Last week I purchased what I thought was the best overall film of 2012 on blu-ray; Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Watching it all over again, I couldn’t help but revel in the way that Mr. Tarantino was able to put his own spin on the Western genre, with vivid characterizations and instantly quotable lines of dialogue that you will only find in his body of work. Anyone who hasn’t checked this movie out yet should do so, because it has to be seen to be believed. But one inescapable thing that you will encounter in this movie is the near constant usage of a very derogatory word: nigger. I’m not going to sugarcoat it here and refer to it as the “n-word”, because it defeats the purpose of my argument in this post, which is the importance of free speech in film-making. It is a hateful word, no argument there, and I usually am disgusted when I hear it used so casually in popular culture; but Django Unchained is a different case. I believe that the controversy that surrounded Django’s release, with regard to it’s use of the word nigger, represented an unnecessary condemnation of an otherwise thought-provoking film and only highlighted some of the hypocrisies that are apparent in the media.
One of the first things that you will see made obvious upon watching Django is that it not meant to be a serious examination of slavery. It does represent the Antebellum South as a horrific place and time, with sometimes hard to watch cruelty towards African-American slaves depicted on screen. But to say that Tarantino’s movie was trying to deal with history seriously is clearly missing the point. The film makes it’s farcical tone apparent right from the get go, once we see the bouncing tooth on top of the wagon belonging to Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). From that point on, it is clear what kind of movie Tarantino is making. And by the time you reach the “baghead” scene, you’ll not only be invested, you’ll be laughing your ass off.
But somehow it’s the use of a single word that got people upset, and that was before the movie was even released. Director Spike Lee, a filmmaker that I do respect, commented in VIBE magazine that, “I can’t speak on it ’cause I’m not gonna see it. The only thing I can say is it’s disrespectful to my ancestors, to see that film.” (December 12, 2012) Now I can’t fault Spike Lee for taking a strong position on the use of the word nigger. It obviously affects him a lot more than it does me. But what bothered me about what he said is that he called the film “disrespectful,” after clearly stating that he wasn’t going to see it. I think it’s hypocritical to condemn a film publicly that you haven’t seen personally. Mr. Lee isn’t new to making ill-informed judgments about other people’s work; he’s condemned Tarantino before for using the word in Jackie Brown (1997) as well. It’s unfortunate for a person as talented as Spike Lee to take such a low blow towards something he hasn’t watched. If he put aside some of his own pride and take in the film objectively, he might have come away with a different perspective.
It goes to a much larger issue that I have with the media in general; the way we easily condemn people over the use of language, without understanding the context. Tarantino wrote the word nigger into his script mainly to represent the way people spoke in the Antebellum South, and not to be shocking or crude. There’s a context for it to be there. It’s highlighting the hurtful nature of the word and the way it demonizes a whole group of people. But at the same time it’s also highlighting the barbarity of the whites who use it so casually. Much in the same way that Blazing Saddles (1974) dealt with the word nigger, Django walks that fine line between humor and harsh reality. This movie plays with people’s emotions like a grand piano, and Tarantino is a pro at it. He’s often stated that he deliberately plays with people’s sensibilities as he builds his scenes. A typical Taratino scene can often be described like this: Laugh, laugh again, keep laughing, now stop laughing, disturbed, horrified, really horrified, now laugh again. But unfortunately Django exists in a more sensitive time, where people will now hold you accountable for what you say, even when it’s in jest. There are several examples now where comics, of all people, are getting in trouble for things they have said in their acts. Whether it’s Louis C.K. getting in trouble for his jokes about AIDS, or Ricky Gervais getting slammed over a rape joke, there’s a disturbing trend of people being punished for things they say, without anyone looking at the context.
But, thankfully, Django Unchained weathered the storm of controversy. It earned $168 million at the box office, the most for any Tarantino film; it was almost universally praised by film critics; and it won two Oscars, including Best Screenplay for Mr. Tarantino. The film’s controversy died out fast, thanks partially from the support of the film’s African-American stars Jamie Foxx (Django) and Samuel L. Jackson (Stephen), and mainly because most of the audiences got what the movie was about. It’s a love letter, not just to the Spaghetti Westerns that Taratino grew up with, but also to the blaxploitation films of the ’70’s that addressed issues of race, but with a clear mocking style that subverted the norms of the period. There were many blaxploitation Westerns too that Tarantino had to have been inspired by, like The Legend of Nigger Charly (1972) and Boss Nigger (1975). And yes, those movies were released with those titles. There’s a trailer below if you don’t believe me. Personally, I’m happy that Taratino won out in the end. There’s no word yet on whether Spike Lee has seen the movie by now. Hopefully he will someday. I certainly loved it and I hope it will be considered a classic in the years to come.
Well, this was my first official blog post. Sorry I took on such a harsh subject the first time around, but it’s what’s been on my mind this past week. Next week I plan to give all my readers something more upbeat to look at, as I give thoughts on the upcoming movies of the Summer of 2013. Until next week, it’s time for me to Ramble off.
“MY NAME IS DJANGO. THAT’S D-J-A-N-G-O. THE “D” IS SILENT.” – Django (Jamie Foxx)