Django Unchained: The ‘n’ is silent

January 17, 2013 by  
Filed under Features

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Why does Quentin Tarantino get to say “nigger�? The question’s been asked since as far back as Pulp Fiction and, with Django Unchained about to hit UK cinemas, it’s come around again. The power of that particular racial epithet says much about our relationship with language. You’ll hear many a right-wing apologist claim that it’s “just a word� and to use it is no more offensive than to call someone with a large forehead “cliff face�.

Except it isn’t, is it? Clearly neither is a pleasant remark, and apologies to any cranially over-endowed readers who might’ve been offended by my last comment. But unless, to paraphrase Stewart Lee, there were hundreds of years of slavery and oppression based on the size of one’s forehead that my school history lessons overlooked, the one word clearly carries more power than the other.

Reclamation explains how and why minorities turn insults into badges of pride: by owning the word, you rob your attacker of his power in using it. At least that’s the idea. If such words really were robbed of their power, then we wouldn’t end up with people still being so sensitive about them.

Witness the interviewer who asked Samuel L Jackson about the use of “the n-word� in Django Unchained. Despite Jackson’s encouragement, the interviewer couldn’t bring himself to utter the dreaded descriptor and was ridiculed all over the Twittersphere as a result. But his discomfort is understandable.

Race is an even more sensitive issue in the US than it is in the UK, with the analytical use of racial phraseology often receiving equal scorn to full-blooded racism. The late Christopher Hitchens recalled how he was pulled off air and escorted from the studio after using the word “nigger� in a (supposedly) intelligent discussion about the changing nature of language.

As Jackson’s scornful attitude suggests, this over-sensitivity is a self-perpetuating product of whites. It’s a craven sort of apology: the equivalent of throwing your hands over your face and whining “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!� so you can shout down the insulted with self-hate and not actually have to engage with the nature of your own misdeed.

Tarantino is allowed to use such language because he is engaged with its history. Through good films and bad, he has championed black characters and given them the reins – in language and cinematic conventions – which once oppressed or outright ignored them. Quentin Tarantino gets to say “nigger� because he knows what it means.

Tinygod says:

The word holds power for as long as we feel “shock” when it’s spoken. It’s just as racist as cracker or “white boy”. But the truth of the matter is this. I at first felt like it was being used properly in pulp fiction but after the first hour realized it was not.

There’s a chance that the black characters would use it a lot, hell theres a chance that some white guys would too but not every character.

But in the end we pay him a ton of money to continue using it, so who cares. It’s a movie. When used in anger to degrade, it’s horrible. When used as a line in a movie, it’s really not.

I personally feel the term “African American” is just as bad. Last time I checked my friend Jay isn’t from Africa. His family’s been here longer then mine. He’s more “American” then I am. But we still use a term that separates him by color, which I despise,

notanigga says:

No one gives a fuck. wahhhh wahhhh it OFFENDS me. Fuck you.

Tammy says:

I am not under the impression that Tarentino “knows what it means.” I just watched Pulp Fiction for the first time, and I understood why people like Spike Lee would be suspicious of Tarentino’s use of the word. If it was to bring authenticity to the script, I might understand its use to some degree, but when Tarentino himself spouts the word out of his mouth like Dr. Laura on the radio show, then it seems to me that he is more interested in letting people know that he can use it as much as he wants and anytime he wants. Nevermind that as a white man, he puts the Jackson character in Pulp Fiction in an inferior position. Jules has no choice but to stand there and take it from this white guy because he needs his help. And if he wants help, he better suck up to the white guy who loves to hear the sound of his own voice spitting out a word that insults black people.

If Tarentino “knows what it means,” then he has not conveyed this understanding in his films. He uses it for the shock value, which in the end, only serves to make a greater disconnect between people’s understanding of the word and what it actually represents — a long history of brutality and nastiness and denigrating ideologies that characterize black people as sub-human, filthy, immoral, and unfit to be in the company of whites as equals. So every time some white guy shouts the word at a black man in a film, this is the subtext of what he is saying. If Tarentino understood the meaning of the word and if he cared about championing black characters, then he should provide a context for using such an insulting word. As I see it, he uses it liberally because he can. He’s a rich white guy in Hollywood, which makes it okay for him to use it, and everyone else is simply “oversensitive” when they speak out about it.

Nomis says:

Are you for real? Tarintino don’t KNOW what the word means!

It’s a punchline to him! A word he know that will stir up controversy and get people talking about him and his film! He could care LESS about the plight of black people!

He never been called that with the hate and total malice that is behind it or have members of his family lynched or hung with the name spray painted on their dead bodies.

Tarintino is allowed to say it because the media justify him doing so and NOT calling him out for it with articles like this one.