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Racial epithets in film

With the recent release of Quentin Tarantino’s epic western film Django Unchained, which tells the story of a freed slave named Django who becomes a bounty hunter en route to freeing his enslaved wife Broomhilda, there has been much backlash regarding both the subject matter and the choice of language throughout the film. When all is said and done, it really comes down to one issue: does Tarantino, a white filmmaker, have the right to make a film about slavery and use the dreaded N-word throughout?

Fellow filmmaker Spike Lee has been the most outspoken about this issue. Lee told Vibe magazine that he refused to even see the movie, stating, “All I’m going to say is that it’s disrespectful to my ancestors […] I’m not speaking on behalf of anybody else.” Lee also said via twitter that “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western [sic],” referring to filmmaker Sergio Leone’s famous Spaghetti Westerns such as The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, which were major influences on Tarantino’s particular filmmaking style. Lee also claimed that his ancestors were slaves, stating, “I Will Honor Them [sic].”

Actor Samuel L. Jackson, who has acted in films directed by both filmmakers (notably Pulp Fiction by Tarantino and Do The Right Thing by Lee), has defended Tarantino’s use of such racial epithets, most notably during promotion for Tarantino’s 1997 film Jackie Brown. While speaking at the Berlin Film Festival, Jackson said, “I don’t think the word is offensive in the context of this film […] This is a good film, and Spike hasn’t made one of those in a few years.”

The Root, an online magazine focused on African American culture, has also defended Tarantino’s use of the word, stating that Tarantino is being truthful to the time period and even going so far as to say that Tarantino may have scaled back a bit in terms of what it was really like for black people back then.

Tarantino himself has stated that he only uses the N-word when it makes sense for the character or the scene. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Tarantino said, “As a writer, I demand the right to write any character in the world that I want to write […] And to say that I can’t do that because I’m white, but the Hughes brothers can do that because they’re black, that is racist […] It would not be questioned if I was black, and I resent the question because I’m white. I have the right to tell the truth.”

The fact that Spike Lee has refused to see the film at all seems a bit judgmental. And, as a filmmaker, Lee should be judging Django Unchained as a whole film. Django is not necessarily a film about slavery. It is a film about liberation set against the backdrop of one of the darkest periods in American history. And in America, Tarantino has the right to say whatever he wants in his films. He is not being malicious. He is exercising his freedom as an American and an artist.

By Mark Rotondo

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