Saunders: The language in 'Django' is harsh, just like the era it portrays

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJanuary 15, 2013 

You know all of those people disturbed by the profligate use of the “N-word” in the Oscar-nominated movie “Django Unchained”?

Count me among them. I left the Brier Creek movie theater reeling, feeling as though I’d been pummeled about the head by the vile word – not on the screen, mind you, but by the four self-loathing philistines seated behind me.

Two well-dressed black couples who looked to be in their mid- to late-20s were behind me in the theater and used the N-word as though it were butter for their popcorn. Not only did they talk throughout much of the movie, but they guffawed at inappropriate times – like when one of the two women, using the N-word, laughed about a slave’s “messed-up grill,” or lack of teeth.

It was only because I’m scared of stupid people who are seated behind me in the dark that I didn’t turn around and explain to her that slaves didn’t have a dental health plan.

More disturbing

Hearing the epithet in the theater was much more disturbing than hearing it on the screen. How you could make even a halfway authentic movie about slavery in America without using that word or depicting brutality has yet to be explained, although many people are criticizing the movie for just those reasons.

As others have pointed out, too, it’s hard to imagine that the whip-cracking overseers in 1858 were saying, “All right, you noble workers. We must increase our output before yon sun goes down.”

Ridiculous, right? That’s precisely what director Quentin Tarantino said in an interview with Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates.

“Personally, I find (the criticism) ridiculous,” the told Gates, who is editor of theroot.com and a former Duke University professor. “Because it would be one thing if people are out there saying, ‘You use it much more excessively in this movie than it was used in 1858 in Mississippi.’ Well, nobody’s saying that.”

It’s true that in many of his movies, Tarantino has shown a distressing over-reliance on that word – “over-reliance” my eye: the dude loves the N-word the way Elvis loved Jelly doughnuts – and the criticism in those instances had some validity. But in a movie about slavery?

Can you imagine the criticism to which he’d be subjected had he not used the harsh language or had he downplayed the brutality of the era?

What about rappers?

I hope the people who are exercised by its use on the big screen when written by a white fellow will be just as vocal in their condemnation the next time some filthy-rich, filthier-mouthed black rapper uses it as a subject, verb and adverb – in the same sentence.

Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke professor of African American Studies, said too many people seem to be judging the movie’s content and language by contemporary standards. “I don’t have a problem with the word when it’s used in the proper historical context,” he said. “Tarantino does that. I’ve heard more N-words in run-of-the-mill rap records than I heard in the Tarantino movie.”

Not that he was counting, he said. “That was not something that I paid attention to,” he said. “I went there to watch a movie. I didn’t go in there for a history lesson.”

For a history lesson, he said, people should read a book on the subject or watch a documentary. That’s something I’m guessing none of the popcorn-crunching, self-hating (trust me: anybody who could speak that scornfully of their ancestors must hate himself or herself) foursome seated behind me does regularly.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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