“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.