The scene introducing viewers to DiCaprio’s smarmy Calvin Candie involves a display of brutality so raw it crosses a pulsating line into sadism. By the end of the film, one man has been horse-whipped, ripped apart by rabid dogs, and various bodies lay riddled with bullets. All in a day’s work for Mr. Tarantino, who is always willing to push the boundaries of decorum.
Yet here’s the part everyone knew was coming, but for which one still feels unprepared: the movie’s torrential downpour of the worst racial epithet on the books. Like freezing rain or an ice storm over bare skin, the unrelenting and unrepentant use of the n-word leaves you numb.
An unscientific count yielded at least 95 separate instances of the word’s use throughout the movie’s 160 minutes (which come to think of it, is a self-indulgent running time that really ought to be reserved solely for Hobbits or boy wizards, especially for a holiday movie).
Arguably the most jarring part was the lack of reaction it triggered at a recent screening of the movie. The overwhelmingly black audience whooped and cheered without the slightest bit of compunction every time the word was used.
The broad takeaway of Django Unchained appears to be this: whether you love the movie or hate it, it’s clear the movie represents a cultural inflection point. When the movie is released, the n-word will have come full circle as a mainstream term, with little negative connotation left. When a director of any color can use the word nearly 100 times, it’s time to hoist the white flag of surrender in a linguistic battle that’s been raging for decades.
Years of relativism and equivalence that often grants permission to some to use the word, while selectively shaming others for the same indignity has drained the argument of any moral authority. When standards that, in theory, would apply for Clint Eastwood – and does anyone actually believe a similarly nonchalant reaction would have greeted him had he done the same thing in a movie production? – are relaxed for Tarantino, and when an overwhelmingly Caucasian press corps goes gaga over said film with nary a peep of protest (and nominates it for one of the industry’s highest awards!), its time to admit the obvious.
The Rubicon is now in the rear view mirror. Let’s face it: the war against the n-word has been irretrievably lost