Looking back on the controversy in Hollywood over Tarantino’s exploitation of blackness in his films, I got to thinking about what gives a director license to represent an ethnic group outside of their own. Tarantino writes his films, which means that all the racially specific dialogue spoken by the black actors therein comes from his own penmanship. Several black actors and directors in the industry have voiced their deep discontent with Tarantino’s work, calling his films racist, offensive and disrespectful.
As a fan of Tarantino’s films, I can’t deny that there is an obvious infatuation with blackness throughout the body of his work. Every artist, regardless of race, is responsible for the art which they bring forth to an audience. Although extremely talented and highly praised, a successful film writer and director such as Tarantino should not be immune to accountability for any political incorrectness that he sells to audiences for profit, even more-so because he writes the scripts. So I’ve decided to break down his writing style and hopefully determine whether or not his representation of black culture is justified.
Django Unchained (Tarantino, Q. 2013) is a western (also referred to as a Black Western) about an African American slave who is freed by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz in exchange for his aid in finding three wanted men. Dr. Schultz grows fond of Django and agrees to help him find his wife, Broomhilda, who he was separated from a few years back. This time piece stars Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and the well-known Tarantino favourite, Samuel L. Jackson.
As a story set in the times of slavery and heavily centred around this theme, the film is well within its thematic right to utilise the terms “nigger” and “negro” where deemed necessary. This gives the film a sense of authenticity, making it an accurate depiction of that era.
Containing the word “nigger” one hundred and thirteen times, Django Unchained broke the record for the most amount of times Tarantino used this word in a film. Yet what has not been accounted for is the different interpretations of the “n-word” which have been used throughout the body of his work. The significance of the different definitions lies in the intention behind the use of this very ethnically specific word. This could determine whether or not he understands the language spoken by the group he is aiming to represent.
The oxford dictionary website states the following about the definition: The word nigger has been used as a strongly negative term of contempt for a black person since at least the 18th century. Today it remains one of the most racially offensive words in the language. Also referred to as ‘the n-word,’ nigger is sometimes used by black people in reference to other black people in a neutral manner (in somewhat the same way that queer has been adopted by some gay and lesbian people as a term of self-reference, acceptable only when used by those within the community). (Oxford University Press, 2017 [Online])
What Oxford neglects to mention here is that the pronunciation and even the spelling of the word is altered when used as a term of endearment from one black person to another. Samuel L. Jackson, who has defended Tarantino’s frequent use of the “n-word” on several occasions, had this to say about the more socially acceptable use of the word:
“The only time I had an issue was [in Pulp Fiction] when he had to say “dead nigga storage.” I kept saying: “Quentin, as long as you say ‘nigger,’ it’s going to be like fingernails on a chalkboard. You’ve got to say ‘N-I-G-G-A-H, nigga.’ That means you’re familiar with the use of the word and you’ve used it in mixed company, not just with some white guys.”” (Juzwiak, R. 2015)
This distinguishes the two words, giving them two separate meanings. “Nigger” is still deemed to be a derogatory term, especially when used by non-blacks, whereas “nigga” is merely part of everyday colloquial speech in the black community. And yet, the final film (Pulp Fiction) contains Tarantino using the politically incorrect version of the word, repetitively, in a subtext which does not call for it. In this instance, it comes across as unapologetically racist.
In the early 90s, black films were often rejected by Hollywood executives over the common themes which glorified the figure of the violent gangster and black macho criminal-capitalist ethic in films such as Boyz N the Hood (1991) and Menace II Society (1993). Black representation was limited around this time because Hollywood execs only published scripts which systematically infused the traditional white patriarchal structure into African American films which is evident in films such as Waiting to Exhale (1995), Soul Food (1997), The Best Man (2000), Love and Basketball (2000) etc.
But even with the limitations set on black films, black directors were the ones entrusted with the task of telling black stories and representing blackness. When a black film script was approved, a black director was brought on board for production. As black artists were given the platform to serve as the voice of the black community in film, it was believed to be the films’ best chance at authenticity.
In Black Looks, Bell Hooks stresses the importance of black artists taking it upon themselves to ensure that black people are represented more accurately in media. “… insurgent black intellectuals and/or artists are looking at ways to write and talk about race and representation, working to transform the image.” (Hooks, 1992 pg. 2)
Tarantino’s films, specifically Jackie Brown (1998), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Django Unchained (2013), lean heavily if not entirely, into the category of a “black film”. Although the number of white actors outweighs the number of black actors in Pulp Fiction, the events are centred around the stories of black characters and they are peppered with black colloquial speech throughout, used by actors of both races. Which should lead us to consider whether or not Quentin Tarantino, based on the work that he is praised for, essentially qualifies as a “black” film director.
What makes a black film? A black cast and crew, sure. But if the director is white? How much is authenticity compromised when the story is put in the hands of someone that is from a completely different background?
I think what gives a director license to represent an ethnic group outside of their own is a genuine desire to understand. Tarantino’s films do not tarnish blackness or paint black culture in a negative light. They embrace blackness and highlight some of the most envied aspects of our nature. Tarantino demonstrates an admiration of black culture as well as a desire to understand it better. The backlash over his overenthusiastic use of the “n-word” is the price that he pays for being daring in his craft. He seems to take some guidance from his black cast members when going about the most accurate way to represent them.
We’ve long had to accept black films being affected by the nature of film production in the white privilege era, however the industry is slowly waking up to the lack of accurate cultural representation and, evidently, efforts are being made to change that. But if we’re hoping to see a Tarantino film absent of the “n-word”, we’ll probably be waiting forever.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.