Anticipation, and at least some trepidation, is building over Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming “spaghetti Western” about slavery. By either sheer serendipity or savvy public relations, Django Unchained will debut nearly 15 years to the day after another one of his critically-acclaimed yet controversial movies, Jackie Brown, hit screens across the country. The 1997 Pam Grier vehicle ignited a feud between Tarantino and Spike Lee, who sparred publicly about Tarantino’s promiscuous use of the dreaded “n-word” in his movies.
“The problem with Jackie Brown,” Spike Lee reportedly said. “I will say it again and again. I have a definite problem with Quentin Tarantino’s excessive use of the n-word. And let the record show that I never said that he can not use that word-I’ve used that word in many of my films-but I think something is wrong with him. You look at Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and even that thing with Christian Slater, True Romance. It’s just the n-word, the n-word, the n-word. He says he grew up on Blaxploitation films and that they were his favorite films but he has to realize that those films do not speak to the breadth of the entire African-American experience. I mean the guy’s just stupid. [Tarantino] said he and Ricki Lake were the two most revered white celebrities among the black community. Where did he get that from? Because Sam Jackson kisses his butt, that means black people love him? That’s wrong. I am not the only African-American in this world who has a problem with this excessive use of the n-word.”
In his defense, Tarantino argued in a Playboy interview: “I am working with The English language. I am not just a film director who shoots movies. I’m an artist, and good, bad, or indifferent, I’m coming from that place. All my choices, the way I live my life, are about that.”
Amid the still raging debate over Gwyneth Paltrow’s use of the modified and more culturally palatable ‘ni**a’ in a tweet, it’s appropriate to revisit the Tarantino/Lee feud, which may yet be rekindled with the arrival of Django Unchained. Like its predecessor Jackie Brown, Django is virtually guaranteed to be saturated with racially intemperate language. In certain respects, the Paltrow controversy is a microcosm of the death match between Tarantino and Lee. It also betrays the lack of consensus that still exists about a particularly troublesome word.
Tarantino and Lee are both gifted filmmakers in their respective genres. Lee’s boisterous self-righteousness and dyspeptic personality once led New York magazine to call him “the angriest auteur.” Still, it’s not for nothing that Lee remains one of the most successful black filmmakers of all time: his movies draw legitimate praise for articulating the hopes, fears and rage inherent in African-American culture. Tarantino, meanwhile, specializes in gratuitously foul-mouthed yet immensely enjoyable schlock. His movies make you feel like taking a bath after you watch them, but there’s no denying their guilty pleasure value.
The two men seemingly have little in common except their proximity to the “n-word” – and of course, who has license to use it. To be fair, Lee himself once copped to using the term: in an interview with Variety, Lee freely admitted to a reporter that he’s “not against the word…and I use it, but not excessively.” With that soundbite, Lee lifted the veil of the schizophrenia that characterizes the word’s use. In other words, occasional use of a racial epithet is fine: it just depends on the person uttering it, their intentions in using, and the frequency with which they deploy it. Clear as mud?