Movie About Slavery Includes the N-Word, and Some Folks Say That’s Not Okay

January 16, 2013 | Posted by Enrique

The influence that Hollywood movies have on society at large is always up for debate. Following the recent massacre in Connecticut, plenty of conservatives were willing to say that make believe movie violence was a contributing factor. While people who have actually worked in the industry would deny that Hollywood is to blame for gun violence, there are other instances when actors are willing to take credit for the positive influence they believe movies can have.

As you may be aware, there is a movie in theaters called Django Unchained that is set in the pre-Civil War Southern U.S., and its central subject is America’s dark history of slavery. Director Quentin Tarantino has been widely praised for the film, but one source of criticism has been the movie’s use of a particular racial epithet, and the possible influence it may have. For our story this week, let’s have a look at the one word that no one wants to use – even when we’re talking about that very word.

The story so far…

Comic Paul Mooney had a joke where he claimed he’d say the n-word 100 times every morning because it made his teeth white. Mooney is of course an African-American and erstwhile collaborator Richard Pryor, so very few people would criticize his word choice. Tarantino is white and actually has used the n-word more than 100 times in the Django Unchained screenplay, for which he won a Golden Globe earlier this week. Tarantino’s word choice is naturally subject to a different level of scrutiny.

A number of reviewers – including 411mania’s Shawn Lealos – have at least mentioned the prevalence of the n-word in the movie. The actors apparently had their issues with the word as well. Kerry Washington, who plays Django’s wife Broomhilda, has said, “There were days when hearing that n-word over and over again would start to get a little uncomfortable and Jaime and I had these imaginary shields… we’d roll up our n-word shield.” Jaime Foxx, who plays the title character, told Jay Leno he and costar Leonardo DiCaprio had a hard time with the word – until Samuel L. Jackson told them to man up.

After Tarantino won his Golden Globe, he tackled the n-word criticism head on:

“If somebody is out there actually saying when it comes to the word ‘n—–,’ the fact that I was using it in the movie more than it was being used in the antebellum south in Mississippi, then feel free to make that case. But no one’s actually making that case. They are saying I should lie, that I should whitewash, that I should massage, and I never do that when it comes to my characters.”

Tarantino was talking about the n-word in the context of discussing why he extensively used the n-word in his movie. Here’s a sampling of how his comments were reported.

Quentin Tarantino Drops N-Word At Golden Globes
“‘Django Unchained’ filmmaker shocks press backstage at Golden Globes by addressing his film’s controversies head-on…attention quickly turned to the film’s controversial use of the N-word when Tarantino spoke with press after winning his award…Tarantino engaged the conversation by using the N-word, to the silence and awkward whistling of onlookers.”

Golden Globes 2013: Quentin Tarantino Says N-Word Backstage, Calls Prison System Modern Slavery
“Quentin Tarantino professed his shock at winning the Golden Globe for best screenplay, then proceeded to shock the press backstage…Addressing the unending conversation over the 100-plus times the characters in his slavery-themed spaghetti Western, Django Unchained, used the N-word, Tarantino himself uttered the phrase, to audible gasps from the scribes in the winners’ room.”

Quentin Tarantino Shocks Reporters By Using ‘N-Word‘ Backstage At Golden Globes
“According to several media outlets, Tarantino used the racially-offensive term in the winners’ area backstage at the Golden Globes while talking about criticism he’s received for the extreme use of the ‘N-word’ in the film — it’s used more than one hundred times in the 165 minute movie.”

Golden Globes Backstage 2013: Quentin Tarantino Drops the N-Word
“Less than a minute into his press conference backstage at the 70th Annual Golden Globes, the Django Unchained winner dropped the N-word. The usually bustling press room fell silent for a second; a reporter could be heard letting out a whistle, as in, ‘Oh, boy.'”

Christ. Tarantino was using the n-word for the explicit purpose of explaining why he chose to use the n-word, and the headlines are all about how he used the n-word. Mind you, this is a movie about slavery.

African-American comic Katt Williams has made empty threats about Tarantino’s use of the n-word. Formerly relevant director Spike Lee has said he thinks Django Unchained is disrespectful to his ancestors despite not having seen the film, and has criticized Tarantino in the past for using the n-word in his movies.

There’s no accounting for taste, but Katt Williams is no Paul Mooney. He’s also no Dick Gregory, who has defended Tarantino and called Lee a punk. So despite what you may have heard, there is no consensus in the black community on whether or not Tarantino gets the use the n-word. But I suppose you can’t blame headline writers for erring on the side of caution that Tarantino did something transgressive and newsworthy by using the word while talking about using the word.

When you can’t even talk about a rude word without generating headlines or risking opprobrium – not actually using the word, just talking about its usage in a movie about slavery – I would respectfully suggest that it’s gone too far. It’s one thing to agree that we won’t use tasteless language to avoid giving offense. It’s another to declare any form of expression – no matter how vulgar or loaded with historical significance – off limits, and to treat the utterance of a particular word as a form of assault.

It is my contention that no single word (or collection of words for that matter) can cause harm. Furthermore, those who would restrict others from using words they find offensive are, putting it mildly, misguided. To be sure, no one is saying that using the n-word should be illegal. But when talking about a word results in almost universal disapproval and it is the central peg of multiple news reports, we’re making too much of a fuss over it.

At the risk of being obtuse, it’s more than a little silly to treat the n-word as uniquely malicious when a version of that very same word has been a staple of popular culture since the late 80’s. On one hand, we act as if Tarantino ought to feel some shame about using the n-word so frequently. On the other hand, games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and albums by artists like 50 Cent, Kanye West, and Snoop Dogg have featured the kinda-sorta-n-word extensively for many years. It’s not like the n-word is appalling to anyone under the age of 45.

Why must we keep acting like this one word is objectionable when just about all of us can recite a song from memory that includes a version of the n-word? (For me it’s “Ante Up.”)

In a speech criticizing hate speech laws, the late Christopher Hitchens said, “every time you silence someone you make yourself a prisoner of your own action because you deny yourself the right to hear something.” Those who would keep us from hearing the n-word aren’t doing us any favors, and they aren’t protecting anyone from actual harm. They are also uncomfortably close to trying to silence someone. As Samuel Jackson might recommend, we should stop taking it so seriously.

Say the n-word again. I dare you.

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