The word nigger has power.
It throbs with so much hatred and history, that modern society subdues it with quotation marks, abbreviates it in a pathetic attempt to dilute it’s meaning or utters the completely ridiculous “n-word” just to make it palatable for the masses.
Conservative politicians will vilify poor, black Americans as welfare scavengers, but they won’t call them niggers — at least not in public.
We have a Prison Industrial Complex that feeds on Black bodies and is sustained by their labor, but the word nigger is off-limits.
We are a nation that allows young, black boys to be murdered in cold blood by protecting such laws such as ‘Stand Your Ground,’ but the word nigger manages to remain taboo.
It is the “Word That Must Not Be Said,” and when Samuel L. Jackson sat down with film critic, Jake Hamilton, to discuss its usage in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, it quickly became evident that it holds just as much power over white people as it does over the black descendants of slaves who involuntarily clinch when the word sizzles like a hot poker over their consciousness.
Hamilton had a “great” question that he wanted to ask Jackson, but the legendary actor, who plays a Sambo prototype in the film, refused to answer the question unless the stunned Hamilton actually said nigger and not the “n-word,” immediately creating a moment about so much more than a film.
HAMILTON: “There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the usage of, uh, the n-word, in this movie.”
JACKSON: “No? Nobody? None … the word would be…?”
HAMILTON: “I don’t want to say it.”
JACKSON: “Why not?”
HAMILTON: “I don’t like to say it.”
JACKSON: “Have you ever said it?’
HAMILTON: “No, sir.”
JACKSON: “Try it.”
HAMILTON: “I don’t like to say it.”
JACKSON: “TRY IT!”
HAMILTON: “Really, seriously…”
JACKSON: “We’re not going to have this conversation unless you say it.”
[Uncomfortable pause as Hamilton weighs the risk of saying the N-word]
JACKSON: “You want to move on to another question?”
HAMILTON: “OK, awesome!”
[When Jackson laughs at his nervousness, Hamilton reiterates that he doesn't like saying it -- even though he claims to have never said it before.]
HAMILTON: “I don’t like… I don’t want to say it.”
JACKSON: “Oh, come on!”
HAMILTON: “Will you say it?”
JACKSON: “No, f*ck no. That’s not the same thing.”
See entire video below [Samuel L. Jackson segment begins at 13:55]:
Hamilton’s nervousness is striking. In those few minutes, a black man is holding a white man hostage, using his own innate racial insecurities and guilt to back him into a corner and lose control of the interview.
Hamilton claims to not “like” saying the word, but when Jackson asks him has he ever said it, he says “No sir” in a way that calls his honesty into question. It is beyond difficult to imagine that this young man, a Tarantino fan since he was 8-years-old, has never once uttered the word. It would be the same as asking some white, suburbanite kid who is Lil Wayne’s biggest fan, has he ever said the word nigga.
Of course he has — and so has Hamilton.
While he is being applauded for sticking to his principles and not saying the word, I see things a bit differently. He didn’t not say it because of principle, he calculated Jackson’s sincerity before he made a false move that would draw his ire. He looked around, silently asking permission, he even asked him to say it with him, as if all he needed was reassurance that it was acceptable.
His principles did not stop him from saying the word nigger, society did — and that is what Sam Jackson exposed. This nation’s hypocrisy in banning a word, while not banning the hate that produced it.
Quentin Tarantino’s gratuitous use of violence and racist language in his art gives hipster, white America a “pass,” if only for a few hours, to be as ugly and profane as the word nigger.
I have reached out to Hamilton several times to find out what exactly was this “great” question that he had to ask, but he has not responded. Being the thoughtful, intelligent man who I’ve known him to be in other interviews, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it was probably an amazing question, one that would have provided clarity and perspective into Tarantino’s twisted fantasies that are manifested on-screen.
But it wasn’t coming from an authentic place.
As Jackson said, “It wasn’t that great of a question if you can’t say the word.” By containing the word nigger, it gives America permission to ignore the hate that still exists in this country. Yes, it is a violent word for a violent movie, but it is also a trigger that has the potential to murder a long festering hate that would otherwise continue to poison race relations from the inside out.
Saying the “n-word” when speaking candidly about race in America is a cop-out. It happened. Slavery happened. Jim Crow happened. White privilege still exists and erasing the word nigger won’t make that go away. That tug-of-war between Jackson and Hamilton spoke volumes on society’s willingness, in fact, its need to believe that entertainment is an alternate existence where anything goes, instead of an extension or reflection of reality. By Jackson pushing Hamilton to break through society’s self-imposed rule — and Hamilton’s subsequent struggle with propriety — he was answering the question “Why use the word so much in the movie?”
Because it hurts, and it’s uncomfortable, and it’s painful, and it’s real, and it has the power to silence a grown man for fear that he will be thought racist if he says the most dreaded two syllables in America — even if only to discuss a film. And that makes it necessary.
If the word nigger is woven so tightly throughout Django Unchained for historical authenticity, then it should be equally relevant in post-dialogue as the film is deconstructed.
And if we are ever to diminish the stranglehold that the word has over this nation’s psyche, then Jackson’s order to Hamilton is the first step to making that happen.