Twelve years ago, as Quentin Tarantino's film Jackie Brown was being released, director Spike Lee chided him over how much his characters used the word "n*****," saying, "I have a definite problem with Quentin Tarantino's excessive use of the n-word. And let the record show 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." With Tarantino's latest film, Django Unchained, taking place in the American south during the mid 19th century, many expected Lee to speak up again -- and he didn't disappoint, claiming that watching Django Unchained would be "disrespectful to my ancestors." Lee's criticisms seemed to be echoed from an unlikely source -- the conservative website The Drudge Report -- which perhaps mockingly joined the debate with an inflammatory headline referencing the liberal use of "n*****" in Django Unchained.
Should the word "n*****" be excised from the American vocabulary, regardless of the context (historical, cultural, or otherwise) in which it's used? Is it disrespectful to black people to fit the story of an avenging slave into the Western and Blaxploitation genres Tarantino loves so much? And is Django Unchained any good? Watch my ReThink Review of Django Unchained below (transcript following).
Quentin Tarantino is one of the rare directors whose work is identifiable without his name attached, whether it's his flair for dialogue, his inspired use of music, his love for film and its genres, or his passion for blood-splattering violence. All of these are on display in his latest film, Django Unchained, along with the controversy and conversation that often accompanies Tarantino's films, including the return of criticism regarding his characters' liberal use of a racial epithet many claim is too horrible to utter.
Django Unchained takes place in 1858, two years before the start of the Civil War, and stars Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave whose freedom is purchased by a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz). Schultz has a more evolved view of race than any other white person in the film and sees Django as essentially an equal, though Schultz's motivations are initially more mercenary since Django can identify Schultz's next targets, the Speck brothers, who formerly owned Django and his wife, Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington), tormented them both and separated them as punishment.
Schultz mentors Django in the art of gunplay, which Django has a natural talent for, as the two collect bounties across several states before disguising themselves as slave buyers to rescue Broomhilda from a cruel Mississippi plantation owner named Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) whose passion is watching slaves fight to the death.
The aforementioned racial epithet is, of course, "n*****," which is uttered over 100 times by various characters in Django Unchained. The right wing website The Drudge Report claimed that this was yet another example of a political double standard, implying that if black people and liberal Hollywood can say it, republicans should too -- or perhaps as further evidence of one of conservatives' most mind-boggling claims that it's democrats who are the *real* racists. From the other direction, director Spike Lee, who has scolded Tarantino in the past for his characters saying "n*****" a lot, publicly said that watching Django Unchained would be "disrespectful to my ancestors" and that slavery was a holocaust, not a spaghetti western.
Both of these criticisms strike me as utterly misguided. For a film that takes place in the slave-owning South, it would be historically inaccurate and a shameful act of whitewashing for white people in the film not to call black people n******, since it was a term synonymous with both "black person" and "slave." Nor would it even be unusual for black people at the time to refer to each other as n******, perhaps for lack of a better term or, in the case of Django, as part of his cover as a slave buyer to convince Calvin that he also sees black people as little more than property. Stephen, Calvin's devoted house slave (played by Samuel L. Jackson), also uses it frequently as a way to place himself above the slaves around him.
Django Unchained has rightly been criticized for not having stronger female characters, since Broomhilda is little more than a damsel in distress, and the film would've been more satisfying if Django had to struggle to shed the mental shackles of slavery on his way to becoming the badass he is portrayed as being from the start. But getting freaked out about the mere presence of a word regardless of the intent of how it's used strikes me as childish.
And Lee's claims that Django Unchained insults his ancestors and makes light of slavery makes little sense. The film unflinchingly shows the suffering of slaves and the cruelty and racism of the era's white status quo, but it is not meant to be a historical account of slavery or the role black people played in abolishing it. Django Unchained is a very entertaining, funny, fictional adventure tale of a man attempting to rescue his wife, and in the process, becoming an inspiration to the downtrodden by embracing his freedoms and exacting revenge on their shared oppressors. And for me, one of the most powerful, cathartic cinematic moments of 2012 is when Django picks up a whip and uses it on one of his former owners as a group of slaves look on in astonishment at something they had perhaps not yet dared to dream.