Django Unchained and the Power of That Word

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Django Unchained and the Power of That Word

By Cindy Davis | Think Pieces | January 17, 2013 | Comments ()


In the dystopian future depicted in many science fiction films and books we love, loss of humanity is our greatest downfall. It sometimes feels as if we are blindly hurtling ourselves into that future, intent on fulfilling our self-destructive destiny.

As would be expected of most any Quentin Tarantino film, there's some controversy over Django Unchained. People have counted how many times a certain derogatory term was used, diagrams comparing its use in other Tarantino films have been created, and accusations made against him as to the reason he uses it at all. At the heart of it all is that word that makes most of us so uncomfortable, the one that can be hurled like excrement at another human being, or nonchalantly bandied as a term of camaraderie between certain friends: the n-word. Director Spike Lee claims that Django is "...disrespectful to my ancestors..." (he hasn't seen it), called Tarantino "ignorant" for his use of the n-word in Jackie Brown, and in another breath, said Samuel L. Jackson defending Tarantino was like "a house negro defending massa." (Since that quote is from an old interview, I've been wondering if casting Jackson as Stephen wasn't Tarantino's idea of thumbing his nose at Lee.) Comedian Katt Williams has threatened to punch Tarantino if he sees the director, saying, "Quentin Tarantino thinks he can say the n-word, but I checked with all of n-dom and nobody knows where he got his pass from." When a journalist once mentioned to Spike Lee that his films also contained the n-word, Lee complained (about Tarantino) that "It's the volume...also, I think as an African American I have more of a right to use that word." And therein lies some of the problem.

First, a little Django aside. In order to authentically take issue with a piece of work, be it film, book, television, painting, music, one should first actually experience it. Having seen Tarantino's latest, as far as I'm concerned, rather than disrespect anyone's ancestors, Django has given audiences a glimpse into the brutal, harsh reality of slavery--a peek at how horrific that period in time was. How many young people went to see the film because they're Tarantino fans, or thought the trailer looked cool, and walked out having gotten a mini-history lesson their schools barely bother to teach them?

I'm not going to argue whether or not Tarantino is obsessed with the word; he may well be, and his refusal to conform to societal expectations is part of who he is. Rather, this spat between antagonists is a good jumping off point for the underlying issue we need to tackle. The subject of the n-word is generally verboten; there is no other word so divisive that there's an unspoken moratorium on even having a public discussion. You may feel because I'm white, I have no say on the matter, but if we truly want to move forward as a people we should be able to, we need to, have this conversation. We need to find a way to let go of our anger and hatred.

It was recently related to me that most Jewish people, if they should see a swastika, will have a physical reaction to the sight of it and become nauseous. There are hardly any other words (the k-word?) to compare with the n-word, but I would guess that if a black person hears it used against him, he would also experience a physical response. The c-word, which at one time was rarely heard, has somehow become trendy to use against both men and women; if someone calls me the c-word in that debasing way it is sometimes thrown at women (to reduce them to something less than a person), I would feel a little sick to my stomach. Words like fag, kike, dyke, nigger, spic, gook, towelhead, cunt, are what we use to degrade each other; to dehumanize each other. Yet, as none of the others has the history of slavery behind them, there can be no true comparisons. Do we really even need them? We know it's repulsive. Why should any of us take this word, historically and symbolically divisive, and use it to further the divide? Why try to dilute its connotations and toss it into the salad of casual conversation? Treating the n-word as non-pejorative, and sniping over who can and cannot say it isn't taking control or empowering people; instead, it's dividing us all over again. In fact, the whole argument seems less about reclaiming a word and, more like Django, taking a weapon that was used on him and turning it against his tormentors. While that's an enormously satisfying tactic to employ in a Tarantino film, it is an unrealistic and ultimately terrible solution for our society.

Though it's impossible to equate slavery in the United States with any other historical atrocity, we can try to look for some correlation to help make our way through the pain and anger. There is a saying among Jewish people about the Holocaust, "Never forget," and the image of a swastika stands as a horrible reminder of what happened under the Nazi regime. Part of that edict, and part of what has helped heal is ensuring that subsequent generations know what exactly what happened to the Jewish people during World War II. From adolescence on, the topic of the Holocaust (and other atrocities) is covered in religious schooling--including film--without holds barred. But in our public schools, the subject of slavery is barely covered, and what is taught focuses largely on the underground railroad, slaves being freed, Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. We can do better. Where are our monuments to mark this history? Why don't we have a National Slavery Museum? Instead of discussing ownership of the n-word, let it stand as a word that when we hear it, is revolting and causes a sick feeling in the pits of our stomachs. Let it be a symbol to each other and future generations what unchecked hate and disregard for each other as human beings can reap. In order to move forward, we have to find a way to accept our common history--on all sides. Isn't it time we're able to have this conversation without separating ourselves out by skin color, by race, sexual preference, religion or anything else?

Whether or not you're a Tarantino fan, if you haven't gotten the chance to see Django Unchained, I hope you do see it. The director accomplishes the seemingly impossible feat of giving us an unforgettable dose of historical medicine in the form of a brilliantly entertaining film that can't help but start many dialogues. I may have laughed heartily at some moments, but I also left haunted, and thinking that we all need to talk.

"But if thoughts corrupt language, language can also corrupt thought." George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Cindy Davis, (Twitter)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Idle Primate

    a slavery museum is an interesting concept. I lived in Germany for a while, and when i first arrived, i felt an odd self-consciousness about their nazi history and would simultaneously feel compelled to ask, and terrified of bringing up taboo subjects

    so, i was surprised to find that most germans i met seemed eager to talk about it, where there parents were etc.

    What I also found (living in Berlin) is the city is full of 'Lest We Forget' sites, monuments and museums that are stark and frank about nazis, WWII, the holocaust, and the later Soviet occupation. You can visit concentration camps and they make your bowels run, they are so frightening and visceral. There is nothing in a book that can strike a person like being in real places, around artifacts, and with facts and pictorial history staring you in the face. It's been part of their healing and defence against repeating.

    Its an example of not running from,, hiding from or being insidiously influenced by the past. It struck me as courageous and humble.

  • John G.

    I remember once maybe 12 years ago, I was watching the movie Trading Places, a movie that has two old white guys try to get an ostensibly homeless black man into their car by waving bottles of booze at him, on some basic cable channel. In the movie, edited for television, the two old white guys were able to say out loud "n*gger" (I would use the real word in this context, but I think the filter automatically rejects comments that contain it), but the edited version of the movie had bleeped the word "fart".

    I remember being flabbergasted at the time. You can say "N*gger" and not "Fart"? We've come a long way, N words.

  • GoodFreakinGravy

    Thing is, Tarantino and others can't latch onto the "historical accuracy" of using the n-word while ignoring all of the ways Django Unchained isn't historically accurate. Quite frankly, what annoys me about all of the discussion regarding this film is the implicit assumption that is simply *must* be based in historical fact. Many of the stories from that era (by those who lived them) have been patently ignored or changed to fit the national narratives that we continue to tell ourselves about this horrific time in our history.

    I'm also really over the continued fetishization of our founding fathers and our stubborn refusal to address the realities of those times as well as how that history has led to where we are right now: talking in circles about a word instead of the underlying causes of its use.

    Anyone interested in the actual history and importance of slavery in the Americas might check out "10 Things You Should Know About Slavery and Won’t Learn at ‘Django’" as a starting point.

  • duckandcover

    I'm not sure what anyone would be expecting from a pre-Civil War movie based heavily in the South. That's not even touching on anything regarding Tarantino.

  • incorrigible miscreant

    Using the term "The 'N' word" in any context imaginable is more ridiculously ignorant than actually using the term itself.

    'Ain't' is not a word, for it is improper to use it in written or spoken English;

    'Dag' is the same as 'ain't', only more stupid-sounding & also not acceptable terminology to use in normal, civilized written or spoken English. My own NC relatives continuously said 'dag' as an expression of surprise or disapproval or to punctuate most of their statements ("Dag, the sumbitch got hisself a new truck!");

    The term 'do what?' was briefly a hugely popular term of expressing doubt or inadequate understanding, in place of previously normal terms like "pardon me?", or " you're f***ing kidding me, right?" And this term was just about exclusively used by the white southern contingent, until it finally went back into near obscurity, and I like to think every other race & nationality on this planet got that one retired fairly quick by refusing to latch on to it.

    'C**t' is profanity, like 'F**k' and 'Sh*t', & a variety of others. Profanity is not commonly referred to as "words," because, again, modern society does not tolerate profanity as acceptable language in everyday public communication.

    Just about all the examples mentioned above fall into the catch-all category of S L A N G, NONE OF THEM CONSIDERED ACTUAL "WORDS" AS OUR ENGLISH LANGUAGE IS INTENDED TO BE INCLUSIVE OF ...

    So whenever some YOUNG, new, logical, open-minded, tolerant, sensitive and intelligent human being attempting to make an eloquent 'plea' for rational discourse reveals him or herself to be SO. FUCKING. CLUELESS as to continually, over and over, in every debate or argument or speech or even their own private thought, assign a filthy, outrageously disgusting and sick backwards-ass slang or profane term the DIGNITY of allowing it the classification of being an actual, historically accepted WORD (i.e., the 'N' word or the 'C' word or the 'F' word), I just wanna smack the living shit out of them; They've already screwed their argument.

    WE decide what are 'words', and what is 'slang' and/or 'profanity' - you, me and every other person who has the power to say "NO, (Blank) is NO LONGER A WORD, ASSHOLE!" There is no reason whatsoever that requires us to say what is or isn't a word. How often do we use a word like, say, 'parsimonious', or refer to something old as 'archaic', which itself is old? Some Dictionaries don't bother including these words anymore!!

    We can spout our opinions and beliefs in public forums about how The Bible or the Koran are make-believe documents conjured up by ancient peoples to teach of a supreme deity that doesn't exist - in other words, "deny the Word of God" - but we can't get together and decide that what may once have been an actual "word" is now just simply another embarrassing, narrow-minded profanity that only little grade-school punks with filthy mouths would use around their other little grade-school punk friends? Lazy, snotty, belligerent, thoughtless, ignorant slang that anyone over the age of 6 would be mortified to blurt out in the presence of others?

    There is not the slightest hope of any fundamental progress in completely eradicating this term, conceived by long-dead, illiterate, hateful pagans who traditionally butchered any language of their respective country to make it as simple and vile as they themselves could relate to, until the rest of us decide to take a stab at evolving and STOP- CALLING- IT- A "WORD!!!

  • draeton


    This describes your understanding of linguistics.

  • Idle Primate

    but that simply isnt the case. in the most general sense, an utterance that communicates some meaning is a word. a vile word maybe. a taboo word maybe. an archaic word perhaps. but a word nonetheless. I have heard the word in question hundreds if not thousands of times so it becomes a bit academic and meaningless to try and angrily brush it off as simply not being a word. that won't make it, its history or its current usages disappear. the article struck me as thought provoking and carefully and sensitively written on a difficult but real topic.

    pagans? really? really? which history books you been reading?

  • ScienceGeek

    I'm not sure if this relates, even in the slightest, but a few years ago, one of our long-cancelled TV shows had a revival-type show. They'd always had an amateur skit segment, and they invited a few of their 'most popular skits' back.
    One of which involved guys in blackface. Harry Connick Jr was the guest judge and he basically said 'Oh, fuck no.' He wasn't rude, but he was pretty blunt and clearly pissed.
    There was a huge outcry. 'We're Australian, WE never had slavery!' 'The lead in the act is Indian, he's black, so it can't be racist!' and of course, the old standby 'It was just a joke!'.
    I got curious, and I ended up looking up the history of blackface. Then I spent the next few weeks schooling everybody I knew on the Jim Crow laws. Sad truth is, we just didn't know about it. That doesn't make it right, it's just... we had no damn idea. The whole ugly history of slavery is just an abstract to us - something bad that happened long ago in other countries.

    If Django is as compelling as you've said, it might have effects in all of the countries outside of America. Because I hear little white Australian shitheads calling each other nigger like they've earned a badge of honour, and if Tarantino can get a couple of their brain cells sparking, then godspeed to him.

  • Slash

    FWIW, I'm white as hell, but I kinda can't believe that the primary criticism is that the film contained many uses of the word "nigger." This was pre-Civil War America, and primarily deep south. Do people think white people in that part of the country and in that time period said "negro" or "colored" or "African American"? Obviously, being fictional, parts of the movie strained credulity, but that part of it seemed absolutely accurate, the contempt that white people had for the slaves they owned and mistreated and the casual racism and the casual assumption that every other white person felt (or should) feel the same way, such that the Schultz character had to pretend to be racist too so that he wouldn't give away the plan to buy Django's wife.

    Excising the word "nigger" from a movie that portrays (however fictionalized) the American south in the years shortly before the Civil War would be like calling the slaves "servants" or having them sing a jaunty tune as they march to the fields like in the Disney film "Song of the South."

    Spike Lee and Tavis Smiley are certainly free to dislike Tarantino's film or have any opinion they want, but I do think they're incorrect about that aspect of it (the language).

    And I'm not Tarantino's biggest fan, but I do think he's a great director.

  • Pheagan

    "Yet, as none of the others has the history of slavery behind them, there can be no true comparisons."

    How about sex slavery? How about acid thrown in your face? How about rape rape rape rape rape didn't we just hear about a girl dying from a gang rape in India? I wouldn't compare my history as a woman to the experience of a slave, but there are many women currently living in the world who certainly could. I worked with some of them in Cambodia- sex slaves (third only to guns and drugs as the most lucrative criminal industry in the world, which means the number of these girls and boys is stunning). Chili peppers in your vagina at five, raped almost to death over your formative years, and an escape into a wonderful life of AIDS and no marriage and no future. Best I could do was teach them English, which was no solution at all.

    Also, ask someone whether they'd rather be a Holocaust victim or a slave and I don't think the choice would be so clear. Your odds of living are better as a slave. You could even get your freedom.

    "Though it’s impossible to equate slavery in the United States with any other historical atrocity."

    How about modern slavery? There is still slavery aside from sex slavery, which I would absolutely compare to slavery in the United States (I mean those girls even get tincanned and shipped to other countries and plenty die on the voyage). There is still slavery in this world-- in fact there are more slaves today than the total that were enslaved in the U.S., and their condition is very much like the condition of slavery was.

    As for historical atrocities, how about the Khmer Rhouge? 2 in 7 Cambodians dead. Families broken up on purpose-- completely. A lot of slaves were allowed to have families so they had a reason to stay in line. Not so under Pol Pot, whose aim was to annihilate the entire culture of Cambodia. Not allowed to talk in your house at night or you might get sent to Tuol Sleng for torture and death-- a death rate so absolute that 12 people were alive at the end. And no penalty, no punishment at all, for anyone that did it? It didn't last as long but take a trip to Cambodia and you'll see what the effects are 30 years later.

    What about the rape epidemic in the fucking Congo, for chrissakes?

    Why is there this need to give the Oscar to American Slavery for Best Atrocity Picture? Is that the only way to talk about how bad it is? It was bad, but if you hold it up as the gold standard of bad you're really belittling and dismissing the experiences of other people. And it's just about as pointless as not having a conversation about the n-word is.

  • ChuckNBuck

    "Also, ask someone whether they'd rather be a Holocaust victim or a slave
    and I don't think the choice would be so clear. Your odds of living are
    better as a slave. You could even get your freedom."

    So, you’re trying to start a pissing contest over who suffered more, slaves or Holocaust victims. That seems repugnant and childish… I’m game.

    Just to be sure I understand you right, you would rather live a life of forced labor that barely had as much value as livestock, where you are beaten, whipped and branded for the duration of your life. You’d prefer a life where your husband/wife (unobserved by your master) and children would be taken from you and sold and if you ran away, your foot would be chopped in half to prevent you from running again? You’d prefer an existence that could be ended in hanging, being burned to death or, as Tarantino depicted, being torn apart by dogs for any reason, including knowing how to read? And, just to remind you, this went on from approximately 1619 to 1865, and was followed up by another 100 years of marginalization, dehumanization and Jim Crow laws.

    Slavery and the Holocaust were disgusting evils of humanity
    and your statement belittles them both.

  • Pheagan

    No, I'm not trying to start a pissing contest at all. I'm sorry that I wasn't clearer. I'm not saying it would be better to be a slave than a Holocaust victim. I'm saying comparing them AT ALL is problematic. Saying slavery was The Worst and nothing can beat it is just as unproductive as saying The Holocaust is The Worst and nothing can beat it. I'm saying The Oppression Olympics makes people who have a common ground start arguing with each other. I mean you are obviously super pissed about my comment because you thought I was saying the Holocaust was worse. I wasn't saying that. I was trying to make exactly the same point as your last sentence (minus your last clause) by showing how useless it is to compare the any disgusting evil to the other.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    I think you misunderstood Cindy's point in the second quote. I think she wanted to say that you shouldn't compare/equate slavery in the US to other atrocities because that can easily lead to belittling the pain of others.
    It also is a tool of revisionists around the world. Don't like being reminded of your country's massacres? Bring up those of others, because they were so much worse.

    As for Cindy's first quote: you took that out of context. It directly relates to the sentence before it.

  • Pheagan

    It does relate to having a history behind a word, and I certainly could have organized my thoughts better, but cunt and bitch have thousands of years of history behind them, and I do think they perpetuate a world in which whores are so denigrated that we're often unable to realize they're clearly underaged and holy jesus how did they get where they are. There is no male equivalent to bitch and cunt, and those words are thrown around a lot more than the n-word (I for instance am willing to type those out but not the other) and I think that's a part of how we get that 12 year old girl who was gang raped in Texas and an article focusing on how mature and make-up wearing and slutty she was. When I hear bitch and cunt I don't have a visceral reaction but then neither did slaves when they heard the n-word back in the day. I think the unwillingness of black people to permit white people to use the word is a sign of their unwillingness to go back to a place where they endure that kind of thing with a smile. Women, on the other hand, endure bitch and cunt and rape jokes galore, and I think this is a sign of how little value not just America but the world gives us. I'm obviously having a lot of reactions to this mainly from my experience working with victims of sex slaves and as soon as I heard "can't be compared" my heart just kind of got impaled and ran ahead of my mouth.

  • Idle Primate

    where i live, words like cunt and bitch or rape jokes are not acceptable or endured. if that sort of thing occurs, even in a room full of just men, there is either an uncomfortable silence, or someone says, "hey now". Rape is considered the most heinous of crimes and not a subject for humour (other than men in prison).

    Near as I can tell, women are highly valued in my society, in a general cultural way as well as via infrastructure, programs and laws.

    you must live in a really crappy place. my sympathies.

  • Pheagan

    I live in America. I feel like I've never been in a room like the one you describe.

  • Idle Primate

    well, either you live in a heinous place, or you have deceitful blinders. I know a fair bit about the world, which is a paltry amount of knowledge, but i have lived in Canada all my life and i understand it very well. I get pretty damn tired of the kind of slander some people throw. I see bus ads in my city for organisations that very explicitly say our women are being thrown under the bus, and are in danger and need a boatload of support. I can't relate that to reality at all. I think of all the women i have known, and they are not skulking around angry and frightened, nor are they in any danger, nor are they disadvantaged. but they do have laws and perks entirely catered to them. I know there is no winning once you enter this fray as the other side, but sometimes it is hard to stay silent.

    The world is full of atrocities. to men and women. Canada is probably one of the greatest places on earth to be a woman. it comes with privileges. privileges that carry no responsibility. Who could ask for anything more?

  • Pheagan

    Yo, did you get the part where I worked with sex slaves? In Cambodia, but they happen in America-- Canada too. There's this thing called the Michigan pipeline? Google it. I'm happy you have a nice life, but that doesn't mean I have deceitful blinders on. My experience is way better than theirs-- I've only had just under a dozen attempted rapes and a super funtime stalking experience, which is what prompted me to go into the work in the first place. I know you probably won't read this, and I'm glad you have such a nice life, but don't ask me to pretend it's so fucking great for every woman, in America, in Canada, or where the fuckever. Don't assume everyone has the same privilege you do.

  • Pheagan

    Nevermind, you're so obviously a man's rights activist pretending you're a woman.

  • ERM

    That was really sad to read. I think people take too much comfort in believing that the atrocities of slavery are a thing of the past and therefore modern day slavery is largely ignored.

  • Anna von Beav

    So I saw Django. I loved it. (I didn't find it entirely unproblematic, but that's a discussion for a review thread.) And I was ….uncomfortable at how liberally Tarantino used The Word. Upon further reflection, I believe that was the intent.

    As I see it, Jamie Foxx is the hero of the film, and as such is the audience stand-in; we are supposed to relate to -and therefore empathize with- him, more so than Christoph Waltz. My take-away was that perhaps QT is not only giving us this history lesson, showing us, his (in general, predominately white)
    audience, that the somewhat vague and romanticized notion we have of slavery as an institution is just not the reality of it, but also purposely forcing us to identify with the black character so that we might gain a small understanding of what it might be like to be at the receiving end of The Word. So many tend, I believe, to think about slaves as having been people who just happened to be owned by other people, singing their slave spirituals and having, essentially, employer-employee relationships with their owners, and think that Those People should just Get Over It, Already. A lot of people don't understand, precisely because they're not on the receiving end of it, that this is Still A Thing. Slaves may have been “freed” in the mid-19th century, but that doesn't mean that black people were accepted and welcomed into society. I mean, the Brown vs. Board of Ed decision is less than 60 years old, and many people still don't realize that even that didn't mean immediate acceptance; redlining as a practice was still in heavy use in the 1980s and IS STILL HAPPENING TODAY. You're talking about challenging institutionally held ideals and beliefs about the inferiority of a massive subset of the population over a period of CENTURIES. And no laws or amendments or regulations or rulings will change that, or kill the use of 'nigger' as a derogatory term. What might change it is the conversation.

    To me personally, the scene with the dogs was just absolutely horrifying. I literally had to look away from the screen during that scene. Not because I was unaware that this was a real thing that has happened to actual human beings, but because reading about it in a textbook (or any book) is nowhere near as visceral, or as powerful, as seeing it re-enacted. I think perhaps that was QT's point, both in those scenes of brutal physical violence against the slave population and in his copious use of The Word; having an intellectual understanding of something is far different than seeing it presented in a way that makes the implications of it inescapable. Perhaps if we can have the discussion, and use it in the context of the discussion and not as a derogatory term, it will lose some of the power that it has. And just perhaps, if more people can see how both ridiculous and horrible the people were and are who have historically used this slur to hold people down, we can prevent it from happening in the future.

  • Idle Primate

    well said!

  • MG

    Though this is more specific to Tarantino's films than the larger race discussion, something that should be considered with regard to Tarantino' use of slurs in general, and the n-word specifically is that nearly EVERYTHING in a Tarantino movie is heightened. Acts of violence are often cartoonishly gory, set pieces are highly stylized, many characters are more like caricatures, and language/accents/line delivery, etc are usually cheesy, often bordering on the absurd. Tarantino doesn't do violence, he does giant explosions of bright red blood violence that in no way looks real. He doesn't do Westerns, he does Spaghetti Westerns, complete with all of the inherent silliness.

    Pulp Fiction didn't deal as explicitly in race issues as Django did, but the undercurrents of racism were heightened by the casual use of the n-word in dialogue. So of course a movie like Django, set smack in the middle of the American slavery era, is going to make copious use of the n-word.

    Overall my biggest problem with this is the same as when people get up in arms about misogyny or violence in movies. Depicting something is not necessarily glorifying it. Sometimes the stories we tell through art deal with unpleasant or offensive things. Does that mean the stories should never be told?

    No matter what you think of him or his movies, I wouldn't imagine Tarantino runs around flinging that word AT people, and certainly no one in Django who used the word was glorified in any way (most, in fact, were dispatched with authority by Django himself.) As a white person, I certainly would never use the n-word in real life conversation because I understand and respect the associations it holds, but were I to write a story about race relations in 1950's Alabama, it would ring false to never have a character utter that word. I can also understand my privilege as a white person, but I think in general, to tell one person they don't have the same rights as another to create a piece of art like a film or a story simply because they have no personal connection to its subject matter, stifles conversation overall and as Cindy notes, only serves to further divide us. The distinction, as ever, lay in context, and in the intention behind use of the word, not the word itself.

  • e jerry powell

    As a child I was trained not to use that word. I used it once when I was four, watching a TV game show, and my mother very calmly corrected me; the rationale being that as a race we have fought too hard for too long to reach a place where we weren't called that by anyone. I was a small black child (who was a direct beneficiary of affirmative action, no less) and didn't really understand the power of the word at the time, but the wisdom my mother showed really struck me when Whoopi Goldberg did her first stand-up special for Bravo after the Michael Richards incident. When addressing use of the word, she said it didn't bother her because she'd never been one and she didn't know any.

    I can certainly understand a warped view such as Lee's or Williams's, because, as Goldberg (not exactly the fount of consistent logical syllogisms, but still) put it, it's not the word, it's the intent with which the word is used, and Lee and Williams can't think of contexts in which a white person could use the word without menacing intent, but, in that case, they're pretty much authorizing the word's use in situations like Django, no? Because, with historic context in mind, the word is clearly being used correctly by white people (again, in context): to denigrate black people.

    As far as the word's contemporary usage, I could care less, but that's just me. I don't watch enough Tarantino to be much bothered by how he uses it.

  • Jezzer

    I think a big part of the Quentin Tarantino thing is that he is an enormous douchebag tryhard who wants more than anything to be perceived as "cool" and "edgy." He reminds me of one of those guys that is always trying to pick a fight but then cries when he gets hit.

  • Aaron Schulz

    Im not a black guy so the word doesnt carry the same power to me, hell im from minnesota and im pretty sure theres like 25 black people in that whole state. After moving to illinois the population shifted and ive actually witnessed real racism now and i get why people like spike lee have a problem with Tarantinos use of the word.
    But on the other hand, white people in that movie short of Dr Schultz are depicted as complete monsters, as they should be, so i think he is just going for accuracy and to really make you realize how gross slavery was. Jamie Foxx kills a whole shitload of white folks and rightfully so, but he also does become a relentless murder machine by the end, so it also does a good job of portraying hate creating more hate. Albeit his hate seems more rational, but its still hate. I also dont like Spike Lees attitude toward it because he claims he respects his ancestors etc etc which sort of accuses jaimie foxx, kerry washington and sam jackson of not caring about the issue of race or the past, and well thats just not fair.

  • e jerry powell

    Especially alarming with Lee having used Jackson as something of a muse through his earliest films, most notably as a black townie encountering "uppity" black college kids in School Daze.

  • TheCityDweller

    Very thoughtful article! I am glad I read this. I enjoyed the movie.

  • James Sheehy

    I forgot to add, saying someone can't use a word, strictly due to their race, when telling a story set in a time period in which said word (in this case "nigger," but the principle stands for any similar scenario) was used regularly, is completely asinine and as a historian, infuriating.

    I hate the idea of censored history. If we don't study and understand, we don't learn. That's the whole point of history. We don't get to pick and choose the pretty details.

  • e jerry powell

    Kind of like all the people who lost their shit when CZ-J lit a cigarette in Chicago, I find. It was the 1920s, and people smoked lots of cigarettes then.

  • ERM

    I think it is important to discuss racism. I also think it is important to let the victims of racism dictate that discussion. Although I suppose the idea of having "this conversation without separating ourselves out by skin color, by race, sexual preference, religion or anything else" while singing kumbaya around the fire is more palatable to those who aren't on the receiving end of our racist history.

  • e jerry powell

    *golf clap*

  • Idle Primate

    while I dont have an ideal position or stance on this subject, i sometimes find it problematic or counterproductive the value in our culture that suggests one group or another should dictate the terms of a discussion, or the corollary you often see that if you aren't from group X then you have no business saying anything about anything to do with group X.

    Aside from being divisive and at times generating antagonism from different participants in a discussion, it engenders the idea that if one doesnt have certain traits or experiences then not only are any of their thoughts, values or experiences invalid, but also that it is somehow offensive to even present oneself in a discussion, or to want to have a stake in the way our culture develops. Taken to its logical conclusion, it leads to endless disparate groups, often reinforcing biases, and little communication or understanding. It also can oversimplify and obfuscate the way different issues effect all of us in our different positions.

    its a very touchy subject though, and i find on the internet, can be explosive.

  • Hazel Dean

    Well said.

  • Preach.

  • OK, for once and for all, here are The Rules when it comes to the n-word:

    1. We live in a free country. You are free to use the n-word as often as you like, in whatever context you like. You are also free to face the consequences of and take responsibility for your use of said word.

    2. People who aren't racist or bigots don't use the n-word or any other slur against people. If you find yourself doing so, then own it and embrace the fact that you are racist.

    3. Just because you have a fetish for or find yourself almost exclusively attracted to black men/women, have "a lot of black friends", or grew up in the hood doesn't give you a pass from rule #1. Take responsibility. Your black girlfriend and upbringing ain't got shit to do with me, honey.

    4. Be respectful and stay in your lane. If you are not black, then you don't get to tell me or any other black person how to feel about and when to use the n-word. All you need to worry about is yourself (google Tim Wise kplsthnx)

    5. All "artistic" use of the n-word by non-blacks should be well thought out and considered in its context. I think Quentin Tarantino did so with Django Unchained.

    OK now do we got this??? Don't make me have to reach through this monitor...

  • e jerry powell

    Fair enough.

    Oh, and shoot a copy of this to the GOOP lady.

  • Bert_McGurt

    I have to think part of the problem with this, and so, so many other social issues facing America (and Canada, where I live) boils down to too many people having knee-jerk reactions to issues they can't appreciate with (or in which they ignore) any degree of nuance. If I may use the term in this case - everything is black or white to them. Too many don't understand that there's always a grey area.

    Case in point - Tarantino's being chastised for USING this particular slur. Just in general, with no thought to HOW it's used in the film, by WHO, and what that might mean in the overall narrative arc. I have to confess that I've not seen Django yet - but that also means that I haven't yet made up my mind about whether it's being used exploitatively. I'm not sure what using it in Django means about Tarantino - though I'm willing to bet it comes in somewhere between "angelic martyr" and "full-on racist". There's a big difference between the film BEING "disrespectful to (Lee's) ancestors" and SHOWING the disrespect they faced. But there's also merit to the feelings that black audience members will have when they hear it, regardless of how it's intended to come off.

    Of course, that invites the question of whether it's "OK" to use the word at all, even if it's to flesh out a particular characterization. If you use it to show what a terribly hurtful and dehumanizing word it is, is it still verboten because of the hurt it causes?

  • Sara_Tonin00

    This is true, though I'll add that some of the knee-jerk reaction is based off Tarantino's previous frequent use of the word.

  • Idle Primate

    i just saw pulp fiction the other night on tv, and i have to admit, i was kind of shocked during the scene in the kitchen of the character Tarantino plays. His character is irate and complaining about the two hitmen bringing a dead body to his house, and uses the word repeatedly, literally as a descriptor for the deceased.

    I haen't seen Django, but i would guess these two films aren't comparable in this respect as Django is set in pre civil war american south.

  • e jerry powell

    I haven't seen it either, but that's probably a fair conclusion.

  • James Sheehy

    Good article. Personally, when I'm with colleagues (I work as a historical researcher), teachers, or black friends, it has always been easy to discuss racism without being branded a bigot; However, I've found that the topic becomes more divisive when brought up around relative strangers. As if people automatically assume the worst and feel some need to overcompensate in response to prove how accepting they are. Growing up in Savannah, GA, race was always an issue, but more so for political reasons than in face to face interaction. But as you said, Ive never understood the hesitancy with which some approach the subject.

    Oh, and Spike Lee labeling anyone else as a racist would be hysterical if it wasn't so maddeningly hypocritical. I can think of few insults that are more deserving of a beating than calling a black man a "house negro."

  • ERM

    "But in our public schools, the subject of slavery is barely covered, and
    what is taught focuses largely on the underground railroad, slaves
    being freed, Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation."

    Do you have anything that actually backs up that assertion? My southern, redneck, public school discussed the horrors of slavery and the slave trade quite in depth.

  • icyn2

    Lies My Teacher Told Me documents pretty clearly what happened to the national curriculum around slavery and the civil war: the theory that the war was more about economics than slavery was created and propagated in order to smooth over tensions between north and south. That worked.

  • ERM

    That doesn't really address the question of whether students are actually taught about slavery, such as details about the lives of slaves or about the slave trade, etc.

  • Based largely on conversation and experiences shared in discussions, reading what other people have experienced, as well as seeing firsthand what my own children's public schools cover. I recently read an interview where Kerry Washington said this: "I remember there was this one moment in the script where Jamie's character was put in an awful crazy medieval metal mask. I said, 'That's some sick thing Quentin thought up.' And when I went to the production office to meet about my wardrobe, I saw into the research office. Twenty photos of real masks like that. It made me sad. I realized as much as my degrees and everything I've read on slave narratives [should have informed me], I didn't even know that they wore masks like that, that people did that to us. It took a Tarantino movie for me to know that that's not some crazy thing out of his imagination."

  • ERM

    That's interesting. I've found the opposite based on my discussions with other people (mostly raised in the south) and various things I've read on the internet. For example, there was a scandal a couple of years ago because a middle school teacher, while teaching about the transatlantic slave trade and the experience of Africans on the ships, asked students sit on the floor in a row in a very cramped space for the entire class period. Based on the reactions I saw from that, it was a very common learning exercise for middle schoolers. My middle school social studies teacher did the same thing. But perhaps those are just the stories that stand out to me because they are similar to my own experiences.

  • SeaKat Stabler

    Mine didn't -- not in depth, at any rate. Most of my education came from external reading.

    And my eldest is only in third grade, so maybe it's coming, but her school hasn't talked about it much yet. Most of what she knows about slavery is from the American Girl books about Addy. Sad but true.

  • AngelenoEwok

    ^^^ I grew up in Virginia and this is eerily close to my own experience.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    No molasses, to rum, to slaves?

  • AngelenoEwok

    We finally learned about the triangular trade in AP US History, when I was a junior.

  • lowercase_ryan

    YOU were AP? so impressed.

  • AngelenoEwok

    I didn't mention that it was AP to humble brag (although saying I'm not humble bragging is probably in and of itself, a humble brag), but to point out "ZOMG, in Virginia, one had to get all the way up to AP to learn general details of the slave trade!"

    Anyway. Humblebrag-ception!

  • John G.

    Is it a humble-brag? I'm not sure.

    a humble-brag is when you complain about something that also complements you. Were you complaining about the class or just mentioning it?

  • lowercase_ryan

    I love the word humblebrag, and if anyone has a right to humblebrag, it's you dear.

  • John G.

    Harris Wittels just released a whole book of them.

  • Rochelle

    Wow! Pajiba is on fire today. Two thoughtful pieces designed to provoke thought on the power of images and words to define how we see ourselves and others. Thanks!

  • chanohack

    I quite agree... this article is fantastic, as are the comments. The discussion on this and the sexy hero ladies piece are important ones.

  • lowercase_ryan

    You talk about the physical reactions blacks could have to the word and that Jews can have to a swastika. But what about the confederate flag?

    The fact that some people can look at it and feel a sense of pride, while in others it can trigger rage and fear, may have something to do with why we can't even seem to address the situation in a constructive manner.

  • What's to be proud of? They had one war, they were on the wrong side of it, and they lost.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Don't ask me, ask the people who put the bumper stickers on cars even here in AZ. We weren't even a state with the ability to join the confederacy yet. So stupid.

    But as to your question of what's to be proud of? I think we let them off the hook. By not universally condemning the flag we gave them the wiggle room to deny they were in the wrong.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    so many upvotes for this. The confederate flag - and the way people appropriate it today with pride - drives me nuts.

  • lowercase_ryan

    For some perspective, last I checked Nazi flags are illegal in Germany.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    For the most part, it is. You can, however, display it in a historical context.

  • Phaedre

    Hell yes they are.

  • Kip Hackman

    That is an excellent point.

  • I think those criticisms are on shaky ground when it comes to Django. I can see the argument for a line like "Why is there a dead nigger in my driveway?" There it's either being played for laughs or to show in a glossy way that this character is a racist. Since that character isn't fleshed out any way other than that, it's hard to see the value or meaning behind using that word to show he's a racist. So the fact that the writer is the one saying it makes us wonder why it's there.

    There are some instances in Django where using the word is played for laughs, which is basically Samuel Jackson's entire time on screen. But for me, it was at least as much about his delivery as it was the content of what he was saying, something along the lines of "What's that nigger doing on a horse?". I would argue that given the context of the rest of the movie, this is meant to further establish that racism is rampant, even among this black person. Jackson's character conforms to the racist ideas of his culture despite being a black person. This may be an obvious point. But unlike in Pulp Fiction, this serves as a quick way to establish the point.

    I laughed at Jackson's lines and the one early in the movie where a white person asks the same thing about Django being on a horse. But I laughed at the white person's line because of how ridiculous the racism is, not because the character said a naughty word or I enjoy hearing a word I'm not supposed to say. Having said that, I can see why this would bother people. But whatever Tarantino's past, I think his goal is clear with Django, to expose the horrible nature of slavery and the ridiculous nature of racism. Once that's the goal you set out for it would be very difficult to ignore the language in which all of that is couched, especially when it's still on open wound for today's society.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Oh, and Monticello does not have a slavery museum, per se, but does have an extensive exhibit on the slaves used to make Jefferson's estate run.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I've been working on a play about Jefferson's take on race (we opened last night, yay!) and while the dreaded n-word isn't applicable to this time period, there were places to deal with even the use of the word "Negro" and more "negress" (if you pluralize that word, it sounds simply odious). Aside from specific words, even just dealing with the objectification of a human being through slavery made some of the actors during the script-reading/workshopping phase queasy. The actor playing Jefferson had to come to terms with some of the really surprising thing he had to say - and I think he thought them through carefully, but unless a performer is appearing in an exploitative piece but is not comfortable with exploitation, there shouldn't be too much pause. You either know the piece is going to be provocative and welcome the challenge, or you didn't sign on in the first place. A-list actors signing up for Tarantino know what they are getting in to.

    Humorous anecdote though - it was taking an exceptionally long time for my costumer to fit Jefferson. He was in the dressing room for ages, and I started pacing in the production office, finally blurting out to those in the office "My Jefferson is 6'5". I just hope they can find knickers to fit him." Without missing a beat, one of the producers turns and says "did you just say the n-word?" Cracked me up.

  • janetfaust

    Congrats and good show to you! Sounds like an interesting piece.

  • Natallica

    As a foreigner, I may not have a real grasp on the dephts of the racial subjects. But is it really fair that Tarantino, a man that has been very obvious about his appreciation for black actors and has made lots of nods to african american culture on his films, is being slammed because of his use of a word?

  • Resa Anderson

    <script src=""></script>

    Trying an embed - I'll post the link if it doesn't work - but there was a really great and uncomfortable moment when Sam Jackson insisted a reporter say it before he continued the line of questioning regarding its use. The guy flat out refused.

    Okay, here:

  • janetfaust

    Question - When Quentin Tarantino said it in character in "Pulp Fiction", since the character's wife was black did that make it acceptable usage for a white person?

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I think having a black wife made the dorky character *think* it was ok for him to use the word.

  • e jerry powell

    And here's the thing: Michael Rappaport as Thomas Dunwitty in Bamboozled. Spike Lee made the same argument, but somehow it was okay for Spike to do it, and at the expense of the central (black) character.

  • Jezzer

    The thing is, I don't think that character was intended to be "dorky." I think that character was intended to be cool, and that sums up my problem with Quentin Tarantino in a nutshell.

  • John G.

    No way! That guy was not supposed to be cool. Just like the Australian dork in Django is not supposed to be cool.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    but...but...he owned a Banana Slugs t-shirt.

    Yes, QT has major blockers on when it comes to himself.

  • janetfaust

    That sounds like a fair interpretation.

  • Jerce

    1) I haven't seen the movie yet, but I find it curious that when Tarantino used WW2, Nazis and the Holocaust as the setting for his last revenge-fantasy film (I loved it), I did not see or hear anyone chastising him for that. However, when he makes use of the slavery period of America's history, unnumbered people, black and white, are criticizing him for it--and pretty harshly, too. I don't want to be a Tarantino apologist, because apparently he's a prick in person and I have actually liked only three of his movies (I've seen all his past films, and I expect Django to bring the total up to four), but it looks to me as if something else is going on here--something that has next to nothing to do with this film or with Tarantino's opinions on race.

    2) I am aware of a slavery museum in Charleston, SC, a city which was once a hub of slave-trading. You should check it out if you get a chance:
    (There may be others elsewhere in the country but I am not aware of any others.)

  • There was actually a fair amount of people in the Jewish community who complained when Inglorious Basterds came out, mostly out of concern that it might diminish the horrors of the Holocaust. It died down because the people who didn't feel that way saw it and enjoyed it, and the people who did just didn't go see it and let it end at that. As an issue though, slavery is different and a lot more fraught, because of our history in discussing it. A lot of this criticism is, I think, coming from a totally understandable discomfort in the black community with constantly having their story appropriated by white people. Consider how many filmed stories of the Holocaust, many or most of which were made by Jewish filmmakers, exist. Now consider how many filmed stories of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, etc exist. How many of those were made by black filmmakers? I liked Django, but I also understand the black community when they say they're not interested in seeing yet another tale of black folks told through the eyes of a white guy, especially a white guy who already has a history of appropriating the n-word for his own use (I'm mostly referring to his turn in Pulp Fiction). I agree with you that it's not necessarily about Tarantino per se, but I think at the heart of the criticism is a discussion that deeply needs to be had.

    Also, have you been to the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery? It's run by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and it's really extraordinary.

  • John G.

    I think it's the purpose of the film. It's a great cathartic moment for Jews the world over to get to see, not imagine, but see the thing ********BASTERDS SPOILER*********** that happens to Hitler at the end.

    I also think that this is part of the purpose of Django too. It's just cathartic to see slave owners get theirs, even if it's not historically accurate.

  • Kip Hackman

    As I watched Django Unchained with a group of friends who were all fans of Tarantino, I couldn't help but feel bad for nearly every white actor in the film (save Christoph Waltz). I'm sure there were days where Leo got his script for the shoot that day and just thought "I have to say this?" I can't imagine how hard that might have been, especially to have to say it not as Cindy does, with the motivation of starting a conversation about the power we give these words, and the division that comes from that power, but to say it as though you mean every foul, awful, debasing connotation of the word.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the situations of white men getting paid a large sum of money to repeating a volatile racial slur is anywhere close to actually living through slavery, but the idea that Tarantino uses that word lightly, and that the actors he employs use that word lightly is, I think, false. Obviously I don't know because I've never spoken with the man, but I can't help but wonder if Tarantino purposefully uses that word so often to work as the catalyst for discussion. Because having white people either pretend the word doesn't exist or use it offensively and have African-Americans use it as just another way to address one another doesn't seem healthy, or well adjusted. Dave Chappelle had a similar philosophy with Chappelle's Show. A huge, overarching theme in that show was racism, which Chappelle used for comedy, but with the hope that after the show was over people might actually talk about race. Because clamming up and ignoring it is not going to solve the problem.

    I don't know, why Tarentino uses that word so prolifically in many of his movies, and one could argue in Django that it's for the sake of historical accuracy, but if he uses racial slurs in his works to spur discussion about race, well then it's acceptable in my book (not that that matters) and mission accomplished.

  • ERM

    It is interesting that you've thought of the fact that the white actors in the movie might have been uncomfortable saying it but don't appear to have an opinion about how the black actors in the film felt hearing it.

  • justsomeguy

    Did you feel bad for the black actors who were in chains? Or

  • Kip Hackman

    Well now I feel like a dick. You're right, being a white person, my first thought was how I, a white person would've felt trying to say Leonardo Di Caprio's lines when it was obviously difficult for Kerry Washington to get dragged out of the hot box, or the two black men to act through fighting to the death for the enjoyment of their owners, etc. (I'm not going to list ever atrocity in the movie). There were probably uncomfortable moments for everyone involved, and I apologize for not broadening my thought process more, and taking that into account.

  • TK

    Comments like this make me proud.

  • pissant

    While I'm sensitive to the way it makes some people feel to hear it even quoted, can we please cut this "n-word" crap out. At the best it makes people sound like children. At the worst it makes you sound like a terrible person*. I just don't feel as though an adult conversation can take place on this topic if we're going to speak like children.

    P.S. Thank you for not using "n-word" when you named all the other racial slurs.

    * - I get so angry when I hear people talking about racial slurs spouting off a list of them and then say "n-word". So, it's OK to say all those other racial slurs?

  • Kip Hackman

    I'm with you. We're all (presumably) adults here on Pajiba. We're all familiar with the slurs themselves. If you are willing to list them all, really list them all, and if not, just saying "racial slurs" will get your point across.

  • KatSings

    I'm terrified about the shitstorm that will be this comments section shortly. That being said, I think this is a very thoughtful piece. I've always been of the opinion that either the word (and this can be any word, not just the one we're discussing at present) is acceptable or not. Co-opting it for exclusive use isn't empowering to me.

  • Hazel Dean

    See, I disagree. I am a lesbian and I have been subjected to shouts of "dyke!" by douchebag idiots in the past, and it totally sucked. However, I refer to myself as a dyke when among friends. Context matters, and when you reclaim (not co-opt, thank you) a word like that you are effectively saying to any douchebag idiots within earshot that they can't hurt you with that word, because you use it yourself and are proud of that particular part of your identity; if they were to try and use that word to hurt or shame you, they would fail because you don't consider it a shameful thing to be. They would still be douchebags for trying, hence it still being not okay for it to be used as a slur, but you've effectively used that same slur to empower yourself by taking away the power others have to hurt you with it.

  • AngelenoEwok

    Thanks. That's a great way of explaining reclamation.

  • Hazel Dean

    Thank you! I'm glad my rambling post made sense to someone!

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