Note on spoilers: Anything about Django shouldn’t really be considered a “spoiler.” The basic conceit of the movie is fairly well known to the public, and I haven’t revealed anything here that you wouldn’t have heard about already. That being said, if you’d rather wait on reading anything concerning the movie until after having seen it (as I did), I can’t blame you.
Note on language: I’m not a black man. Anyone who knows me, I would hope, would know this. As such, I can understand how one would get offended by my use of the word central to this piece, but I believe it’s used responsibly, academically, and in good taste. If you still, somehow, disagree with my usage, then I’d be glad to discuss that with you privately, though there’s likely a greater chance that you need to grow up.
Right around this time in 2011, an Alabama-based publisher, NewSouth books, decided to censor parts of Mark Twain’s literary classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and replace the word “nigger,” which was used over two-hundred times within the text, with the (to their estimation) less offensive word, “slave.” The argument was that teachers were already preemptively making this substitution during in-class readings of the novel; the word “nigger,” in their minds led to uncomfortable classroom situations in which both the teachers and students were not prepared to use this pejorative, and as a result, the novel was being removed from many mandatory reading curricula throughout the country. Replacing “nigger” with “slave,” in their minds, would restore Huck Finn’s standing in early academia.
While this argument certainly has a modicum of merit (if that), it’s simply an avoidance of the uncomfortable, and sometimes painful conversations we must have in academic settings about literature and reality, about race, and about slavery. Michiko Kakutani, writing for the New York Times, said:
Haven’t we learned by now that removing books from the curriculum just deprives children of exposure to classic works of literature? Worse, it relieves teachers of the fundamental responsibility of putting such books in context — of helping students understand that “Huckleberry Finn” actually stands as a powerful indictment of slavery (with Nigger Jim its most noble character), of using its contested language as an opportunity to explore the painful complexities of race relations in this country. To censor or redact books on school reading lists is a form of denial: shutting the door on harsh historical realities — whitewashing them or pretending they do not exist.
The problem is that every now and then an instance like this occurs, and, in certain pockets of American life, we begin to discuss these concepts and constructs in a meaningful way, but just as quickly as we entered the conversation, we exit, having established no new ground on the proper ways we can talk about our nation’s very real history of racism and slavery – the Huck Finn controversy is just one example. The idea that discussing race or slavery is uncomfortable is complete and utter bullshit – it’s supposed to be uncomfortable. But it’s also a discussion worth having within the right contexts.
Central to this entire argument is that six-letter word, which in its two syllables elicits so many different feelings and emotions: nigger. We like to believe we can have responsible discussions about race in this country, but we try to do so without working to understand this term’s significance in our nation’s history, without even using the term. Take for instance these two statements:
1) It is an embarrassment to your party to play that card. This stuff about getting rid of the work requirement for welfare is dishonest, everyone’s pointed out it’s dishonest, and you are playing that little ethnic card there. You can play games and giggle about it, but the fact is your side is playing that card. You start talking about work requirements, everyone knows what game you’re playing. It’s a race card…This thing about if your name is Romney, yeah you went to prep school and you brag about it. This guy’s got an African name, he has to live with it. Look who’s going further in their life. Who was born on third base? This absurdity, making fun of the birth certificate issue…Of course he’s playing the race card, why would he bring [the birth certificate] up?
2) That really bothered me. You notice he said anger twice. He’s really trying to use racial coding and access some really deep stereotypes about the angry black man. This is part of the playbook against Obama, the ‘otherization,’ he’s not like us. I know it’s a heavy thing, I don’t say it lightly, but this is ‘niggerization.’ You are not one of us, you are like the scary black man who we’ve been trained to fear.
These are two comments made a little over one week apart, both arguing the same point: that Mitt Romney was running a racialized campaign. The first statement was made by Chris Matthews, a blowhard of a white man, who was making a valid point. The second statement – which, ostensibly, made the same points as the first – however, was made by Toure, a blowhard of a black man, author, professor, and co-host of MSNBC’s The Cycle. The only real difference in the language of the two statements was Toure’s use of the word “niggerization,” which, hilariously, made his conservative, white co-host, S.E. Cupp, apoplectic, but also was found to be offensive (by someone, presumably) and required an on-air apology from him the next day.
The point of all of this is to ask the following: if a learned black man can’t, responsibly, use the term “nigger,” or its derivatives, in an academic context (which news and journalism most certainly are), how are we ever supposed to confront race, as an issue?
The most recent cultural moment leading to a racial discourse has been the release of Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained, his second alternate history, revenge-fantasy in the last few years (the other being Inglourious Basterds). In it, the titular Django (played by Jamie Foxx), a freed slave, turned freelance bounty hunter, travels the antebellum south with his freer and mentor, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to free his wife, Broomhilda (a.k.a. Hildy; Kerry Washington), from slavery. The story is, at its core, a love story. It’s a story about a man willing to do unspeakable things in order to save his wife from something even worse. The rest of the movie, was, really, just noise. The thing, though, is that the noise was so powerful, so moving, and, at times, so disturbing.
At different times in the movie we witness a slave – named, ironically, after D’Artagnan from Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers by his owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who (as it is pointed out later by Dr. Schultz) didn’t realize Dumas was a black man – being torn apart by dogs, mandingo fighting, whippings and hot-boxes. We witness the subhuman treatment of slaves, and at one point see Don Johnson’s Big Daddy character struggle with teaching his slave how to treat Django (a freed man) like less than a white man, but better than a slave. We witness a group of clansman which pre-date the KKK being reduced to a joke (in one of the funniest movie scenes in a good while) because they, literally, can’t see with their masks on. But we also hear the word “nigger,” by some counts, as many as 110 times.
Part of the controversy surrounding the use of the word has to do with who wrote the script and who was saying it. Tarantino has a history of using the word “nigger,” sometimes gratuitously in movies like Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and True Romance. As such, there’s always been some backlash toward his use of the word. And in each case, including in Django, it’s generally said by white actors. It’s certainly a little disorienting to see well known actors like DiCaprio and Don Johnson to use the word over, and over again, but it’s far from the first time we’ve seen it. In Blood Diamond DiCaprio called Djimon Hansou’s character a kaffir, which is simply South Africa’s version of nigger. But even then, hearing him say that hateful word didn’t have the same effect as hearing him say “nigger” repeatedly, and that’s because nigger, as opposed to kaffir, is a racial epithet native to our country – it’s an American word, and it’s a huge part of our history.
The purpose of Django Unchained is to entertain, it’s a work of fiction stylized as a post-modern, spaghetti western movie, but it’s also one of the first massively popular movies to discuss the topics of race and slavery, and it does so in a manner that is oftentimes uncomfortable for its (largely) non-black audience. And for this, Tarantino has received plenty of criticism, from blacks and non-blacks, alike, the loudest of whom is Spike Lee. Dr. Henry Louis Gates sat down with Tarantino for The Root, and broached this subject:
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Spike Lee‘s on your ass all the time about using the word “nigger.” What would you say to black filmmakers who are offended by the use of the word “nigger” and/or offended by the depictions of the horrors of slavery in the film?
Quentin Tarantino: Well, you know if you’re going to make a movie about slavery and are taking a 21st-century viewer and putting them in that time period, you’re going to hear some things that are going to be ugly, and you’re going see some things that are going be ugly. That’s just part and parcel of dealing truthfully with this story, with this environment, with this land.
Personally, I find [the criticism] ridiculous. Because it would be one thing if people are out there saying, “You use it much more excessively in this movie than it was used in 1858 in Mississippi.” Well, nobody’s saying that. And if you’re not saying that, you’re simply saying I should be lying. I should be watering it down. I should be making it more easy to digest.
No, I don’t want it to be easy to digest. I want it to be a big, gigantic boulder, a jagged pill and you have no water.
As I said earlier, Django is a love story, but it’s this feeling of uneasiness for the viewer that steals the show. And the discourse post-Django is leading new a newly broached discussion of race. Rembert Browne, for Grantland, wrote about the movie:
Being uncomfortable. False ownership of terms. False ownership of cultures. Troubled histories. Finger-pointing. Segregation in an integrated world (or is it integration in a segregated world?). All of these things contributed to the myriad emotions I felt in that theater. But these were just my emotions. There were hundreds of people in that theater alone, and hundreds of thousands more have already viewed the movie. Everyone‘s seeing Django. That’s what makes it an important work, beyond the quality, because we’re all having to deal with it, together.
Within that same piece he shares one of my favorite moments in journalistic history. Jake Hamilton, a film critic, decided to ask Samuel L. Jackson (who plays perhaps the greatest, most horrific Uncle Tom in the history of cinema) about the controversy surrounding the film’s usage of the world “nigger.” (Skip to the 13:56 mark; transcript via Rembert.)
Hamilton: There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the usage of, uh, the N-word, in this movie.
Jackson: No? Nobody? None … the word would be?
Hamilton: [Whispered.] I don’t want to say it.
Jackson: Why not?
Hamilton: I don’t like to say it.
Jackson: Have you ever said it?
Hamilton: No, sir.
Jackson: Try it.
Hamilton: I don’t like to say it.
Jackson: [SAMUEL JACKSON SCREAM] TRY IT.
Hamilton: Really? Seriously?
Jackson: We’re not going to have this conversation unless you say it.
Jackson: Wanna move on to another question?
Hamilton: OK. Awesome.
Hamilton: I don’t like — I don’t want to say it.
Jackson: Oh, come on.
Hamilton: Will you say it?
Jackson: No, fuck no. It’s not the same thing.
Hamilton: Why do you want me to —
Jackson: They’re gonna bleep it when you say it on the show. SAY IT.
Hamilton: I, I can’t say it. If I say it, this question won’t make air.
Jackson: OK, forget it.
Hamilton: I’ll skip it. Sorry, guys. It was a good question.
Jackson: No it wasn’t.
Hamilton: It was a great question.
Jackson: It wasn’t a great question if you can’t say the word.
That moment is so significant in so many ways. It shows that, as a society, we can’t have a constructive discussion about race unless we can grow the fuck up and talk about it like adults. What strikes me, though, is that in that same piece, Rembert uses the terms nigger, nigga, and fuck, and yet, somehow, it is only the latter which was not censored by his editors, or (possibly worse) his parent companies (ESPN and Disney). The central thesis to his piece was that 2013 was going to be the year we discuss race:
And in the world we live in today, where access to various modes of public expression is becoming increasingly accessible, the walls around “talking about race” are rapidly crumbling. Finally. And, just as a heads-up, if this makes you uncomfortable, if the idea of potentially offending someone is your greatest fear, or if you’re content to discuss it like a simpleton, then 2013 might not be your year. This, my friends, is the new apocalypse. Buckle up.
To me, there’s too much irony in Rembert castigating those who are content to discuss race like a simpleton, yet being content with having the word in question censored by the powers-that-be. (Note: I would like to point out that this isn’t so much a criticism of Rembert or his piece, I really enjoyed it, and most of his work, but, rather, of whoever made the decision to censor the word. If that happened to be Rembert, then this entire sidebar is made pointless.) It renders the entire thesis moot. Are some of us ready to have this discussion? Sure. But this all shows that, we, as a society, are clearly not ready to talk about this, and it’s a fucking shame that we can’t, because it’s about time we do.
Every time this discussion arises I end up feeling like Michael Bluth in Arrested Development: the mere fact that you call it the “N-word” tells me that you aren’t ready to discuss it and its meaning, and the broader concepts of race and slavery in the context of America’s sociocultural history. Django Unchained is obviously a work of fiction – historical fiction if you’d like to call it that – but it’s also broaching a larger discussion of slavery, and also, in a wider context, of race in this country – the two issues which we seem to refuse to acknowledge as a society. Censoring the word “nigger” – in literature or art or academics – is nothing more than a denial of history and a refusal to acknowledge our troubling past. We can’t act as if centuries of slavery and racism did not (and, for the latter, still do) exist on this continent. Sugarcoating this topic does nothing but breed further ignorance. The fact is, discussing race should be uncomfortable, otherwise we’re depriving ourselves of the proper national conversation necessary for a topic as painful as race in American history, even for little white kids reading Twain. Especially for little white kids reading Twain. The word “nigger” is arguably the single most important word in the lexicological history of the American English dictionary. If we’re not able to confront this simple term – as painful as that may be – in a movie, then we clearly aren’t ready to tackle race as a society.