Tarantino’s Django brings controversy to forefront -- again

Toula Foscolos
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Since Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino has been using the n-word so flippantly and so freely that it’s practically become his trademark.

Toula Foscolos

In Jackie Brown, he used the word 38 times. Director Spike Lee immediately lambasted him for it.

"Quentin’s infatuated with that word. What does he want to be made -- an honorary black man?" The implication being, of course, that a black man could say it without any ensuing controversy. Why didn’t Lee reserve some contention for 50 Cent, I wonder? His debut album, Get Rich or Die Trying, used the word a total of 131 times. So, words matter. But only when some people use them?

Tarantino quickly defended his position, telling a reporter that "the word 'nigger' is probably the most volatile word in the English language. Should any word have that much power? I think it should be de-powered.”

In Django, Tarantino ups the ante and uses the word “nigger” an astounding 108 times.

It’s, of course, historically accurate here. This is a movie set during slavery. It is not over-the-top language; it is the language of the time. Not using the word would be historical (and hypocritical) revisionism of the worst kind. It has however, quite predictably unleashed a whole new controversy.

Tarantino, again, finds the criticism ridiculous: “You’re simply saying I should be lying. I should be watering it down. I should be making it easier 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.”

In Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy refers to the n-word as “the nuclear bomb of racial epithets,” a word that whites have employed to wound and degrade African Americans for three centuries.

Professor Todd Boyd wrote in his book, The Death of the Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop: “I love the word “n*gga.” It is my favourite word in the English language because no other word incites more controversy today. To me, hip-hop has redefined the word… […] “The more you say it, the more you desensitize it.”

It’s why, among many black people it has become a term of affection and even empowerment. Public flaunting of a derogatory word by the victimized group itself is nothing new. Gays have taken on the word "queer," and lesbians have taken on the word "dyke" as their own. As a result, both words have pretty much lost their pejorative sting.

But does normalizing a word through sheer ubiquity defuse it and render it harmless?  Sometimes a word can lose its shock value without necessarily being of any value. Even if a word changes meaning over time, all you’re doing is adding to the meaning, not necessarily subtracting its initial sting. Does a word’s intended use matter or one’s hurtful perception of it? I honestly don’t have the column space to sufficiently tackle these questions.

Of course, the controversy goes much beyond that. Most of the criticism unleashed against Django is that Tarantino used slavery as a backdrop for his spaghetti western-themed revenge movie, with no real knowledge or understanding of its weight. As one blogger put it, “He wants to use black culture and history, but doesn’t feel the burden that comes with it.”

But is it fair to demand that he feel that burden? How could he and why should he? He’s a white filmmaker born in 1963, who lived his entire life in liberal California. His work is nothing more than a love letter to cinema and geek culture. He’s an artist, not a historian or a civil rights activist. He’s a product of his time; meaning that, while he’s fully aware of slavery and comprehends the ramifications, he doesn’t feel the need to share in any white guilt. He treats it with no more or no less reverence than he would the Declaration of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase.  For him, it’s just something that happened a long, long time ago.

Professor Todd Boyd wrote in his book, The Death of the Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop: “I love the word “n*gga.” It is my favourite word in the English language because no other word incites more controversy today. To me, hip-hop has redefined the word… […] “The more you say it, the more you desensitize it.”

Ultimately, is it his job and obligation to edify movie goers or to simply entertain them? After Pulp Fiction, people we’re sitting around having angst-ridden conversations about whether a white character should have used the n-word to describe a dead black man. Why weren’t they questioning the fact that his character barely raised an eyebrow about helping two friends dispose of a dead body? Are we conveniently forgetting that most of Tarantino’s characters are campy caricatures, larger-than-life scummy bottom feeders? They’re highly entertaining, but they’re hardly people we would want to associate with in real life or use as a barometer of proper behaviour. But their language is suddenly what troubles us?

Why are we, in this instance, capable of making the distinction between reality and cinematic fiction? It’s kind of laughable. And I think that’s ultimately Tarantino’s intent; to defuse the word. To render it harmless and meaningless. To force us to look in the mirror and question our own tired assumptions, our own hang-ups…

To put it simply, the n-word word exists. It’s out there, and to pretend that it doesn’t is a lie. There’s no denying that there’s a stigma, a pain, a history attached to the word. Valid arguments can be made for it to be eradicated from our common vernacular.

But valid arguments can also be made for it to be re-appropriated in a different way. Language is fluid, and words can have different meanings to different people over time. If some people today use the word ‘nigger’ in a very deliberate context that has nothing to do with the word’s deeply offensive history, then isn’t their designated meaning as equally valid as any other meaning (old or new) assigned to the word?

Ultimately, I think Chauncey DeVega, editor of an insightful blog called 'We Are Respectable Negroes' hit the nail on the head.

“Popular culture is a reflection of the socio-cultural moment which produced it. Django is not a film about 19th-century America. It is a movie made by a white filmmaker in response to the post-civil rights moment and the Age of Obama," he wrote. "Tarantino's revenge narrative is channeling a sense of black folks' triumph over formal white supremacy and the final, symbolic death of Jim and Jane Crow at the hands of Barack Obama, and those who helped to elect him twice.” It's certainly an interesting take.

Ultimately, art is about raising more questions than it answers (more often than not, through controversy), and in that respect, Tarantino has always succeeded. 



Organizations: Louisiana Purchase, Quentin Tarantino , Django

Geographic location: California, America

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Recent comments

  • Luc Sperl
    January 04, 2013 - 15:07

    Nice take on it. It seems more and more that Spike Lee is grasping at things soley because they appear like it should be something he should be outraged about, regardless of the context. And it's very telling by the fact that he hasn't even bothered to see the movie. As for the word itself, I can't sit here and pretend that I know how it feels to have that said to me or about me. I'm a white male, I can't think of any slur that could even begin to hurt my feelings. But to not use it, in the conext in which Tarantino has, would be dishonest and dilute the reality of history.