The Hateful Word (The Last Thing I’ll Ever Write on Quentin Tarantino and the Word Nigger)

 

I’ve watched a lot of movies that were explicitly interested in racism. Of these kinds of movies, films about athletes or sports teams overcoming racial prejudice in order to succeed (e.g., Remember The Titans, Hardball, Coach Carter, Ali, The Great Debaters) tend to be the most explicit. There’s a rhythm to “race movies” that sports stories tend to follow very closely and I think that that’s worth thinking about in the context of The Hateful Eight.

The plot of race movies is usually something to the tune of idealism (racial harmony, individuals unimpeded by prejudice) facing up against reality and being struck down repeatedly until reality bends and realizes that the ideal is the only way forward. The march is long and hard but the bridge is always crossed.

This is clearly a myth, especially in the context of sports, an arena where loss is literally designed into the game, but it persists. In order to sustain this myth, especially within movies that aim for realism, racism and other deadlocked issues have to be reconstructed within the movie. I know this is obvious, but let’s dwell on it. Racism, like any other element in fiction, be it gender roles, family ties, or setting, has to be built piece by piece. It has to be washed, prepared, cooked up. Racism is never microwave-ready.

So how does one go about building a racist world? In a (American) sports movie, you dwell on those moments where Racism – big, scary R, with fangs, Klan sheets, badges, police cruisers, old and crusty Southern white men with bullhorns, smiling Southern white women with poisoned sweet tea – discards all manners and speaks directly, forcefully. I hate you. You are less than me. You are nigger.

I tend to frown and sometimes laugh at these movies because racism is just so conspicuous. Note that I didn’t say it’s fake – I still recognize it as real, plausible. But it’s a bit too in-your-face, too hideously ugly, too confrontational. Maybe I’m just a product of my era, but outside of a few rare instances I rarely have prolonged personal encounters with racism. This is definitely privilege talking, but I tend to catch it in glimpses, flashbacks, moments. Racism’s tendency toward evanescence is why I think most robust anti-racism movements have focused on structures of oppression: institutions, policies, laws, nations, doctrines. Now these I come into contact with everyday.

That said, I’ve never seen a movie [that was explicitly] about structural racism. I won’t say that the nature of structures makes it impossible for them to be narratively compelling, but I’ve never seen it done. Ever. Our current way of making movies and maybe even of just telling stories just seems to be too tied to character and individuals and groups and consciousness to deal with the inhumanity of structural racism. This isn’t a bad thing, but that’s the rub.

That said, some filmmakers try really hard to reproduce those structures, to mobilize them even in movies about individuals. Higher Learning takes aim at college. Training Day takes aim at cops. The Pursuit of Happyness takes aim at the economy. The Hateful Eight takes aim at the Civil War.

In The Hateful Eight the aim is scattershot (that’s my wide-screen joke) and it doesn’t always hit (the movie is deeply sexist, I think), but I’m not convinced it isn’t effective. The word nigger gets volleyed around over and over and over and I don’t think it’s in vain. Of course there are other ways to build a racist world, but in a world of speechifying, pissy, loquacious strangers, I think that deeply violent language is an awfully reliable brick.

Sure, the story as it was told did not have to be told this way and yes highly privileged white man Quentin Tarantino seems to use the word pretty comfortably, but all of this righteous indignation regarding the word nigger is starting to strike me as goofy. Structural racism is hard to produce on screen – there are people who don’t believe in it in real life, after all. And for better or worse the word nigger hits. And when it comes in unrelenting flurries the way it does in The Hateful Eight, I think it hits hard.

Cameron Kunzelman once made a video game called “My Rage is a Cloud That Will Cover The Earth.” The game features a cloud (of rage) that hangs over an avatar’s head and expands as sexist and condescending quotes linger on the screen. The cloud is explicitly meant to represent the avatar’s rage and frustration, but I’ve always thought it could also represent the quotes themselves, and their ability to slowly engulf the world, the universe, life itself.

Major Warren in The Hateful Eight seems to live in such a world and I think that the frequency and vitriol of the word nigger makes that apparent. Each utterance of nigger is a virulent droplet of hate in an atmosphere that’s already impossibly humid.

This doesn’t mean that the word nigger is necessary to convey racism against black people on screen.* Black strife now, then, and forever will always be larger than slurs. It just means that one particular filmmaker’s choice worked. This time.

I don’t think it will work forever or in all contexts. In Django, for example, the humor of the film made the word nigger and other forms of racism somewhat ambiguous, especially since nigger was used in all directions, by all kinds of characters. And that ambiguity can definitely come across as carelessness or insensitivity.

But beyond whether it will always work, I think the ultimate question about Quentin Tarantino and the role of race in his movies is who carries the burden of his representations? Who has to deal with laughs at racist jokes during his films? Who has to be pushed to the margins to realize Tarantino’s vision of black masculinity and American racism? Who suffers when Tarantino goes for indulgence over concision? The answers to these questions vary between his movies, but I think they are much better ways of engaging with his body of work and with his representations of black people than tallying up the occurrence of a word that he tends to employ quite strategically (in his films; in his interviews, he isn’t always so tactful).

In short, if you want to find the troubling racial undertones in Quentin Tarantino’s work (they are there!) please look beyond the word nigger. Your rage, your argument, and my experience of your argument deserve it.

*The defense that it is historically accurate doesn’t fly either. The accents in the Hateful Eight are free-wheeling and I’m pretty sure that Negro was a more common word than black during the time period when the movie takes place. Likewise, since fictional worlds are artificial, the idea that the word adds realism to a movie is also questionable. I think that the real strength of the word in his films is affect, not realism.

Further Reading: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

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Rap Genius is Stupid*

I have beef with Rap Genius. It all started when I heard “Middle of the Cake,” a song by rap group Das Racist. In the last verse of the song, Kool A.D. says, “RapGenius.com is white devil sophistry/ Urban Dictionary is for demons with college degrees.” Ignoring the ironic Black Nationalist rhetoric, I found these lines to be very interesting. In the past, I had used both sites, particularly Urban Dictionary, without much thought. Despite their problems – namely an abundance of crappy [over]explanations and fucked up (racist, sexist, etc.,) jokes – at the end of the day I saw both sites as relatively benign. After listening to this song, however, that changed.

In essence, Das Racist argues that Rap Genius and Urban Dictionary are plagued by an undercurrent of positivism.   Das Racist is right. Unlike SongMeanings.net, Rap Genius does not endorse a plurality of song experiences. Rather than providing meanings, a plural term implying a boundless amount of ways to experience songs, Rap Genius provides the meaning of rap lyrics. In its title and its mission, Rap Genius sees itself as an authority, the authority, rather than one resource among many.

Does this matter? Absolutely. It’s tempting to dismiss Rap Genius as a bunch of white nerds circle-jerking (and yes they are overwhelmingly white), but I think we can use Rap Genius as a way to think about one of the larger issues in hip-hop culture: the authenticity debate. In this debate, hip-hop fans vehemently argue over what constitutes “real hip-hop.” By “real,” overwhelmingly they mean “good.” This is a problem.

On a daily basis, my homie, Cameron Kunzelman, confronts a similar problem in the world of video game criticism. In a recent piece in which he debates Taylor Clark’s now (in)famous assertion that video games can be “smart,” Cameron laid down some useful words of wisdom:

“Instead of constantly fighting over what is smart and what is stupid, we should value the games that both reward us as players and open up the field of games for more experimentation and difference. Under this paradigm, Anna Anthropy’s contributions to the gaming scene and Skullgirls have equal aesthetic right to exist.

This saves us from “smart” and “dumb.” It saves us from video game journalists and tastemakers telling us how to feel about a game. Play a game; if you think it is smart, it is smart, and don’t let anyone tell you any differently. Celebrate art that makes the world of gaming bigger, more robust, more strange, most hackneyed, more archaic.”

For Cameron, conceiving of games as “smart” or “dumb” is useless, arbitrary and ultimately detrimental to the world of video games. These falsely objective value judgments do nothing but preclude diverse experiences of video games and feed peoples’ egos (particularly Jonathan Blow). I agree. By rewarding people with “Rap IQ” (this just might be the most pretentious concept ever), Rap Genius encourages limiting and egoistical ways of understanding rap. For Rap Genius, the “smart” way, the “best” way, to experience rap is to distill it down to the minutia, to definitively explain every tiny aspect of every song.Under this schema, it logically follows that the most intricate songs are the best songs.

That kind of thinking is stupid, positivist and indicative of a severely flawed understanding of rap.

Please don’t be a Rap Dummy Genius. Be a rap fan. It isn’t hard. I’m not going to define what a rap fan is because I’m not a Rap Genius. I don’t need to pin down what rap “means” to validate my experience of it.  I think that Kreayshawn is just as legitimate of a rapper as Kanye . In the end, all I’m saying is that participating in the discourse around rap doesn’t and shouldn’t require fastidiously breaking down  songs and dissecting them for presumed hidden meanings. It shouldn’t take a genius to figure that out.

Afterword*
For more on video games and all that other stuff Cameron writes about, visit This Cage is Worms.

This post is the first post in a series that I will attempt to develop over the summer. The current plan is for most of the posts to be responses to the essays in That’s the Joint. We’ll see how that goes.