Django Unchained: The N isn’t Silent

On Sunday, February 24, Quentin Tarantino’s Spaghetti Western/slavery revenge/Blaxploitation mash-up “Django Unchained” will be well positioned to possibly earn two golden…

Chris Osborne

Contributor

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On Sunday, February 24, Quentin Tarantino’s Spaghetti Western/slavery revenge/Blaxploitation mash-up “Django Unchained” will be well positioned to possibly earn two golden statuettes – one for Tarantino himself in the Best Original Screenplay category and another for Christoph Waltz’s dazzling portrayal of Dr. King Schultz in the Best Supporting Actor category. The film has received wide critical acclaim with an 89% approval rating on RottenTomatoes.com as well as huge fan support with a Cinemascore grade of A-. As has been well-documented, however, there have been a handful of detractors of Tarantino’s portrayal of the late 1800s slavery era.

Much of the criticism of “Django Unchained” is the direct result of the 100+ uses of the word ni… well for politeness sake let’s just refer to it as the N-word. All of Tarantino’s films have been peppered with colorful language, and the majority of his films – the most notable exclusions being the “Kill Bill” films and “Inglorious Basterds” – involved the dropping of N-bombs. Tarantino’s latest film has garnered a higher level of controversy not only due to the more frequent uses of the N-word, but because of the historical backdrop of slavery. Of all of history’s atrocities, slavery has received the least amount of attention from Hollywood. Films like “Gettysburg,” “Glory,” “Amistad,” and the recent “Lincoln” have focused on ancillary events such as the Civil War and politics. “Django Unchained” is the first recent film to illustrate some of the true horrors of slavery: family division, branding, genital mutilation, hanging, whipping, rape, hot-boxing, dog mauling, and the list goes on. Worst of all, as plantation owner Calvin Candie explained during the turtle shell table top dinner scene, it was all perfectly legal: “You see, under the laws of Chickasaw county… I can choose to do with my property whatever I so desire.”

Taking into account all of the above forms of castigation levied by Whites, calling slaves by the N-word seems rather trivial by comparison. In fact, the N-word was created rather – for lack of a better word – innocently. Looking at the etymology of the N-word, it is a derivative of the Latin niger which is an adjective for the color black. Lacking the varying levels of skin complexion that African-Americans now have, the Africans at the start of slavery in the early 1600s likely appeared to have literal black skin. So the N-word was originally a rather neutral and descriptive term. Around the time of the Revolutionary War is when the term began to take on a more malicious meaning. In the year of his death in 1837, abolitionist pastor Hosea Easton wrote that the N-word “is an opprobrious [to save you the trouble of looking it up, opprobrious means disgraceful] term, employed to impose contempt upon Blacks as an inferior race.” So in 1858, the year “Django Unchained” was set, the N-word was in fact being used disparagingly. Tarantino knew this when writing the script because the fairy godfather of the story Dr. Schultz (you noticed the horse and carriage didn’t you?) referred to the slaves as “poor devils.” He only used the N-word on occasions when he was masquerading as a slave trader to Big Daddy and Calvin Candie.

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As an African-American I was not at all offended by any of the language in “Django Unchained.” On the contrary, I appreciated a movie that was willing to show true aspects of the slave trade while also making a slave the hero. For those who are/were offended, I agree that the use of the N-word was gratuitous, but it was also historically accurate. Today, the N-word has gone from being offensive to taboo to the point that the term in its full form cannot even be comfortably used in academic mediums unless in its euphemistic form as written here. It also interesting to note that a word created over 300 years ago by Whites to describe Blacks now is now socially unacceptable for use by Whites, but is considered a term of endearment among some Blacks as long as it ends with an ‘a’ and not ‘er.’ But that is an article for another day.