07 01 2013

Say it… I dare you!!

By Jonathan Fisher in Rambling Rhetoric

In Django Unchained, ‘the n-word’ is used. A lot.

It’s remarkable what passes for journalism these days.

Last week, young journalist Jake Hamilton was interviewing Samuel L. Jackson at a press junket promoting the new Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained. He began to ask what I’m sure he thought was going to be a hard-hitting question by saying “There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the usage of the n-word in this movie…”

Jackson cuts him off by feigning coyness (“No? Nobody? None?”), before lambasting him playfully for not being able to bring himself to say “the n-word”. The whole clip can be viewed here:




I have no doubt that Jackson’s chief goal was to cause a bit of mischief, and I’m sure he got the reaction he wanted when Hamilton almost visibly cringed, saying softly, “I don’t like to say it…” before responding to Jackson’s query of whether he had ever said it before with an awkward, “No, sir.”

Jackson laughs it off, but makes good on his promise not to continue the conversation unless the reporter would say the word “nigger”. Eventually Hamilton moves on to an insipid question about whether Jackson feels disappointed in the films he does after working with a master like QT. You can read the boredom on Samuel L. Jackson’s face as he responds. I think the guy was genuinely looking forward to a discussion on the fobbed-off subject (I was hoping that Hamilton would have a better response than “I don’t like saying it” when questioned by Jackson as to his reticence).

I think this video perfectly exemplifies why these press junkets are absolutely pointless for any film buff who wishes to exert themselves mentally. Here was a terrific opportunity to discuss the issue of race with an actor who clearly chooses his material carefully (apart from Django Unchained, Jackson was also in the terrific Do the Right Thing all those years ago) — and the journalist blows it and looks amateurish, all because he couldn’t bring himself to say a word — admittedly a loaded word that carries a lot of baggage, but a word nonetheless. Why couldn’t he say it? Or at least, rephrase his question — “There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the use of racial epithets in this film”, etc.

Here’s where I think the discourse of race in society is really falling down — both in the United States and here in Australia. If we can’t even bring ourselves to utter the words we loathe, how can we have a brave and rational discussion about how ethnicities and religions behave towards one another? Does Jake Hamilton really think that his name would be plastered all over the Internet as a racist because he used a word, in what clearly is an appropriate context in asking an actor about the use of the word ‘nigger’ in a slavery-era movie?

Maybe as a white guy, Hamilton falls into the common thinking that he doesn’t have the right to say ‘nigger’, no matter what the context. If that’s the degree to which fear of being labelled a racist has permeated the discourse — that you can get in trouble simply for discussing race  then society is in a lot of trouble. I remember having a fascinating conversation with a black American friend of mine who explained to me where the term ‘cracka’ came from. When he used the word in his explanation to me (“White and flavourless”, which I had a cackle at), I didn’t jump at him, nor halt the conversation before he had a chance to finish his point. If I had, he would have been within his rights to say “I’m explaining the origin of the word for you so that you are better informed about the history of this epithet. So what if I said it in the explanation?”

Hamilton did say in the interview that if he uttered “the n-word”, that his interview probably wouldn’t go to air. It’s not clear on the tape if that’s the sole reason he wouldn’t say it, but a couple of days ago Hamilton spoke out to explain himself. Hamilton claimed that:

… It’s one of those things where I have my own set of moral values, just like anybody else and I’m not going to compromise them for anyone, much less a celebrity. I get that (some people think I am empowering the word by not saying it) and I understand what the argument is and a lot of people say that’s the point that Mr. Jackson was trying to prove. But at the end of the day, I just — I don’t say it. You can make the argument that I’m making it worse by not saying it but so be it. I’m just not going to say the word.

 Hamilton doesn’t bother to clarify what his moral value is, or on what basis he refuses to say an epithet, even if the intended usage of the word clearly would not have been to incite hatred. I don’t know about you, but I come away from his explanation still thinking he’s a complete lightweight.

Editor’s note: Interestingly, in the same set of interviews, Jamie Foxx retells a story from his youth in which he was called “the n-word” and withholds himself from using the word. I’m not sure if that was just him being sensitive to the sensibilities of the network he was being interviewed by, or if he too “just doesn’t like saying it”.

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