Other thoughts on “Django Unchained”: Quentin Tarantino and the N-word

Quentin Tarantino Django Unchained

Credit: The Weinstein Company

First, let me state that I don’t use the N-word. I don’t like it and I think it should be barred. However, what I’m about to say will sound like a defense of Tarantino. I guess it is. Anyway read on…

I have been thinking a lot about Django Unchained a lot since seeing it yesterday, and I have realized that the thing people have the most problem with–including Spike Lee–isn’t the film itself. It’s Quentin Tarantino people have a problem with.

When I first watched Pulp Fiction for a film class, I was met with an experience unlike any other I’ve had when watching a film. Of course, I was shocked by the gore, but I was also entranced by the dialogue, the staging and the fun the movie reveled in. I was also weirded out by the usage of the N-word, especially when Tarantino’s character in the film said it. At first, I thought I should be offended, but then I started thinking about it. Firstly, if Samuel L. Jackson, one of the most outspoken people in Hollywood, wasn’t railing against Tarantino, then perhaps I should take a second look at the film. Secondly, while I’ve always thought the N-word shouldn’t be in use ever, I do think that it is important to understand the different usages of the word. It’s easy to get mad at first when Tarantino uses it in Pulp Fiction or his other movies, but it’s a different thing to understand where Tarantino is coming from with his usage of the word. In short, I don’t think he’s being racist, and here’s why:

Blaxploitation and grindhouse films

Tarantino has said over and over again that he’s grown up watching and loving B-movies, Blaxploitation and grindhouse films. These kinds of films have all sorts of seedy stuff in it amid the fun, juicy plots. You can be sure that the N-word is used sometimes, particularly in Blaxploitation films, like the classic film, Shaft. So, from what I know about Tarantino, he’s using the N-word in keeping with the homage to those films. In that case, it’s almost like he’s using the word just like he uses his favorite music from other movies in his films. He’s making a collage of everything that’s from the movies he loves to create his own movie, the N-word included.

The N-word as “cool”

Blaxploitation is a double-edged sword, as far as films go. On the one hand, it makes black people accepted in society on some level. In terms of entertainment’s effect on America, it  (along with Sidney Poitier) was part of what helped make us really cool to other people in the ’60s and ’70s. However, it made everything about us cool, including our usage of the N-word. Now, to kids watching these films, the N-word isn’t really seen as a racial word–in fact, the N-word has now been turned into a word that signifies belonging to a club of sorts. If you can say the word, then you are one of the Cool Kids. The fact that it’s forbidden for other people to say just makes it even more cool.

Tarantino uses the N-word just like a kid who is glad to be given the opportunity and blessing to say curse words. He’s using it because it’s “fashionable” to say. For me, I can see that he’s not meaning any racial thing behind it; he’s trying to speak the same lingo he loved hearing in those old movies he watched as a kid. He simply wants to be cool.

Now as far as slavery goes…

It makes sense for Django Unchained to have the N-word in it. The film’s about slavery, for goodness’ sake! You can’t be PC about slavery. And in general, I think Tarantino’s use of the N-word in other films, combined with the level of gore and “grindhouse” elements, is part of Tarantino’s narrative style. He’s always about showing grittiness and uncouth behavior in films, and using his usage of the word is one of the tools he uses. He’s using it in a shock-jock way, as well as in a homage-type way and a “cool white hipster who secretly wants to be black” kind of way. When he’s saying it, he’s saying with with no racial weight behind it, I think.

But should the N-word be said?

With all of that said, I think the N-word shouldn’t be used, but not for the reasons you might think. Like I said, I sincerely don’t think Tarantino’s a racist. But, his usage of the word puts people–especially black people–in a tizzy. But if some black people are going to get in a tizzy over Tarantino saying it, why don’t they get in a tizzy when rappers say it? Or when their uncle says it? Or when their black friends say it to their other black friends? Either the N-word gets said by everyone, or it gets said by no one. Sure, there’s the argument that black people have turned the N-word–a word used to hurt us–into a word to so-call “empower” us. Let’s be real here–the N-word empowers nobody. We just say “empower” in place of saying “we’ve learned how to live with the pain we’re constantly being subject to.” What we need to do is just let the N-word go. White supremacists gave it power first, but black people have continued supplying the word with power by turning the word into being cool and hip. For us to get mad when someone else wants to use it in the same “cool and hip” manner–like Tarantino–is hypocritical. So, once again, we either all have the permission to use it, or we bury the word once and for all and quit using it.

In short–Tarantino’s usage of the N-word isn’t the issue here. The issue we should be taking a serious look at is how much power we as a society are going to keep giving the N-word.

Let’s not even forget that the Django Unchained is about A BLACK MAN KILLING WHITE SLAVE OWNERS! What racist would make a film like this?

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2 comments for “Other thoughts on “Django Unchained”: Quentin Tarantino and the N-word

  1. Mark Trammell
    January 7, 2013 at 3:13 am

    Another great article, Monique! I have definitely thought long and hard about this very subject matter, having grown up in the South all my life. When I lived in Atlanta, I had lots of black friends and when we’d listen to rap and we’d sing along, they would give me a “pass” to say the “N-Word” in the context of the song, but it always felt off somehow so I stopped. But you’re absolutely right, it’s hard to call anyone on it when so many rappers and black people in general use the word like its going out of style. I agree that the word should just go away. People say they’re “taking it back”- they should leave it there, lol.
    Also, I couldn’t agree with you more on QT. I think most people are fine with his approach and writing/directing skills, but his achille’s heel is that he insists on writing himself into nearly everything he does and (A) He can’t act; and (B) It takes the viewer out of the film altogether when he shows up. Don’t get me wrong, I liked his bit in “Reservoir Dogs,” but I fear that led to him thinking he should do it every time, and he shouldn’t. I think his personality can be a turn-off for some. My mom hates him and thinks he’s exhausting to listen to, what with his non-stop talking. As a writer and would-be filmmaker, I’m wowed by his encyclopedic knowledge, but he should keep it in interviews and the writing/directing of his films where it belongs and stay out of the process himself and I guarantee he’d tick a lot less people off in the process.

  2. moniquej
    January 7, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    I’ve got to co-sign on what you said about Tarantino taking himself out of films. He’s really doing himself a disservice to write himself in all the time. You’re right; his presence does take you out of the universe he’s created.

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