Tarantino's 'Django Unchained' Reignites Debate Over N-Word in Movies
With more than 110 utterances of the word in his new slave Western, Tarantino reopens a decades-long discussion about racism, art and the fine line between.
In Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino does not try to continue the slow unpacking of America’s long legacy of slavery and subsequent racism; instead, he plants a stick of dynamite in the country’s baggage and detonates it all over the screen.
The writer/director’s new film, a spaghetti western set in the south two years before the Civil War, stars Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave who is purchased and freed by a German bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz. The pair ride through the southern panhandle taking down criminals for cash, before ultimately heading to the plantation owned by a Leonardo DiCaprio of mustache-twirling evil to free Django’s wife.
In total, the dialogue is peppered with over 110 instances of the n-word, uttered by both racist whites and black characters. It is used as an insult, a proper noun, and as throwaway filler. Whether it’s a sign of how far the nation has come in its race relations, or an indication of how much progress is left to be made, the use of the word has stirred debate a full two weeks before the film even hits theaters.
"In the deep south, if we hadn’t heard that word as much as we did, it would have been ahistorical. The language in that way was precise,” Toure, an author and co-host of MSNBC’s afternoon show The Cycle, told The Hollywood Reporter after seeing the film at a screening for press. "It’s so embedded into their society. It's not pejorative, it's 'This is how we talk.’ They’re not even conscious of the racism or gravity. To make a big deal out of it, and if you watch that film and that's what you get out of it, that’s just an incredibly unintelligent knee-jerk reaction to the whole thing."
Specifically, Toure was referring to conservative media members who have criticized Tarantino’s use of the word in Django, including blogger Matt Drudge, who splashed “N*gger” seven times across the top of his site on Wednesday. Yet it is more than a single word, however odious its legacy, that fuels the debate over Tarantino’s treatment of race in the new movie; the brutal depiction of slavery, with whippings, hot boxing, verbal abuse, chain gangs and near-castration, sets a tone that is equally divisive.
"He’s smushing slavery and its ills in our faces. It’s not sanitized and pretty,” the MSNBC personality said, calling the scenes "incredibly jarring." His assessment, though, was not shared by syndicated film critic Dwight Brown of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service and BlackPressUSA.com.
"Lots of the violence in the movie feels more like a caricature than a re-enactment," he told The Hollywood Reporter in an email. "The kind of bloodshed and brutality you’d see in a horror film or a superficial action movie, versus what you might find in a real drama (Saving Private Ryan). Does it minimize the horrors of slavery? That’s up for debate. Maybe 'cloud' or 'dilute' are better words."
Ultimately, that Tarantino is the writer/director behind Django provides as much context as any historical setting or degree of blood splatter. Beginning in earnest with a monologue by the director himself in Pulp Fiction, in which he says the n-word repeatedly, he has displayed a propensity for including the term in his films that is unmatched among white directors.
"[Django’s use] felt much more natural to me, and it was much more in place," Toure explained. "I understand why he used it in his other pieces. Even when he comes out [in Pulp Fiction] when he says ‘Dead n----r storage,’ it's hysterical, but you could step out and say why did he need to say that outside of it being funny?"
Brown counters, "Instinctive and necessary? Or numbing and a cheap shock effect? The purpose and results are open to personal interpretation."
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In 1997, Spike Lee took issue with the heavy use of the term in Jackie Brown, which was Tarantino’s homage to blaxploitation films, as well as in his earlier works.
“I have a definite problem with Quentin Tarantino’s excessive use of the n-word. And let the record state that I never said that he cannot use that word -- I’ve used that word in many of my films -- but I think something is wrong with him,” the director, one of America’s preeminent black filmmakers, said in an interview. Lee also compared the angry response of Samuel L. Jackson, Tarantino’s lead in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, to his comments to "the house slave defending the massa." Incidentally, in Django, that is exactly the role Jackson plays, as the conniving slave looking out for DiCaprio.
A year later, Lee added that he felt that he had more of a right to use the word in his films because he is an African American -- which points to a fundamental, unsolvable friction in the case of Tarantino: he is white.
Tarantino has often defended his use of the term by saying that he is simply utilizing the English language in all its glory and ugly legacies. Certainly, the 15 years since his argument with Lee began have seen hip-hop make the word more ubiquitous, if not acceptable. He is seen by some as a bold white filmmaker willing to tackle race in an industry that is often afraid of doing so, and by others as an interloper who revels in using a taboo term off-limits to most.
It is an issue that has proven divisive even among black critics. Django was this week nominated for four NAACP Image Awards, including best picture. Last year, the Civil Rights-era film The Help picked up that award, despite charges by some that the film promoted the idea that generous white people were most responsible for helping timid, submissive blacks to win equal rights in the 1960s south.
In Django, Foxx is by the end the film’s undisputed hero, though he too has to be sprung free by a white man who gets many of the best lines of dialogue. As Tarantino’s doppelganger, the bounty hunter character played by Christoph Waltz admits to hating slavery and removes the shackles of more than a few black people caught in bondage. Whether that’s enough to appeal to critics of the film’s language, however, remains to be seen.