Django Unchained and the Power of That Word
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.