Elisions of Race – Django and Lincoln and the N-Word

In Django Unchained, the “N-Word” occurs 109 times. Occurs? Is used?

(Look at how awkward that statement is; it’s an active sentence about a word spoken, but without a speaker doing the action.)

I twitch to imagine Tarantino saying the word himself. It just sounds wrong. It sounds like some clumsy white dude trying to sound cool while he hangs with his homies. When Samuel L. Jackson says it, it’s quite cool and melodious. As a director, Tarantino can say the “N-word” one hundred and nine times with whatever accent, register, or inflection he desires. With gusto, in fact. Fortunately, at least for my auditory sensibilities, Tarantino doesn’t “use” the word, he ventriloquizes it through other voices – white, black, Southern, German.

Who can use the “N-word”? The question is complicated, and even moreso for a film director. Ventriloquism is the best metaphor to capture this problem. Ventriloquism alludes to issues of who speaks for whom, authenticity, voice, and racebending, as well as the racism in Hollywood filmmaking and American literature. Recall that white people had to certify the authenticity of Frederick Douglass’s Autobiography because his intellectual and literary capacity was in question.

Who authors the N-word in Django‘s? Is it Samuel Jackson or Quentin Tarantino? Slaveholders and overseers get to say it, but only because those people speak within a historical if fictional context. We don’t forgive them, but we permit it. Unless we’re Spike Lee. The N-word might be gratuitous, but it is historically correct.

Contrast Django with Lincoln, another historical fiction movie. In this case, the N-Word is uttered, although to less excess and less criticism. Why is that, exactly? Is it Django‘s excess that has drawn the critique, or is it that Spielberg’s whitewashed Lincoln has simply escaped it? Whitewashed fits because of the way that the film excludes nearly all black participation in abolition.

In Lincoln,Thaddeus Stevens reminds us that the Constitution mentions slavery only in the amendment that abolishes it. In fact, as Jabari Asim points out in his book The N Word, “slavery” was itself an “N word” for a long time. No one said the “S-word.” People used the euphemism of “Peculiar Institution” because “slavery” was an offensive, impolite term. The sentiment was not because the word “slavery” was degrading, the way folks consider the “N-word” degrading and dehumanizing to black people. Instead, it was considered ungentlemanly and offensive to delicate sensibilities. The idea makes crazy sense because our country was presumably founded on the principle of freedom. Freedom is the antithesis of slavery; it is pensive, high-minded, and cerebral. Freedom is not gratuitously bloody or brutal, except on distant battfields. If Django is gratuitous in its historical accuracy, then Lincoln is gratuitous in its white-faced cover up. The “S-word” is the unspoken underbelly of US Constitutional whiteness. There, in the original euphemism, is the beginning of the coded language of institutional racism and white privilege in our country.

Whoopi Goldberg has an interesting reaction to the use of the N-word. She says, of course, that it’s not the word but the intent behind it. As we say in communication, meanings are in people, not in words. She says that she doesn’t care when someone says “N-….” because it simply doesn’t apply to her. When she hears it, she doesn’t turn around and answer (a noteworthy echo – or rejection – of being “hailed” ala Althusser). But can you really just walk away from the meaning? That is a question folks have been asking since the social movements of the 60s.

Words always have an inherently unstable and squirrely nature. If we think about the words of whiteness, slavery, and what they bequeath, and if we ask ourselves who gets to utter those words, perhaps it is good to ponder Hollywood’s filmmaker Frank Capra. Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has iconic moments of whiteness in the American political landscape, with the filibuster on the Senate floor and a beaten down Jimmy Stewart hunched over in front of Lincoln’s statue. My undergraduate film professor once said that it took an immigrant like Capra to capture the spirit of American democracy in film. It’s a spirit of whitewashed freedom that represents the best of us, but it is premised on those of us who are absent.

These are constitutional words to ponder, having inherited Capra’s Hollywood, as we reinvent the filibuster and inaugurate a black president for his second term.

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