It seemed like a simple question to reporter Jake Hamilton, one his guest had probably heard before. It was seemingly a hot button issue, and he certainly wouldn't be the first to bring it up.
"There's been a lot of controvery surrounding the usage of the n-word in this movie." he began.
Before he could finish, his interviewee, Samuel L. Jackson, who reunites once more with director Quentin Tarantino for his latest film Django Unchained, interrupted.
"'No?' 'Nobody?' 'None?' The word would be?"
Hamilton was taken aback. "I don't wanna say it," he whispered with an uncomfortable smile.
"Why not?" Jackson prodded.
"I don't like to say it," Hamilton answered honestly.
"Have you ever said it?"
"I don't... I just..." Hamilton stuttered.
Hamilton squirmed in his seat, looking off-camera.
"Really, seriously?" he said, exasperated.
Jackson, stern-faced, watched him squirm, with only a hint of emotion. Was it anger? Was it glee? "We're not gonna have this conversation unless you say it," he gloated.
Hamilton sat in stunned silence, his finger on his chin, before Jackson gave him an out. "You wanna move onto another question?" Hamilton, visibly relieved, fumbled with his index cards and muttered "awesome," prompting uproarious laughter from the star actor.
In fact, Samuel L. Jackson had heard the question before - more than fifteen years ago after the release of Pulp Fiction. Understandably, he seemed tired of hearing it.
It's an interesting point Jackson raised. A prominent African American actor who is almost as famous for his potty-mouth as he is his iconic roles, Samuel L. Jackson owes much of his success to Quentin Tarantino. The actor was cast in the writer/director's seminal Pulp Fiction at a time when Jackson's roles were limited mostly to bit parts as common criminals. Prior to that, his most memorable role was likely Ray Arnold, the control room operator in Jurassic Park who famously muttered the line, "hold onto your butts."
It was Pulp Fiction that made him a leading actor, however. In that film, Quentin Tarantino himself appears as Jimmy in the final act (my favorite of the film's three) and asks his friend Jules (Jackson), "Did you see a sign on the front of my house that said 'dead nigger storage'?"
The same faux-controversy followed Pulp Fiction's runaway success. Was it appropriate for Tarantino, a white man, to make liberal use of the dreaded "n-word," regardless of context? Numerous characters of both colors use the term throughout the film, but the focus seemed to be on the skin color of the film's writer/director. Nobody complained when Spike Lee or John Singleton used the term in their films. Even worse, nobody bats an eye when less talented filmmakers use it copiously in ethnic comedies that pander to the lowest common denominator. There, it's accepted as common vernacular.
Yet we're having the discussion again - or rather, people are asking the question in the very definition of yellow journalism. We've all seen articles with absurdist headlines that we all know the answer to. "Is it OK to put a baby in a microwave?" But this is different. Here, the question is being asked but nobody wants to discuss the answer, and when confronted with it, the so-called journalist folds under the pressure of even uttering the word.
It could be argued, and I'll admit that it's probable, many interviewers are intimidated by racial stereotypes. Jackson is a boisterous personality, but has always come off as affable and intelligent. Despite his on-screen personas, which often have hair-trigger tempers, the man behind them often appears calm in interviews, laughing gregariously and cracking jokes. Still, perhaps the interviewers are afraid Jackson's "blackness" will prompt him haul off and hit them for saying "nigger" in his presence, even on a dare. If they were directing the word at the actor, perhaps they'd have good reason to be afraid, but when invited to speak about the blown up controversy over its use in a film that revolves around slavery, I think it's an important discussion that the reviewer neglected to have.
I can appreciate that Hamilton realized it could put his job in jeopardy. Perhaps a press junket interview isn't the proper forum for such a discussion, as Jackson undoubtedly knew when he dared him to tackle a subject way above his paygrade as an entertainment reporter. However, it's a discussion that needs to happen. I understand his trepidation - I don't like saying the word either - but sometimes the only way past a problem is to confront it head on.
What's important to recognize is that "nigger" is an inherently offensive term. It hearkens back to an ugly time in our nation's history when people of color were seen as less than people; they were a possession to be owned, used, and sold. I daresay, however, that one cannot make a movie about slavery - even a fictional one that turns the portrait of John Wayne, the great white hunter, on its ear - without acknowledging the word. Slavemasters were an ugly people, and would not attribute the dignity of referring to their servants by the politically correct terms of our modern age, and certainly not as "African Americans," because slaves were not seen as "Americans" at all. It would be disingenuous to ignore this or to sugarcoat it. It happened, and it should be acknowledged, confronted, and remembered, if not forgiven, in the same way we remember the horror of the Holocaust in Germany, but (hopefully) don't view every German citizen as a Nazi.
In the same way that decent people of all races, creeds, colors, and ethnicities are outraged and disgusted by Hitler's vile deeds, so it is with slavery. It's important to remember that it happened, and to take note of how far we've come, even if there's still a long way to go or there's a small segment of the population who are still ignorant enough to hold onto such hate. It isn't a case of "white guilt" anymore than the Holocaust is; it's a simple matter of right and wrong. Sweeping it under the rug doesn't help anyone move forward, though, lest we forget George Santayana's famous quote, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Context is what makes words powerful, but their definitions change and shift with the times. Many people don't realize that "faggot" appears numerous times in the text of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, except it refers to a bundle of sticks and branches used for firewood. Still, it's shocking to come across it in text because of our modern perception of it as an epithet. "Gay" was originally a joyful term, and even appears in the theme song to the popular cartoon The Flintstones, long before it was adopted as a homophobic slur, then reappropriated by the very people it was intended to insult.
Similarly, "nigger," or it's colloquial variation "nigga," has become part of popular black culture. It's a popular form of slang, used in everything from music to common speech, and has a brotherly connotation that puts an ironic twist on hate-speech. The uglier definition of the word remains, and perhaps that is why whites feel so uncomfortable saying it, let alone hearing it, but it has been adopted as a term of endearment. Some view this as debasing or degrading, but to others it strips the word of much of its power.
In the context of Tarantino's Django Unchained, I feel the word, however ugly its use may be, is used correctly. Yes, it's directed at black people, but by people who would indeed have used it thusly at a time when that kind of racism was commonplace. In their efforts to stir up controversy then hide behind their "good intentions," these so-called journalists have removed the word from its all-important context and forgotten entirely that the film is, at its heart, a slavery revenge fantasy. Much in the same way Inglourious Basterds fantasized about murdering Adolf Hitler in the most gruesome way possible at the expense of historical accuracy - shown with relish on screen as Eli Roth's character, Donny Donowitz, pumps round after round into the Nazi leader until his corpse isn't even recognizable - Django Unchained takes the predominantly white western genre and rewrites history for the sake of coming to terms with one of history's ugliest periods. Even as a white man, I enjoyed watching Jamie Foxx shoot slavemasters every bit as much as I did Brad Pitt carving a swastika into Nazi foreheads as an everlasting reminder of their evils.
Spike Lee, ever the attention-seeker, has publicly derided the film, despite openly admitting he has no plans to see it. Critics have cited the film for glorifying racism - again, forgetting that it glorifies revenge against racist characters. What I find comical about it all is that the lead actor didn't have any qualms about appearing in it, nor did Samuel L. Jackson, who plays a villainous cohort of Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie - the quintessential "Uncle Tom" who serves his master, even if it means betraying his own people. No doubt, Jackson saw the importance in playing such a role. It's the inverse of black-face - a black actor playing a "house nigger" - but much like Al Jolson's famous use of the former in The Jazz Singer, it's meant to draw attention to an unfortunate but important part of history and the plight an entire race of people faced.
The truth is the only "controversy" surrounding Django Unchained is whatever the media has manufactured. Some people will love the film, some people will hate it. There's no doubt that it plays fast and loose with history - unlike the TV series Roots, based on African-American author Alex Haley's novel, which you'll note, receives little to no criticism for portraying slavery, violence, and racism - but it was never billed as a documentary. Django Unchained is a rather ingenious piece of entertainment, taking a dark period of our nation's history and imagining what might have happened if a slave was given the power to get even, all within a genre that typically portrayed people of color and foreigners of all kinds as villains. I suspect it's not far from the truth.