‘Django Unchained’ sparks new controversy over the n-word

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Samuel L. Jackson in 'Django Unchained.'

Samuel L. Jackson in 'Django Unchained.'

The major shift in political and cultural focus is misdirected however, Hudlin says, and it should turn back to significant issues addressed in the story.

“Forget racism, let’s talk about modern day slavery,” he comments. “There is a penal system in certain parts of this country where the war on drugs is used as rationalization to incarcerate the black population, and use it as unpaid labor sources. These things are destroying our community. If we don’t understand our past, we won’t understand where we are at present, and won’t be able to fix things for the future…We’re giving the word in its proper historical context, and if people feel uncomfortable, they should be.”

Mark Anthony Neal, Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African and African-American Studies at Duke University, also believes the argument over brazen use of the n-word is merely a diversion from more difficult topics people are unwilling to discuss.

“As a country we want to be post-race without ever fully engaging the dynamics of what race means to American society,” he says. “It’s much easier for us, at this moment, to gloss over historical realities and turn to what words we used and how they were used. Whether that’s getting rid of the n-word in books like Huckleberry Finn, so as not to offend young folks who are reading the book, or complaining about the use of the word in a film like Django Unchained.”

He adds, “When all is said and done, it’s a word, and I’m much more concerned by white supremacist actions that use of these terms….I think the fact that we’re having this conversation about the n-word is a way for us not to actually have the conversation about slavery, which the film talks about. If all that we’re talking about is the n-word, no one actually has to get to the depth and reality of talking about violence and slavery and racial relations in the historical context.”

Neal feels that anxiety over black on white violence in the film is due to an inherent fear in American culture that such depictions will actually “sanction” real life enactments, and that perhaps such loose use of the n-word might inspire some people to worry it will create tensions between races. However, these narrow-minded conclusions don’t give audiences credit for properly interpreting the story.

Furthermore, repetitive use of the n-word could actually deplete the slur of its power.

“The more it’s used, the less power it has,” Neal remarks. “Because of hip-hop, people have become desensitized to it. Somebody would utter it 25 years ago, and it kind of hung in the air where everyone had to deal with it. Because it gets dealt with in popular culture like it does now, we’re desensitized to it. And I think that’s something that Tarantino knows. And I think part of what he was trying to do with the usage of the word is desensitize us to the use of the word, and sensitize us to the actual violence that’s happening in the context of slavery.”

Plus, says Hudlin, the film tackles slavery in a way no other film has been able to do in the past, when likely it would have been “a low budget blaxploitation film.”

Or, had it been big budget, he adds, Django would never have been the hero.

Follow Courtney Garcia on Twitter at @courtgarcia