In the thick of awards season, we now turn with jaded eye to the question of Quentin. Disclaimer: I, personally, do not use the N-word, not even ironically. But Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to controversy or to that six-letter word that has the power to freeze the blood when uttered in polite company. Spike Lee has been a big critic of Quentin over the years (“Jackie Brown” and “Pulp Fiction” come to mind), but with “Django Unchained,” the floodgates have opened.
The film – a cross between a revenge fantasy and a highly stylized blacksploitation flick – is Tarantino’s most direct, controversial and brilliant confrontation with the subjects of race and revenge, twin topics that have subtly helixed their way through his oeuvre. And so it was inevitable, when confronting these controversial topics, at the same time, in a bombastic manner, that he would run into some sort of public turbulence.
Turbulence, though, might be an understatement. Many thoughtful African-Americans who have seen the film had profound issues with it. Heavyweight thinkers and African-American members of the entertainment community like Spike, Cecil Brown, Ishmael Reed and Mo’Kelly have all weighed in – very publicly — with powerful and convincing/condemning arguments that the film is fundamentally degrading to African-Americans. L.A. Reid also had problems with the language. Even NPR doesn’t escape this brouhaha– the comment thread on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air page had over 250 comments after she interviewed the controversial director. “I’m not against the word. And some people speak that way. But Quentin is infatuated with that word,” Lee said of Tarantino, quite accurately, in an interview with Variety in 1997. Tarantino employed the n-word 38 times in “Jackie Brown” by Lee’s calculation. And what a grim task it must have been for Spike to tabulate that data!
To Tarantino’s defense comes Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua. Jamie Foxx, the star of the film, also comes to the director’s side. “I respect Spike, he’s a fantastic director. But he gets a little shady when he’s taking shots at his colleagues without looking at the work,” Foxx told The Guardian. Spike began attacking the film on social media before even having seen it and it remains unclear if he has seen the film at post time. Obviously, Sam Jackson, Tarantino’s muse in so many films, backs the man he calls “QT.” Spike Lee has shown, in the past, he is not a fan of Tarantino’s use of the word. But to be fair, Spike ought to first watch the movie before judging its context and its use. Further, the problem might be generational, as younger African-Americans – Nas, for instance – understand, organically, what Tarantino was trying to do in the film. The controversy, of course, has not hurt “Django Unchained’s” bottom line. The film is Tarantino’s highest grossing domestic release. What is that old show business adage? There is no such thing as bad publicity.
To be fair, no one really thinks Quentin Tarantino is a racist (well, maybe Spike Lee does). The argument is basically that Tarantino is, at worst, racially insensitive — that he shouldn’t use that word, ever. This is an overly emotional argument that gives an almost sacred totemic power to the n-word, because, clearly, Tarantino is not throwing it around to make some sort of argument about racial superiority. Rather, Tarantino is using a word – a hateful, terrible word – to show the moral decay of someone like Leonardo DiCaprio’s King Schultz. Tarantino uses the word, though not as artfully as Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzzo employed it in “The Godfather,” to basically say: these may be interesting men, but they are not good men, they are unevolved and broken, always remember that.
No word, no matter how hateful, should be off limits in film. That argument, that there are things too terrible to hear or see, runs counter to the spirit of independent film. Disqualifying a word – the c-word, for example – limits the palette of a writer, chains the characters and harnesses the story. How can filmmakers accurately depict the darkness that exists in the world without descending into the ugliness and the muck? It is not pretty to hear Don Zalochi in “The Godfather” utter the n-word, but it holds the mirror up to nature and reveals great insight into his disgustingly flawed character. Independent film exists to expose such flaws, to make explicit such grays that the black and white formula that mainstream Hollywood ignores. A film in the independent spirit should be as ugly and as beautiful and as complicated as life itself.
“Django Unchained” ought to be seen as how it was meant to be seen. Tarantino is not a racists and “Django Unchained” is not meant to be a hymn to race supremacy. It is, in fact, an homage to spaghetti westerns, to the revenge fantasy – a genre that Tarantino has now perfected – and to Blaxploitation, territory he explored, furtively, in Jackie Brown but with much love. The film is about the primal need for vengeance on those who have wronged us, cloaked in outrageousness — Candyland plantation? Really? –all wrapped up messily around a highly sensitive topic, perhaps the most sensitive topic in American history. And if that gets your panties in a twist, you are misreading the intention and seeing DiCaprio’s slaveholder in a way that was never intended. Get over it.