppa” could come back from being presumed dead to play some extremely cold role in Manson’s downfall. (Consequence of Sound has suggested Will Smith as Lotsapoppa — if he’s even in the movie.)

Unfortunately, Bruce Lee and Bernard “Lotsapoppa” Crowe may be the only obvious “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” roles for people of color. Tarantino has invented at least two people — Rick Dalton, a former Western TV star, and his longtime stunt double, Cliff Booth. But they’ll be played by white guys DiCaprio and Pitt.

The issue of diversity arose this week when Rotten Tomatoes posted an image of “the incredible cast of Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’” and we saw them in their assembled whiteness for the first time.

An often thoughtful debate ensued in the comments. Some wondered why there weren’t more women in the cast. Others questioned the lack of racial diversity. Some said they couldn’t argue with the film’s whiteness because the characters the people are playing were, in reality, white.

It’s an unusual debate to have around Tarantino, a director known for diverse casting long before campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite. His “Jackie Brown” was almost groundbreaking in its diversity, by 1990s standards: It’s a mainstream film that stars a middle-aged African-American woman (Pam Grier) who is surrounded by a mostly middle-aged cast. And Tarantino’s lines for Samuel L. Jackson helped make Jackson one of the busiest actors in Hollywood.

But Tarantino has also been accused of getting too comfortable, by freely including the N-word in his films and even using it himself while playing Jimmie in “Pulp Fiction.”

Once upon a time in Hollywood, it wasn’t unusual for films to be exclusively white. Matthew Polly’s excellent new book, “Bruce Lee: A Life” says a New York Times review was so struck by the relative diversity of a 1971 TV show on which Lee appeared that it specifically mentioned it.

“The Chinaman lends a deft touch of exotica,” the Times review said. “The police detective, played by Lou Gossett, is black.”

So it’s entirely reasonable that DiCaprio’s former Western star in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” — and his stunt double, played by Pitt — would be white. And it’s a historical fact that almost all the key characters were also white.

But it will be very strange, in the summer of 2019, to see such a white cast in a wide-release movie. Especially a Quentin Tarantino movie.