Arts & Culture
Samuel L. Jackson and the N-word, unchained
By Harold Michael Harvey
He frets and struts his hour upon the stage with the best of his generation, yet he is no renaissance man. A bachelor’s degree from Morehouse College in Atlanta makes him a “Morehouse Man,” which for a man who grew up Southern, in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a grander distinction than being a renaissance man. He got his break in the movie industry from another “Morehouse Man,” Spike Lee, who cast him as a drug addict in Lee’s breakout movie “Jungle Fever.”
It was a role uniquely suited for Samuel L. Jackson, who at the time was a few weeks removed from drug rehab. He knew the drug-addict motif and enmeshed himself in this role. He continues to transform himself in the various roles he has played since his maiden voyage into acting two decades ago.
In 1994, Jackson played gangster Jules Winnfield in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” and parlayed his performance into an Oscar nomination. He did not win. This year he has again teamed up with Tarantino, playing a rather smart and sophisticated “House Negro” named Stephen in the movie “Django Unchained.” For this role, Jackson must have entered into the soul of his grandfather in order to pull off this Oscar-worthy performance.
“I was raised to be cautious. I went to work with my grandfather, who cleaned office buildings and furnaces, and there would be twenty-year-old guys callin’ him Ed, and he called 'em Mister. My grandfather was this old guy, very dignified, but he never looked 'em in the eye. He’d look at me like, 'Turn your head down! Don’t look the white man in the eye 'cause they’ll think you being uppity or arrogant,'" Jackson told imbd.com.
Yet Jackson plays Stephen like he must have wished his grandfather had played the people he encountered on his job. Stephen keeps the books, writes the checks and keeps the “House Negroes and the Field Negroes” in their respective places for the plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Candie does not make any important decisions on his plantation without discussing it man-to-man with Stephen, who while he does not look the DiCaprio character in the eyes, does not look down either. He fixes his eyes on a distant object in the room and speaks openly and frankly with his Master.
The movie’s chief critic is none other than Spike Lee, who refuses to see the film because he thinks Tarantino disrespects the slave experience of African Americans. Also, Lee takes issue with Tarantino’s liberal use of the word “n*****.” (My editor may edit the word, but rest assured that I intended to spell the word out in all of its wretched horror.) The word is used more than 100 times in the movie, by both the white actors and the black actors. The movie’s use of the word tends to parallel its use in this century, as it was used two years before the Civil War, which is the time period “Django” depicts.
Perhaps the only character in the movie who does not use the term in reference to the slaves is Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German immigrant who gave up his dental practice because he discovered he could make more money as a bounty hunter than he could by pulling teeth. Dr. Schultz frees Django and gives him the surname Freeman so the world knows that Django was free and a man like other free men.
One presumes, given Tarantino’s proclivity to paint broad contrasts in his films, that Dr. Schultz is a German Jew, to whom Tarantino gives the first name King; perhaps symbolic of the emergence 105 years later of Dr. King on the Mall in the District of Columbia arguing for the final dissolution of the vestiges’ of slavery in a way Dr. King Schultz could not do in 1858.
This leads us to the word which causes most consternation in our dear politically correct times. While on tour with the cast of “Django,” trying to get ahead of the movie’s critics, Samuel L. Jackson refused to address a question over the controversial use of “the dreaded word,” the N-word, in the movie if the interviewer, Jake Hamilton of Houston’s Fox 26 television, would not specify what he meant by the term the N-word.
Jackson asked Hamilton to clarify what he meant by the N-word: “No? Nobody? None? The word would be…?”
“I don’t like to say it,” Hamilton said.
“Have you ever said it,” Jackson pressed.
“No, sir,” Hamilton answered.
“Try it,” Jackson demanded in his Jules Winnfield voice.
Following the interview, Hamilton could be seen rushing from the studio set before Jackson could rise from his seat. He later issued a statement which said, “…My crazy moment with Samuel L. Jackson (who is one of my favorite actors) doesn’t impact my LOVE of Django Unchained!”
Jackson’s pseudo tirade was lost on Hamilton and perhaps most Americans who fail to come to grips with what is offensive about the term. The word is simply comprised of two vowels and four consonants. Many African Americans affectionately use the terms when referring to each other. The rub comes when a white person uses the term because it connotes a time when Africans were a mere thing to whites. After slavery, blacks built up a callous on their souls, refusing forevermore to be the white man’s Negro. So when a white person uses the word, it resonates as a derogatory term that somehow says to African Americans that the speaker is better than the Negro who is the subject of the speaker’s words.
If Hamilton could not articulate the word in 2012, then how could he began to understand why it was important for Tarantino to depict how graphically, how cuttingly and how demeaningly the word flowed out of the mouths of white Americans as the nation rushed head-long into Civil War in the late 1850s; and how easily that word flows today in non-politically correct settings.
Thus, Jackson’s insistence that the interviewer pronounce the word and let it roll off his tongue into the air of the 21st century before offering an explanation.
In unchaining Django, Tarantino and vicariously Jackson, have unchained the taboo of “the n*****” in American life and culture.