Django Unchained: Tarantino, Revisionist History, and the "N-Word"
Last Friday evening, while sitting in front of the television and shuffling around a few cheap wooden pawns during a disinterested game of chess, my special ladyfriend and I decided to remove our butts from our couch and transport them to somewhat less comfortable padding at the newly renovated cinema in Okemos, Michigan. For months now, I've been wanting to see about a half dozen different movies (Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Silver Linings Playbook top the list of supposedly great films that I haven't had the chance to see yet), but Amanda doesn't really like screening films at the theater; she says she gets bored. This particular theater, however, had gourmet hot dogs and Bell's Winter Ale on tap, so it didn't take too much leg pulling to convince her to trudge out into the snow-filled evening with me to take in Django Unchained.
Although the Kill Bill series hasn't done much for me thus far (a third film has been announced, but no further details have been released, so I'll reserve judgment at this point), I'm a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino's other works such as Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds. Despite being one of the great storytellers of his generation, the guy takes a lot of (undeserved, in my opinion) flack for his uncompromising obsession with splattering the walls with gallons of red corn syrup in every film he's ever made. To me, this seems like a trivial issue probably intentionally designed to piss off the Tipper Gores of the world and one that I gladly overlook whenever I watch his movies. The grotesque violence doesn't enhance my enjoyment of his work, but it doesn't really distract from it either, so I don't get the fuss. It's a little abnormal I suppose, but not inconsistent with every other make and model of media currently out there.
Django, however, has many people up in arms for more than just the gratuitous violence. In the film, the "N-Word" is used well over 100 times by a variety of different 19th century southern archetypes. Slave owners use the term in the sadistic context of magnanimous affection for their "property," slaves use it both affectionately and depricatingly (depending on their station within the plantation hierarchy), and almost every character with a speaking part uses it at some point as a basic attributable descriptor. White characters say it, black characters say it, female characters say it, and male characters say it. It is used calmly, conversationally, casually, and cruelly. Most of all, it is used because it was used. It's how people spoke, and, unless we can confront that, how are we supposed to participate in any sort of progression?
The Phantom Whip
Revisionist history is a favorite pastime of Western society. Many people like to imagine Christopher Columbus as being the discoverer of America, George Washington as an exceptional military tactician, and the Civil Rights Movement as being a Conservative-led struggle. Unfortunately, as many other people know, none of these things are true. They're merely cases of extreme fabrication in order to romanticize a story or propagate an agenda. Throughout our history, and especially in the age of the Internet, it has been highly convenient for the truth of the matter to be lost in narrative discourse, and nothing is safe from amendment.
Sometimes it feels as if we are in the midst of a massive undertaking to rewrite the centuries of blatant and covert racism that has been the great sin of this country. People are embarrassed and ashamed of such dehumanizing spite that they would prefer to simply ignore what was, and continues to be, one of the defining characteristics of America. The United States was able to become one of the great powers of the world based on a number of factors, but the entire infrastructure of the Pre-Industrial period of our history was established through the forced labor and dehumanizing treatment of African-Americans. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, the great cities of the North were built by African-Americans who had conveniently been denied the opportunity for upward mobility.
When I was a kid, a lot of people didn't like to admit this, but they couldn't deny it either. The facts were the facts, but it was easier and more comforting to just sweep it all under the rug (as if 400 years of hate and exploitation could we wiped clean with the ceremonious signing of a piece of legislation). Today, however, it seems as though certain people not only want our history to fade away silently, but they actually want to redirect the conversation to focus on reverse racism, gang violence, and urban economics. This is the strategy of the clandestine racist, and it points toward why Tarentino's film is so vital in 2013.
The modern bigot no longer has to use an ethnic slur themselves to make others feel less human, but rather simply deny the marginalized the right to adapt the term as one of empowerment and community. Placing a stranglehold on the word doesn't erase its effects, it only clears the consciences of people unable to accept reality. And that reality is that we still live in a hate-filled world; even if people aren't saying it, they're definitely still thinking it. Getting it out in the open allows for communal discourse, which fosters further understanding and a more compassionate public. I didn't walk away from Django with the urge to howl racial epithets into the cold night sky, I walked away slightly more informed about the destructive capabilities of language.
In the meantime, ignorant individuals criticize African-Americans for using the word in music, prose, film, and everyday speech. What they fail to understand is that the term's jurisdiction has changed hands. It's no longer the property of the authoritarian white, but rather a form of expressive empowerment for the historically subjugated (should they choose to use it). In weaving the term into the dialogue of his film, Tarantino isn't attempting to be "trendy or slick" as Spike Lee suggests, and he's certainly not voicing a racist opinion. Instead, he's demanding that we challenge our conceptions of the word. As Whoopi Goldberg recently stated on The View, "The word is real, and if it makes people uncomfortable, you have to deal with why it's making you uncomfortable. This idea that taking it out makes it somehow better is ridiculous. It's a part of the culture." Ignorance is bliss; awareness is painful.
Please don't misunderstand; I'm not advocating free-for-all usage of the term. On the contrary, I'm stressing the need to grasp the hellish transcendental signification of those six letters. The "N-Word" isn't just used as a put down; it's used to wage a non-violent war against an entire race. It was the most piercing weapon in the attempted Holocaust that was slavery. In order to avoid this from happening again (theoretically or literally), the word needs to be disarmed, not ignored. Django succeeds at taking the first steps in this direction by not shying away from the slur and placing it in its correct temporal, spatial, and linguistic context to showcase the ugliness of that period.
Maybe it isn't the job of the "enlightened," privileged white Hollywood establishment to bring the issue of the "N-word" into the forefront, (and maybe it isn't mine either) but, after watching the film, I don't feel like Tarantino is doing anything other than attempting to chronicle our history accurately. He's forcing us to confront our past. Just because the word makes people wince, doesn't deny its existence. Rather, it demands that we examine preconceived notions of history in an attempt to raise contemporary awareness.
Devlin, Sarah. Whoopi Goldberg on The View: 'Calling It the N-Word Makes It Cute.'" Mediaite. 10 Apr. 2012. Web. 24 Jan. 2013.
Jagernauth, Kevin. "Spike Lee Won't See 'Django Unchained,' Says 'American Slavery Was Not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western.'" The Playlist. Indiewire. 23 Dec. 2012. Web. 24 Jan. 2013.