Before I watched Quentin Tarantino’s latest controversial film I thought I had seen the film-work which contained the most usages of the word, nigger or nigga, and that would not have been Tarantino’s own Jackie Brown, but rather any random release by a gay porn site featuring black men and blatinos called Gay Gangstas. In these minimalistic sexual scenarios, the word is used provocatively, as a sort of masculine challenge to attain new heights of sexual prowess, and sometimes tenderly as to a comrade or as a compliment. Then I saw this episode of the animated series, Boondocks, so controversial itself that it never aired during the show’s regular season. N-bombs, as Davey D calls them, get dropped so often by the inmates of a prison who are also conducting a Scared Straight program with the show’s two young protagonists that I’m not sure it would be possible to count them all and still laugh my ass off, which is what I did when I watched it. The effects of the word in this episode are initially shocking, then comical, because of its rapid-fire delivery, because of the timing, because of the satirical context of the story itself.

I also recently finished reading Samuel R. Delany‘s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders in which the word, nigger, is used by its characters as many times as the above film-works do combined. But not once, that I can recall, does the word convey what could simply be called racism., or denigrate in a simply pejorative way: A Caucasian-looking muscleboy who has a black father and a white mother gets hard whenever his light-skinned lover, and that character’s white father, calls him a nigger, usually during sex; an area in a porn theater frequented by black guys and their admirers is called Nigger Heaven; most of the black characters casually refer to each other as niggers or niggas; and yet, the place where they live was created as a sort of utopia for black gay men. Delany has said that race (and sex) does not exist, only class (or gender).

Regardless, it’s self-evident that the word is not prohibited in all contexts nor does it mean the same thing in every usage, and much depends on who’s speaking it.

Race as performance

Discourse says, ‘You are.’ Rhetoric preserves the freedom to say, ‘I am not.’
From Longer Views: Extended Essays by Samuel R. Delany

I was surprised to discover that a lot of people laughed their asses off watching Django Unchained, as well, and that the word, nigger, was a primary instigator. You can read an account of that here. I thought the film was funny, too — if not as funny, not by a mile, as “The Hunger Strike” — but I can only remember once laughing at a line that used the word, nigger, and that was when, during the film’s climax, Django and Stephen, played by Jamie Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson respectively, confront each other. Django has a gun, but Stephen, weaponless, thinks he’s out of ammunition:

Stephen: I count 6 shots, nigga.

Django: I count two guns, nigga.

The lines are funny, but why? Would it be as funny without the n-word punctuating the statements? Maybe, but they wouldn’t have been as forceful.

The setup of this exchange is Django asking Stephen what he thinks of Django’s “new duds:” “You know, before now, I didn’t know burgundy was my color.” Stephen then tosses away his cane, like a prop which he apparently doesn’t need anymore, along with his heavy, obsequious Negro accent, which he also doesn’t need anymore since all the white people he was performing for are dead, and says his line.

So this scene depicts two rival characters as performers, in costume, one black actor in “black-face” (Jackson reportedly insisted on making his skin tone darker), facing each other as performers and reminding each other that they are by using the word, nigger.

Django has been shown throughout the film in one costume or another. He starts out wearing very little as a slave on a chain gang — barefoot, shirtless, with a ratty natural — then ends up picking a frilly over-the-top outfit to play the part of King Shultz’s footman — and gets made fun of for it by a woman slave on a plantation — then chooses a more utilitarian outfit for his job as bounty hunter. That outfit, which low-riding hat, tight-fitting pants and jacket reminds me of what Little Joe would have worn on Bonanza, and which got my young gay imagination going, is introduced iconically for its generic references to the heroes of spaghetti Westerns, representing “cool” for some, “sexy” for others. In all these situations. the costume Django wears accompanies the movement of his character through the narrative, and points out how he’s the only character who is able to remove clothing and accessories in order to change how he’s perceived. Even when he’s nearly naked at the beginning of the film, his tossing off of a thin for-slaves-only wrap is a self-conscious act, revealing a muscled Black back. A few minutes later, his fellow slaves mimic the same movement, but with a different effect, mostly comic.

I’ve been reading a lot of the responses to Django and some of them are interesting and useful, particularly Jelani Cobb’s powerful essay in the New Yorker, Tarantino Unchained. Still, he writes some things that I find spurious, but none more curious than this: “the audience wasn’t asked to suspend disbelief, they were asked to suspend conscience.” How precisely an audience member is asked to suspend conscience isn’t explicitly explained in this paragraph, but rather later on, Cobb makes clear his main objection to the film:

Primary among these concerns is the frequency of with which Tarantino deploys the n-word. If ever there were an instance in which the term was historically fitting it would seem that a Western set against the backdrop of slavery—a Southern—would be it. Yet the term appears with such numb frequency that “Django” manages to raise the epithet to the level of a pronoun. (I wonder whether the word “nigger” is spoken in the film more frequently than the word “he” or “she.”) Had the word appeared any more often it would have required billing as a co-star. At some point, it becomes difficult not to wonder how much of this is about the film and how much is about the filmmaker. Given the prominence of the word in “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown”—neither of which remotely touch on slavery—its usage in “Django” starts to seem like racial ventriloquism, a kind of camouflage that allows Tarantino to use the word without recrimination.

Leaving aside the idea that any film featuring African-Americans ever completely leaves aside slavery, Tarantino isn’t using the word — his characters are, and they’re using the word in very specific ways that clarify and question what saying this word means. But, racial ventriloquism? Come on. Cobb comes pretty close to calling Tarantino a racist here and I think he should say that if that’s what he means. The evidence, such as it is, is the frequency of the word, nigger. At least Spike Lee was more direct when he called Samuel L. Jackson a house slave defending his master after Jackson defended the use of the n-word in Tarantino’s movies. If I were Jackson, playing Stephen would have to feel like a deliciously ironic retort.

But regardless of whether or not anyone feels Tarantino is some kind of sneaky racist, the numb frequency of the word is what makes its use by Tarantino’s script radical in context, as opposed to his other films which do not “touch on slavery.” Its ubiquity makes clear the discursive backdrop against which Django’s revenge narrative plays out: The institution of slavery which said, over and over, every minute throughout every day — You are a nigger, an object constructed, disciplined, molded, commanded, traded and owned by white men.

When Django, challenged by King Shultz for his over-the-top performance as a black slaver, says that he’s just doing what he has to do to convince white slaver Mr. Candie, played with just the right amount of crazed, wicked stupidity by Leo DiCaprio, and that he’s just “getting dirty,” the moral cost for the character is plain, conveyed powerfully through Foxx’s pained and focused performance, and it’s not diminished or trivialized by the uses of the word nigger — it’s brought home. Imagine what a coy farce the movie would be without that word.

But more importantly, Django consistently resists this discourse — he’s not that word. But neither, exactly, is the character, Stephen, who embraces his own twisted version of the stereotypical house nigger, one who sees what the master can’t, manipulates him for his ignorance and is even able to sign checks for him in a short scene often ignored by reviewers. Stephen has achieved a certain power, compromised for sure, but a compromise which has exacted a plain moral cost on him, as well.

It’s problematic to depict the resistance to American slavery as a struggle between two types of black men, both of whom are referred to as niggers by white men and who use a variant of the word themselves, and it’s here that Cobb’s criticism of the film is strongest. The historical fight against slavery was enjoined and joined primarily by the enslaved. Point taken, but I really don’t think anyone, not a racist, not anyone, is going to come out of this film believing that it claims historical accuracy, or that they were educated. This film is about how we talk about race and slavery now, in pop cultureand to the extent that it indulges and uses mythologies, I think it does it in a serious way.

In fact, for my money, this is the first serious Tarantino film I’ve seen. Whereas all his other films seem to indulge the “couch potato” or the “14-year-old closet queen” in all of us, as film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has quipped, with their knowing nods to other films, TV shows, directors, self-conscious camera movements that remind us of other film-makers, genres and styles and a whole lot of empty “pissing about” with non-linear or elliptical narrative strategies, Django is for the most part an old-fashioned linear narrative that, yes, refers to other genres and styles and borrows from them, but this is the first Tarantino movie that made me think about something other than that.

I welcome feedback and comments on this post and about the film itself, as there really is a lot more to discuss. This post is only a preliminary investigation. Meanwhile, I’m going to either go watch the second episode of Roots, The Spook Who Sat By the Door, or Superfly. #BHM

For a list of articles I read or videos I watched when thinking about this movie, check out my Django tag page on diigo.