The “N” Word and Other Nonsense

Who watched the Golden Globes Sunday night? I did. I watch the awards show every year. I enjoy the fast and loose attitude of the show. I like seeing my favorite television stars, writers, and producers hobnobbing with my favorite film stars, writers, producers, and directors. I enjoy watching people like Adele have a genuine reaction to winning, and people like Taylor Swift having a genuine reaction to losing. I like seeing some Hollywood rebels stick their thumb in the eye of the elitists of this industry. Which brings me to the ultimate rebel, Quentin Tarantino.

We all know Tarantino isn’t exactly the type of person you would introduce to your grandmother. His films aren’t exactly family friendly. His interviews are filled with ramblings, eccentricities, foulness, brilliance, and defiance. Not surprisingly, so are his movies. I’ve been a fan of his since True Romance, the film that introduced me to his brilliance. I had not been made aware of Reservoir Dogs yet. I have an excuse. I was in the Navy. True Romance is a great piece of work that somehow wasn’t ruined by studio executives. Tony Scott directed it.

Ultimately, Tarantino unleashed his fury of cinema on Hollywood and the world with Pulp Fiction. You either love it or you hate it. There is no in-between. And, for the record, there shouldn’t be.

Since then, he’s amazed, disgusted, shocked, enlightened, and angered audiences. Tarantino’s latest screen gem, Django Unchained, continues that rebellious tradition.

The controversy surrounding Django Unchained is well known. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about then let me enlighten you. Django Unchained has been praised and cursed. Praised for its brilliance in cinematic art and cursed for its violence and liberal use of the word nigger. It is the later part of the curse that I want to address. Notice that I did not use the term “N” word. I hate this self-appointed censoring of a word that everyone knows and understands the meaning of.

It has always amazed me that we as a society have grown incapable of understanding context when it comes to the word nigger. It amazes me, but it is also understandable. The word carries with it a strong history and not such a pleasant one, either. It’s foul, degrading, and despicable. It carries with it over 400 years of oppression, abuse, and hate. It quite possibly is one of the worst words in the history of modern language. Of course, when it is used as an offense, directed at an individual, it is all of these things. But when used as a subject of discussion, it is just a word. What I’m saying is that the word nigger is not offensive, but the context of which it is used is offensive.

This is a touchy subject, I know. And as a white American man, I also know that I am automatically being disqualified in this discussion. I am prejudice, but I am not racist. I do not like willfully ignorant people, nor can I stand rude behavior. Now, back to the subject.

Spike Lee is angry that Tarantino made a movie about slavery and uses that word. He’s angry, not because he finds the word offensive, but because Tarantino is white and he wrote it. Never mind the fact that there is historical context for the use of the word in the film. Never mind that these characters that speak it are awful human beings. Also, never mind that Spike Lee has used the word in his movies at an incredible rate, too. The issue here isn’t the word, but the color of Tarantino’s skin. If the word alone was so offensive that Spike Lee couldn’t see the movie because it would dishonor his ancestors, then he should not be able to listen to just about every hip hop song out there, watch or make any of his films,  or listen to a lot of black comics.

But this outrage goes beyond Lee and has been taken even further. Sunday night, after Tarantino wins the Golden Globe for best screenplay (up yours, Spike), he goes backstage for a press conference. Tarantino is asked about the controversy surrounding his film and he answers by saying, “If somebody is out there actually saying when it comes to the word nigger, the fact that I was using it in the movie more than it was being used in the antebellum South in Mississippi, then feel free to make that case.” He went on to say, “But no one’s actually making that case. They are saying I should lie, that I should whitewash, that I should massage, and I never do that when it comes to my characters.”

There was an audible gasp from the press when Tarantino said it. He did not pause, he did not attempt to censor, he spoke the truth, using the word. He did not call anyone a nigger. He was talking about the use of the word. The surprising thing for me is that the people gasping are writers; people that should understand context. Today, there are news stories plastered all over the internet about Tarantino’s use of the word, attempting to drum up outrage, I’m sure, as there really isn’t a story there.

The point that I am trying to raise, whether I’m doing a good job at it or not, we’ll see, is where has all the rational people gone? Have the word police done so well as to keep society from actually thinking now. If so, why have we stopped at the word nigger? Aren’t the words bitch, fag, whore, dick, asshole, and shithead offensive when directed at someone? Let’s take it a step further. What about the words stupid, idiot, moron, or wimp? If context isn’t to be considered when taking offense, then why not these words, too, and many more?

To wrap it all up, I leave you with stand-up comedy. Yes, I’m going to drive home my point with a bit from Louis CK. If you’re offended, then that’s a problem you have and not the rest of us. For offense is natural; it means people care and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, it’s not always a matter of right and wrong, but more often than not, it’s about feelings.

4 thoughts on “The “N” Word and Other Nonsense

  1. Gary, my brother, wonderful words and well-stated but I have to explain something. Let me preface it by saying, what I’m about to say has no basis in reason or rationality. Most African-Americans will tell you that the use of that word by any other race, will usually result in a quick and violent response. You see, that word is unique in its power to bypass rational thought and move directly to reaction. When I was younger, the mere mention of the word, regardless of if it was directed at me or not would result in violence. No questions asked. Now that I’m more mature, I will allow someone to use it in context but only once and I will politely ask that you not repeat it. If you you are calling me or my children one, refer to rule one. You see, unless you have walked in those shoes from birth, you cannot understand the gravity of the words and the almost instinctive response it causes. I like Tarantino, Pulp Fiction is one of my favorites but I think I will wait for the DVD because I’m not sure how I would react if somebody slipped up.

  2. For me, the word always has a certain sting, no matter what the context, the sting is stronger when it come from caucasions.. The sting is truly everlasting no matter what. I saw the movie. The sting was because the word was there, the sting was because it was supposed to be a portrail of my history, the sting was because I have been called one, the sting is because my child is still facing the word.
    ( 24 hours ago on her job, a white co-worker referred to another black person as a “n” while talking to her).
    The pain of the word cannot be bound. The pain sting and uncomfortableness it denotes can be as diverse as we are as black people. Telling us how to feel about it is ludacris. If white people still think it is okay to use it, do you really think defining our reactions as hype, or pointing out music, or telling us how and when we use it is a good thing?
    Until you are part of the 400 years of the history it carries and attaches to you, your children, your ancestors, analizing Spike’s or any other black person’s reaction to the word is going to leave a large chunk of the essense of understanding missing.

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