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Stand-up comedian Katt Williams is making headlines for audacious behavior yet again, this time for offering an impassioned rant against Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. The film has drawn controversy for its violent content and abundant use of a certain racial slur that begins with the letter "n." Set in the pre-Civil War South and inspired in part by the Blaxploitation film movement, this wild western has a solid pretext to use the n-word, but does it go too far?
This is the question many have been asking publicly in the last few weeks, whether they have seen the film or not. Spike Lee has declared he wouldn't see Django Unchained, deciding sight unseen, that it's disrespectful to African-Americans, while Training Day director Antoine Fuqua gave Tarantino the benefit of the doubt. Now Williams is weighing in on the side of Lee, telling TMZ, "Quentin Tarantino thinks he can say the n-word. But I checked with all of Ni**adom and nobody knows where he got his pass from. I hope he didn’t get it from Samuel L. Jackson and Jamie Foxx cause they aren’t going to help you when I see you.”
But it appears Williams hasn't actually seen the movie, since he references the "D is silent" scene from the trailer, and complains that it's historically inaccurate, claiming, "How could you have a silent letter before black people could read." If the incensed comedian had seen the film, he would know that Django is lovingly taught to read by his bounty hunter mentor played by Christoph Waltz. Besides that Django's name is a flat-out reference to Tarantino's spaghetti western inspirations, which are clear within the film.
But of course, that's really not the point. The point is whether or not Tarantino is justified in using the slur as frequently as it's used in Django Unchained. This is an intriguing and perplexing question, one where the context of its use should be considered above all else. Is it historically accurate? Does that matter? Does saying the hot button word make its use seem acceptable, or worse yet, cool? Is the very utterance of it by a white character racist? And if so, does it mean the film is thereby racist? These are serious concerns, and one that Tarantino was smart enough to realize would be raised upon the film's release. Unfortunately, the conversation on the matter is going nowhere fast.
Having seen the film, I can understand the reactionary response from these artists, but the problem I have with Lee, Williams, and even Fuqua is simple: they haven't seen the movie. Yes, Lee is pulling from the word's hateful history in his argument. Williams is pulling from the taboo use of the word by non-black people. Fuqua is considering his respect for Tarantino as a filmmaker and his esteem for Foxx. But talking about it without seeing the film stalls the discussion. As prominent black American filmmakers who have used the word in their own works, Lee and Fuqua could each offer a unique and insightful perspective in this debate. Yet here we are.
By paying for a movie ticket, we essentially vote for what we think is acceptable on movie screens. I can understand Lee's viewpoint that paying to see a film he fears reflects negatively on African Americans works against his best interest as a public figure and a movie patron. But Lee isn't your average moviegoer, and I doubt he would be turned down should he ask for a screener DVD that would cost him nothing. And I'm really hoping he does.
The slur has a horrible history and is terrible word, so terrible that I couldn't bring myself to include it even in the quotes from Williams. But Tarantino knows this, and used it anyway. This merits a discussion, and one that Lee—who has never backed down from a fight—should be a part of. I'm hoping that some day we can see these two controversial and groundbreaking filmmakers who have never shied away from sharing their thoughts will sit down and hash this out. Not over coffee, like Fuqua suggests, but in a passionate and thoughtful conversation that's filmed. I'd pay to see that in a heartbeat.