The Soapbox: Django Unchained and the power of a word

Justin Crann
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Quentin Tarantino's latest film is the subject of significant controversy for frequently using a racial epithet. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Dan Steinberg)

In Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained, a certain word is employed more than 100 times to refer to the film's eponym and it’s other African-American characters.

It is not a word to which Tarantino is a stranger: his frequent use of it in the majority of his films has drawn the scorn of other filmmakers, comedians and members of the media.

Django has generated a considerable amount of buzz, as almost every Tarantino movie does; this time, however, much of that buzz has been driven by the controversy stirred up by the use of the racial epithet, which has prompted sharp rebukes from Spike Lee and Katt Williams.

And yet, earlier this week, frequent Tarantino collaborator, and frequent user (some might say abuser) of the term in his own film work, Samuel L. Jackson, weighed in on the debate.

Jackson, one of the supporting actors in Django Unchained, was participating in a promotional interview for the film when interviewer Jake Hamilton asked him about the controversy surrounding the movie’s use of the “N-word.”

“No? Nobody? None? The word would be?” Jackson reportedly asked Hamilton. “Say it! Try it! We’re not going to have this conversation until you try it.”When Hamilton refused to say the word, Jackson derided him.

“It wasn’t a good question if you can’t say the word,” he said.All negative connotations and feelings surrounding the word notwithstanding, it is hard to deny that Jackson made a valid point.

In advance, let me clarify my meaning: I am not trying to dismiss the fact that the word in question carries with it a great deal of baggage. As a racist moniker for an entire group of people, it was used by oppressors to dehumanize and degrade individuals of a very specific race.

In today’s society, while overt racism is certainly not as rampant, the word is still seen as a profoundly negative one when used by a white man in reference to a black man.At best, it’s a largely unnecessary slang term; at its worst, it can be outright insulting to the memory of that person’s ancestors, to the individual to which the word refers, and to others of that particular race, who bring their own experiences and opinions to the table.

Suffice it to say that the word is, essentially, without practical purpose in any modern vocabulary, with the exception of causing offense.

But I digress from my original point, which is simply that Jackson made a very astute observation when he told Hamilton his question “wasn’t a good (one)” because he couldn’t say the word.

The rationale is sound for a multitude of reasons, not least of which being that the reporter was clearly attempting to goad the same sort of response out of Jackson as the actor then turned around and attempted to goad out of him.

Nothing generates publicity better than a good controversy. Tarantino understands this fact; hence, nearly every film he has ever made has been intensely controversial, for one reason or another.

In attempting to get Jackson to say the word, Hamilton was trying to score a ratings boost for his program. Nothing cuts together better than a black man dropping an N-bomb for a show’s promotional plugs, with the possible exception of a notable white man saying it.

There is no doubt that the word offends, and there’s no doubt that it is associated in no small way with a history of violent cultural oppression and slavery.But words hold the power that they hold because we allow them to hold it. The meaning and connotation of individual terms is refined, over time, by the way in which they are employed by the general public.

The phenomenon of “taking back” terms previously used in an offensive manner — especially amongst the homosexual community — is also a documented trend, and worth noting.

If you strip a word of the negative implications that accompany it, you are eventually left with just a word.

Perhaps Jackson was on to something when he said Hamilton’s question wasn’t a good one.

Perhaps it’s time to disarm the N-word.

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