Ever vigilant for things to be outraged by, conservative internet precincts yesterday dropped the bombshell that there’s gambling in Casablanca the word “nigger” is spoken in a Quentin Tarantino movie about American slavery.
Since Drudge et al. haven’t actually seen the movie, they just go with the numbers, cherrypicked from an admiring Hollywood Reporter review. “Nigger” is spoken 100-plus times in Django Unchained, just about as often as you might hear in an afternoon at Mel Gibson’s house. (Drudge’s recent Django-related race-baiting has been well cataloged by Gawker.)
Drudge ignores context and Tarantino’s artistic aims, of course. (We’ll get to those below.) Instead, Drudge just puts the very fact out it there, apparently hoping that it illustrates two weary complaints of white conservatives: 1. That liberals are at best hypocritical and at worst the real racists; 2. That if white conservatives have to watch what they say, than everyone else does, too. The assumption is that Tarantino’s film is, by math, 100 or so times worse than, say, the Fox Nation commenter who just spews it once.
Here’s what they’re missing.
First, and most obviously, the film is set in a time when the word was, for white Southerners especially, practically a synonym for property. To not use it would have been the most distracting of compromises — a whitewash, if you will. Imagine if Tarantino hadn’t, and if his antebellum south were like that one Seinfeld where nobody ever quite says “masturbation.” One not-quite articulated aspect of the outrage, here, is that “nigger” coming from the mouths of slave traders, plantation owners, and proto-Klansmen makes white people look bad. Perhaps white people should have thought of that before having slavery.
The word is also spoken by the film’s heroes, Dr. King Schultz (Chrisopth Waltz), a bounty hunter who deplores slavery, and Django (Jamie Foxx), a former slave. This makes sense both in terms of plotting — the duo go undercover as slavers themselves in an effort to free Django’s wife from her own legal bondage — and in terms of verisimilitude. In 1865, what other words would they have used? (Actually, Tarantino gives some white characters a softer, more affectionate term for their favorite slaves: joe. Nobody seems to have counted these.)
In the film’s most upsetting scenes, Django himself uses nigger to cow slaves owned by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, an ugly step necessary to win Candie’s trust, to rescue the wife, and to make it out of the plantation alive. Later, Django’s use of it is more aggressively modern. As he grows into something of a legend, Django applies nigger to himself with something of the spirit of hip hop’s reclamation of it. He insists that he’s that “one in ten thousand nigger” who won’t be kept down.
Drudge’s outrage seems part of another attempt to reclaim the word: As a term whose usage is policed by white conservatives to demonstrate the racism of people who aren’t white conservatives. So, I don’t expect the Drudge crowd to appreciate nuance. In many ways, Django Unchained is designed to inflame them. It is, after all, the tale of a black man avenging himself against the white folks and white institutions that have robbed his people of power.
The film is complex, surprising, and somewhat great. Also, being Tarantino’s, it’s impossible to unpack sight unseen — or even after just one viewing. One surprise: As awful as the plantation owners are, the character who is arguably the movie’s most loathsome is Samuel L. Jackson’s house slave Stephen, who spits the term with a showy disgust every bit as disturbing as Candie’s off-hand usage.
A second surprise: There’s one white actor in the movie who never once says the word that has Drudge so upset. That is Quentin Tarantino, who has a one-scene cameo with an extraordinary payoff. Tarantino, of course, was once soundly dressed down by Spike Lee for the flamboyant use of nigger in Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction. Perhaps by not saying it here himself, he’s signaling to the world that — unlike the concern trolls on the right — he’s actually thinking about it.
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