The Essence of the ‘N Word’ as Presented by Tarantino in ‘Django Unchained’. Or a Bunch of Contradictions

By Rali Chorbadzhiyska

*When submitting a longer version of this article for an assignment, one of the comments was that there is a discrepancy between the text’s attitude towards the ‘N word’ and its simultaneous use by the author (myself). I am yet uncertain how to answer this one. I know this was in no way meant to be offensive to anyone, whatever they identify with. For the purposes of the blog entry, I have focused on my favorite points to give you a taste of Tarantino’s contradictions. Enjoy!

A hundred and seventy two is the number of times the ‘N word’ appears in ‘Django Unchained’ to the shock or amusement of its public.[1] Quentin Tarantino’s film released in 2012 is simultaneously a representation of the American history of slavery in the late 1850s before the Civil War but also its popular culture of the 21st century. I am interested in the reappearance of the ‘N word’, which was originally a derogative name for a slave. Who, if anyone, is the ‘N word’? To answer this question, I will be looking Tarantino’s motivations for creating the film ‘Django Unchained’ and its characters!

The performativity of the ‘N word’

Quentin Tarantino justifies the provocative language in his screenplays by linking them to his personal life and claiming the performative nature of the ‘N word’. Tarantino is a famous middle age white film director and playwright who, according to numerous interviews, identifies himself with the ‘N word’. His arguments include autobiographical details like the fact that he has grown ‘like the white kid that went to an all-black school…, and just had this black thing going’.[2] He reiterates that being the ‘N word’ is about performativity and not ethnical origins: ‘It’s somebody who’s not to be fucked with, it’s somebody who grew up a certain kind of way, who has certain kinds of traits that will get your ass fucked up if you step to them the wrong way. I’m one of those kind of people, yeah’.[3] The comment could be read as a racial take on Judith Butler’s social performativity theory. Butler outlines habits read by society as specifically male or female like binary clothing or division of toilets, ‘the mundane manner in which bodies get crafted into genders’.[4] Similarly, society divides white and black people in the roles they perform in public. And since Tarantino is inarguably Caucasian, society labels and perceives him as such despite his protest.

Black Jesus, White Moses?

It is interesting to consider that if Tarantino argues the performative nature of the ‘N word’, he should have casted a white person to play Django to prove his point. But he did not. Therefore, it is hypocritical for Tarantino to claim the usage of the ‘N word’ organic when he is in a clearly advantageous position as a white male behind the camera who has made a name for himself in the business and continues to direct in spite of controversy; maybe even because of it. The fact that Popular culture allows for it shows that the right to use the ‘N word’ is undefined and depends on authority rather than sensibility in this case.

The truthfulness of the characters

A way for Tarantino to defend his controversial usage of the ‘N word’ is by emphasizing the need for truthfulness of the characters. He rejects the responsibility of their actions as if they were his; in other words, he wants to disguise his authorship of the screenplay and let the characters speak for themselves, and avoid an ultimate explanation, inviting multiple interpretations. According to him, the reality and impression of ‘Django Unchained’ require the raciness of the language.[5] Interestingly enough, though, these same characters occasionally slip into using modern language as well. Examples include Dr Schultz calling Django ‘cheeky’ or Django finishing off the film by rescuing his wife with the words: ‘It’s me, baby’. Therefore, it is questionable whether the purpose is for the ‘N word’ to complete the characters or for the characters to exist so that they can exercise a right to use it, given the times represented in the film.

What is the essence of the ‘N word’ character, based on the film?

Django’s Case

Django, as an exceptional black character for the 1850s when the film is set, reinvents the implication of the ‘N word’ by being a brave man who is not defined by slavery despite the role of the black people in America at that time in history. The protagonist’s full name is Django Freeman which contrasts to his fate. The surname ‘Freeman’ foreshadows Django’s exceptionality and his unusual story of becoming a free African man in slave America. Tarantino explains the character’s existence as his own desire to create a black hero for the Western world.[6] Django enters the film as a noticeable representative of the slaves; as part of a group of chained slaves, he stands out with his bigger Afro and detesting look. Dr Shultz offers Django freedom in return for collaboration, so the two form a partnership. Upon learning about Broomhilda von Shaft, Django’s German speaking wife, Dr Schultz tells Django a German heroic epic. In the folk narrative, there is a princess held a hostage on a mountain until no one but a brave prince succeeds to rescue her. Django’s story in the film mimics the model of the German epic when the two men start on a journey to find and free Broomhilde from slavery at Mr. Candy’s mansion, Candyland. Django completes two quests, killing the Brittle brothers and Spencer ‘Big Daddy’ Bennett, in preparation for the main one, making them the magic number of three in total that is characteristic of fairy-tales.[7] Dr Schultz dies while helping Django and after conquering and burning down the mansion, the black hero remembers his friend and mentor. There is a retrospective scene of when the bounty hunter is watching Django practice shooting and praises him in the tradition of the heroic epic: ‘One day they will call you ‘’the fastest gun in the South’’’. This phrase solidifies Django’s place in the heroic pantheon and elevates him from a slave ‘nigger’ to a legendary ‘nigger’.

Stephen’s Case

There is another strong black character in opposition to Django and that is Mr. Candy’s servant Stephen who shows another portrayal of the ‘N word’, the coward who betrays his own race. Despite the similarity in skin colour which, given the times, implies similarity of fate, Django and Stephen are enemies because they are both exceptional black men but for different reasons. They work for white people as if by choice; Django in a partnership with Schultz and Stephen out of loyalty for the Candy family. Stephen’s nickname is ‘Snowball’ which is ambiguous because it can refer either to his old age and white hair or imply his alliance with white folks. The servant relentlessly uses the ‘N word’ for Django even though Django enters Candyland as a free man and not a typical black person for the time (i.e. a slave). At the end of the film when Django kills the white folk of the mansion and lets the slaves go, he denies Stephen from escaping by saying: ‘You are where you belong’. The scene suggests that for Django despite Stephen being African American, he is acting like a white person and defends white people’s interests that reinforce slavery. Hence, he deserves to be punished.

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As proved, Stephen is the cowardly black man whereas Django is a hero. However, the fact that they both belong to a racial group referred to with the ‘N word’ shows the term’s defect. Since two people are nothing alike and they are still being addressed with the same degrading name, the film proves there is no innate characteristic to the ‘N word’.

Similar ideas in Popular culture, Chris Rock

The opposition between Django’s and Stephen’s characters implies that there is a difference between being ‘black’ and being the ‘N word’ based on modes of behaviour. Chris Rock addresses the issue of this distinction in his stand-up show from 1996.[8] He mocks the uncomfortable topic of who has the right to use it and who is to be called such by taking it to an extreme and dividing black people from what he labels ‘Niggahs’. According to Chris Rock, only in a very specific and completely unrealistically ridiculous situation (between 4:30 and 4:49pm on Christmas Eve when a black person snaps from you the last toy at the store, hits you with a brick and continues kicking you in the face) is a white person allowed to call a black person a ‘niggah’. With this absurd scenario, Chris Rock points out the wrongness of the ‘N word’, and the fact that no one actually deserves to be referred as such because it is awfully degrading and the behavioural requirements for it are inexistent.

Why a film?

Film, as a medium, allows for artists to rea out to international audience. Tarantino also claims to use it as a powerful mean of social activism in addition to entertainment. Through fiction, the director and screenplay writer revisits the past to stir up a discussion about important issues even today; according to him, ‘Django Unchained’ creates ‘a nice debate’ that gets people ‘talking about slavery in America in a way that they have not in 30 years’.[9] And, somehow, he gets away with the risk of repeating the culturally offensive ‘N word’, arguing in an interview from 1997 that it is social activism through artistic expression and that people need to repeat the word so its power defuses: ‘the word “nigger” is probably the most volatile word in the English language. The minute any word has that much power, as far as I’m concerned, everyone on the planet should scream it. No word deserves that much power’.[10] Tarantino’s strategy is to wear out the meaning of the word through repetition and he makes a point in ‘Django’! 🙂

 

[1] According to my own calculations

[2] Juzwiak, p. 1

[3] Juzwiak, p.1

[4] Judith Butler, ’Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’ Theatre Journal 40:4 (Dec 1988) pp 519-531, (p.525).

[5] In an interview for BlackTree TV after the release of ‘Django’, the director defends the film’s shocking lingo by saying: ‘In each situation I’ve ever done it, it’s just been the truth of the characters. And here it’s also the truth of the characters and the truth of the time period’. With this claim, Tarantino denies his directorial involvement and argues that the characters themselves need the ‘N word’ to remain authentic.

[6] Channel 4 News, Quentin Tarantino interview: ‘I’m shutting your butt down!’ (2013) < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrsJDy8VjZk> [accessed 4 January 2017].

[7] Examples include ‘Three Little Pigs’, Snow White’s stepmother’s three murder attempts (Anon., The Power of Three: Why Fairy Tales Often Feature a Triple (2015) <http://fairytalez.com/blog/the-power-of-three-why-fairy-tales-often-feature-a-triple/&gt; [accessed 4 January 2017], p.1).

[8] Chris Rock, Chris Rock – Black People VS. Niggaz (Bring the Pain 1996) (2010) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3PJF0YE-x4&gt; [accessed 4 January 2017].

[9] Channel 4 News

[10] Juzwiak, p.1

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