There are a couple of things that I don’t want to have to do when I go see a movie: cover my eyes much of the time because of graphic violence, and hear the N-word dropped every 10 minutes. So why see a Quentin Tarantino movie? Gun violence and the N-word are among Tarantino's favorite cinematic vices. Yesterday, Django Unchained's Harvey and Bob Weinstein announced that they were canceling today's Los Angeles red carpet premiere of the film out of respect for the families mourning in Newtown, CT. And although they didn't specifically cite a connection between the gratuitous gun violence in the film and the horror of all that occurred on Friday, perhaps they should have. So too, with the film's egregious use of the N-word, given the flurry of racist tweets that were sent out when President Obama's speech honoring Newtown's slain children preempted the first quarter of the NFL football game on Sunday.
I am neither an ardent nor a reluctant fan of Tarantino’s films. I recognize that he is a talented filmmaker who has managed to tap into the vein of cultural appropriation in a way that makes it seem like something else. And that subtle ability, that seemingly benign bit of exploitative trickery, is something that needs to be explored. Regularly.
So if Leonardo DiCaprio’s truly detestable character, plantation owner Calvin Candie, says, “What’s the use in having a slave who speak German if she’s not available when we have a German guest?” reads as funny, because really, what would be the point? But it’s not entirely funny, because said German-speaking slave had to first be pulled out of “the hot box”—a well-deep iron cage where slaves who try to run away are thrown, naked, and left for days without food or water—in order to be cleaned up and made “available" to Candie's guest.
Similarly, in a standoff toward the end—spoiler alert—Stephen, Calvin Candie’s head slave, played by Samuel L. Jackson, and Django (Jamie Foxx) engage in a very contemporary sounding verbal exchange. Stephen: “I count six bullets, nigga.” Django: “I count two guns, nigga.” You can imagine what might happen next. The exchange and subsequent bullet to a kneecap delighted the white audience member to my left, who felt compelled to announce out loud, after laughing on cue along with most everyone else: “That’s awesome!” How did we get here, to this place where using the N-word, even in the all-powerful (read: appropriated) “context” of an era or historic narrative, has white people sitting back and laughing? Worse still, deeming it awesome?
I was fully prepared to hate Django Unchained. Or at the very least, be mildly offended, as I have been by Tarantino’s previous films for one reason or another. It is in part, I am sure, because of a brief conversation I had with him many years ago, shortly after Jackie Brown came out. I was working as a producer for the Charlie Rose show at the time, and he was a guest. I was charged with seeing him out when the interview was over, and as we rode down in the elevator to the lobby and his waiting car, I couldn’t resist asking him about what appeared to me as his borderline obsession with black culture. He was both earnest and glib in his response—in the way that a video clerk film geek, who makes it big as an auteur filmmaker can now do and say whatever the hell he pleases. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it definitely had the word “awesome” in it, something to the effect of: “Well, yeah! Black people are awesome!”
My fellow Django viewer responded in precisely the way Tarantino wants his audiences to respond to the black characters in his films, and that is by viewing black culture in the same way that he interprets and perceives it to be: exotic, violently entertaining, alluring, and almost entirely objectified.
There is, of course, much to be said and admired about Tarantino, as a filmmaker who effectively draws from a broad range of film genres to produce compelling, complex, and often very smart narratives. But I’m not a cinefile (though I tried my hand at screenwriting years ago, and was also the editor of a film magazine for some time). I see movies and write about them because I believe the good ones teach us about people, politics, relationships, and language. They also reflect who we are, and the worlds we live in.
Even as Django Unchained is ostensibly a slave narrative of sorts that takes place two years before the Civil War, with the main character a slave freed by a German dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (played by an absolutely magnificent Christoph Waltz, who earned an Oscar for his role as Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds), it is still a movie in 2012 that drops the N-word over 100 times in just under three hours.
Of course, you don’t expect slaves or slaveholders to use the term "African American," but neither do you expect them to sound like Jay-Z when they use the N-word. The slaves and slaveholders in Django are different. They’re not just vile, they’re also gangsta. It’s not that films addressing slavery should not be made. But Tarantino did not make a film addressing slavery. He converted a slave narrative to his own personalized style of blaxploitation filmmaking, in which black folks talking smack and shooting at each other is awesome.
Be an irreverent, big-thinking, bold-ass filmmaker, but don't hide behind the "context" of slavery to grant yourself permission to over utilize a word we really just don't need to hear anymore, at all.