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.

On The “Nigger Count”

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” – some dead guy, possibly Benjamin Disraeli

Numbers have always been questionable representatives. While we pretend that numbers are neutral placeholders, empty vessels, this is not really the case. Numbers are always already political. Whether they are representing a date, a time or a line of longitude, numbers harbor worlds of political significance. These worlds are often opaque to us, and that’s okay. It is only with statistics that this opacity becomes problematic. Statistics are the most politically charged numbers possible, but they are more malicious because their status as numbers enables them to be falsely veiled in impartiality.

The latest statistic to don the veil is the one deployed in critiques of Quentin Tarantino’s Film Django Unchained. Critics have noted the frequency of “nigger” in the film and cited it as evidence of Tarantino’s “infatuation” with the word. I call this hollow statistic the “nigger count.”

At the end of “The Protean N-Word,” the first chapter of Randall Kennedy’s provocatively-titled book, Nigger, he writes, “…nigger can mean many different things, depending upon, among other variables, intonation, the location of the interaction, and the relationship between the speaker and to those who he is speaking” (Kennedy 43). This quote does little justice to the extensive historical analysis Kennedy deploys in that chapter, but it’s a concise point of departure. Kennedy’s main point is that nigger cannot be pinned down to one definition or usage: it is protean.This protean, ambiguous nature of the word is tacitly ignored in citations of the word’s frequency within Django. Each utterance of the word is flattened and compressed into the abominable slur we love to hate.

This compression is a violent act that sharply stands at odds with the content of the movie. For instance, when Django and Schultz first meet Stephen, Stephen openly refers to Django as a nigger. This condescending designation clearly differs from the post-credit sequence in which slaves ask, “Who was that nigga?” in response to Django’s bold escape. Even when Django and Stephen have their final showdown, nigger is used sarcastically and insolently, respectively. There are further examples, but I’d rather not belabor the point. In short, nigger isn’t a singular term. Accordingly, its mere occurrence neither tells us how it is being used nor how we should subsequently respond.

One particular critique we should attend to was issued by Jelani Cobb. Cobb is ultimately concerned with the consequences of viewing Django as an alternate history of slavery, but he has more than a few words about nigger and its “numb frequency” within the film. This use of “numb” is telling. The relationship between numbness and frequency that Cobb suggests is inverse. Under this schema, potency lies in rarity: nigger can only hurt when you hear it once a week. This understanding of the relationship between numbness and frequency is inconceivable under slavery. Nigger [as an insult] was always simultaneously both violent and lame, boring. This is what Tarantino brings out in the film. Nigger grates the ear and glides past it. To claim that the frequency of nigger “cheapens” it is to presume that it is somehow diluted with every use. The truth is that it is always already both diluted and concentrated.

Interestingly, Cobb goes on to connect the numb frequency of nigger in Django to its occurrences in Tarantino’s previous films  – specifically Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction – and suggests that Tarantino is engaging in “racial ventriloquism,” a “kind of camouflage that allows Tarantino to use the word without recrimination.” Apparently the nigger count was not accurate enough: Cobb had to expand it to Tarantino’s oeuvre. This larger number tells us even less than the original hollow statistic. Yes, nigger is uttered, but why? When? How? To whom? Amongst who?

In the end, the nigger count is a hollow statistic. Calling out instances of questionable racial politics in films is good – I did it when I wrote about The FP – but hiding behind numbers is just shitty, especially when they amount to lame personal complaints.