Django Unchained: “(Gasp!) He Called That Slave A N*gger!” Really?

If there is any movie where I expect depictions of graphic violence and liberal use of the N-word, it's a Tarantino film set against the backdrop of pre-Civil War slavery.

I haven’t seen Django Unchained yet, and I’m not sure when or if I will. I’m not here to promote or defend Quentin Tarantino’s pre-Civil War spaghetti western about a slave turned bounty hunter (played by Jamie Foxx) determined to rescue his wife (played by Kerry Washington) from a sadistic slave owner (Leonardo DiCaprio in a Golden Globe nominated role). From what I’ve read, there are a number of gripes from critics about the film, ranging from historical inaccuracies (historians say that “Mandingo fighting” death matches between slaves staged by DiCaprio’s character never happened) to overly-elaborate plotting. However, two of the criticisms, that the film is too violent and that the N-word is overused, just don’t make sense to me.

First, let me briefly address the violence. Hello? It’s a Tarantino film! Ever see Pulp Fiction? How about Kill Bill: Volumes 1 and 2? Fantastic and graphic displays of violence, with prejudice, using a variety of film-making genres, is what he does. He’s not James Cameron, or Spike Lee, or Ice Cube, or Stephen Spielberg, and he’s never pretended to be. Adults who don’t want graphic displays of violence (I still cover my eyes during parts of Kill Bill, though I’ve watched both volumes multiple times), don’t go to Tarantino films. (And as for historical accuracy, no one has ever mistaken him for a documentary filmmaker.)

However, all that aside, I don’t see how it is possible to make a realistic movie about slavery in 1858, for an adult movie-going audience, without gory violence, inhumane acts and extensive use of the N-word. I’m speaking as a person who almost never uses the word (when I have, it has nearly always been in the context of quoting someone else), will never be comfortable with its casual use and still has strong negative reactions to its misuse and abuse. And yes, my reaction is even more visceral when the word is said by a white person. If there is a depiction of any era of American history where I expect to hear liberal use of the the word n*gger, it’s during the height of American slavery. Bloody violence and brutality, including physical, verbal, emotional and psychological abuse, were the order of the day. The subjugation of one group of human beings by another is typically horrific, rarely pretty or fit for polite company.

Some of the hand-wringing critiques of the film, especially in social media and in the blogosphere, border on the hysterical (both meanings of the word intended). For example, to say that a slavery era film set in 1858 sets the tone for random violence such as the December 14, 2012 Newtown, CT, massacre, as one critic of the film asserts, is just plain ridiculous. Does a film with a backdrop as brutal and inhumane as American slavery make for an ideal holiday flick? Perhaps not; I’m sure many viewers skipped seeing the film over the Christmas holiday for just that reason. However, would one expect to see violence and inhumane acts in such a film? Absolutely. To exclude the liberal use of the N-word and “clean-up” the violence in this context would have been an insult to our intelligence. Had Tarantino done so, we’d be taking him to task for white-washing an incredibly ugly era of American history, and rightfully so.

Black Enterprise Executive Editor-At-Large Alfred Edmond Jr. is an award-winning business and financial journalist, media executive, entrepreneurship expert,  personal growth/relationships coach, and co-founder of Grown Zone, a multimedia initiative focused on personal growth and healthy decision-making. This blog is dedicated to his thoughts about money, entrepreneurship, leadership and mentorship. Follow him on Twitter at @AlfredEdmondJr.

  • Nichole Hodge

    Great article Alfred. I have yet to see the movie also. I believe that you MUST be true to period by showing all the ugliness of slavery…n-word, beatings, rape and all. In fact, I hate how Hollywood and authors have attempted to sanitize history by making Thomas Jefferson anything other than a pedophile rapist. But here’s the rub for me: When watching other films such as Roots (I was a young child, but I’m pretty sure I remember the n-word throughout), Rosewood, and others, the use of the word cut like a knife and was dripping with the hate and venom befitting its user; but if the Tarantino film uses it in a way that doesn’t depict the true evil of a slave owner and it’s used in a somewhat comical way (as I’ve heard), well, I’m not sure how much good that does us.

    We are now living in an era that I thought I would NEVER see-white kids/young adults liberally using the n-word WITH their African-American friends, without a care. White people are calling our kids the n-word with ease and they are OK with it. Even rappers like Eminem had a standard and wouldn’t use it in their tracks. You just didn’t do that. But now, it’s common. And my only fear is that any depiction that doesn’t make one cringe with anger, but instead has you slapping your thigh in laughter, will give some what they believe to be a license to use it. That’s just my initial view not having seen the movie.

    • Nichole;

      Your comments are thought-provoking and enlightening, as usual. Most of the people I know who’ve already seen the film say that the N-word is used appropriately in the context for the time-period. One person did feel the word was over used, even taking into account that the film is set during pre-Civil War slavery times.

      I, too, am alarmed with the increasing casual usage and acceptance of the term by white people. Of course, I feel the same way about an increasing number of women accepting, an even celebrating, being called the B-word.

      That said, I’m hearing good things about the film, so it’s getting more likely that I’ll check it out, not to gain ammunition for social commentary, but just to enjoy myself. We’ll see.

      Thanks, as always, for weighing in!

  • Franceli Chapman

    Thanks so much for this article. I think that the dialogue in itself that this film is creating is important! Please see my post on the film http://celitheactress.wordpress.com/2012/12/28/django-unchained/

    • Franceli;

      I enjoyed reading your post on Django Unchained; thank you for also reading and commenting on mine.


  • sanjidude

    Just saw this movie and think it’s amazing. Will see it again…it’s that GOOD. Your points are all valid for sure, but after actually seeing the film, I think Tarantino did a good job of telling a very difficult story. I definitely wasn’t a fan of his after the Pulp Fiction N-word controversy, but in my opinion, Tarantino has redeemed himself with Django Unchained.

  • ang

    great film in my opinion http://instarz.com

  • great article…I was thinking the exact same thing when I heard a few friends saying that the N-word was used too much. Umm, what sort of language did you expect during slavery???