Samuel L. Jackson in ‘Django Unchained.’
by Courtney Garcia, theGrio
The n-word has been taunted, rebuked, dissected, commercialized, uttered under hushed breaths and shouted in public commons, and now, in Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, Django Unchained, it gets hyperbolized to the max.
The film, opening in theaters December 25, takes on the era of slavery at its grimmest – violent and ruthless – through the tale of Django, a freed slave played by Jamie Foxx, on a mission to assert his ultimate revenge.
It’s a slap in America’s face; an upheaval of the country’s skeletons; and it’s causing a stir amongst critics who have already begun debating the racial politics of the narrative. Not only is the n-word uttered over 110 times in the movie, but a black man commits acts of violence on a white man and gets away with it.
Accordingly, the community at large has been aroused with concern, deeming it racist, over-the-top, and against history.
“Those things really depress me because they are usually talked about by people who’ve not actually seen the film, which is typical of where we are in our culture,” the film’s producer Reggie Hudlin tells theGrio. “We’re in a time period when there was extraordinary violence against people; verbal violence is the least of it. When you look at that time, there was institutionalized horror – legalized horror – people were denying the humanity of people to justify white supremacy. That’s more significant than any use of the word ni**er. Let’s actually talk about the bigger themes in the movie.”
Nevertheless, it’s the n-word that’s taken the spotlight. Over the past couple weeks, it has been plastered across headlines on Drudge Report, analyzed and critiqued by both conservative and liberal outlets, and scrutinized for its questionable purpose throughout the film. An article in the Hollywood Reporter referenced Spike Lee’s former grievances with Tarantino’s use of the word, questioning whether Tarantino had the right to employ such dialogue as a white man, or whether he was a “bold filmmaker” willing to tackle race in ways others haven’t. In response, Tarantino, an apparent rival to Lee, defended himself saying he was “simply utilizing the English language in all its glory and ugly legacies.”
Yet on closer look, the speech of Django Unchained may not be so transparent, as Tarantino is often eager to flip the switch on traditional film vernacular. Particularly given the fact that Django is successfully able to enact his vengeance, this film is getting viewed by some more as a “threat” to white people or reverse racism.
As Slate points out, Foxx’s recent appearance on Saturday Night Live sent conservative bloggers fuming when he joked about being excited to “kill all the white people in the movie.” This led to a subsequent discussion over the alleged proliferation of anti-white bigotry in America, even suggesting that European civilizations have been unfairly discriminated against for decades.
The major shift in political and cultural focus is misdirected however, Hudlin says, and it should turn back to significant issues addressed in the story.
“Forget racism, let’s talk about modern day slavery,” he comments. “There is a penal system in certain parts of this country where the war on drugs is used as rationalization to incarcerate the black population, and use it as unpaid labor sources. These things are destroying our community. If we don’t understand our past, we won’t understand where we are at present, and won’t be able to fix things for the future…We’re giving the word in its proper historical context, and if people feel uncomfortable, they should be.”
Mark Anthony Neal, Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African and African-American Studies at Duke University, also believes the argument over brazen use of the n-word is merely a diversion from more difficult topics people are unwilling to discuss.
“As a country we want to be post-race without ever fully engaging the dynamics of what race means to American society,” he says. “It’s much easier for us, at this moment, to gloss over historical realities and turn to what words we used and how they were used. Whether that’s getting rid of the n-word in books like Huckleberry Finn, so as not to offend young folks who are reading the book, or complaining about the use of the word in a film like Django Unchained.”
He adds, “When all is said and done, it’s a word, and I’m much more concerned by white supremacist actions that use of these terms….I think the fact that we’re having this conversation about the n-word is a way for us not to actually have the conversation about slavery, which the film talks about. If all that we’re talking about is the n-word, no one actually has to get to the depth and reality of talking about violence and slavery and racial relations in the historical context.”
Neal feels that anxiety over black on white violence in the film is due to an inherent fear in American culture that such depictions will actually “sanction” real life enactments, and that perhaps such loose use of the n-word might inspire some people to worry it will create tensions between races. However, these narrow-minded conclusions don’t give audiences credit for properly interpreting the story.
Furthermore, repetitive use of the n-word could actually deplete the slur of its power.
“The more it’s used, the less power it has,” Neal remarks. “Because of hip-hop, people have become desensitized to it. Somebody would utter it 25 years ago, and it kind of hung in the air where everyone had to deal with it. Because it gets dealt with in popular culture like it does now, we’re desensitized to it. And I think that’s something that Tarantino knows. And I think part of what he was trying to do with the usage of the word is desensitize us to the use of the word, and sensitize us to the actual violence that’s happening in the context of slavery.”
Plus, says Hudlin, the film tackles slavery in a way no other film has been able to do in the past, when likely it would have been “a low budget blaxploitation film.”
Or, had it been big budget, he adds, Django would never have been the hero.