A&E

Why Quentin Tarantino’s overuse of the N-word diminishes his art

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Tarantino, on the set of The Hateful Eight.
T.R. Witcher

By Gawker’s count the N-word shows up 65 times in Quentin Tarantino’s new Western, The Hateful Eight. He used the word more than 100 times in his previous film, the revenge fantasy Django Unchained, about 40 times in 1999’s Jackie Brown and about 20 times in Pulp Fiction.

What is up with this man? I suppose, for one, Quentin Tarantino wants to be black. Okay, fine. Lots of people do. Or maybe he’s moved on and thinks he is black and so is entitled to populate his films with the N-word as much as he wants (Note: This publication never uses that word, which is why you won’t see it here.) Perhaps he thinks of himself as America’s preeminent black filmmaker, and Americans (and perhaps critics, too) might even agree.

But Tarantino’s an artist. He says he’s being truthful to his white and black characters who might say the word in real life. Okay. And one function of art is to shock and challenge and unsettle us, which is tougher to do in our corporatized mass movie culture. The N-word is a symbol of centuries of racial hatred, oppression, violence and fear, the effects of which still live with us. So let’s make viewers contemplate, in stark terms, what that legacy has made of us.

Finally, Tarantino might use this odious word—surely the most charged in American culture—to rob it of its power to hurt us.

It’s a free country. Tarantino has the right to use the word in his movies. Whether he cloaks himself in artistic privilege or not, he can use it as many times as he wants. We’re all grown-ups. The real question is, should he? Does his promiscuous use of the word—more than 165 times in his latest two films—make his movies better? Does it advance his art? Is there any real value here?

I don’t think so. The Hateful Eight, like Django Unchained, is a Western in which a black man dispenses violent justice on a bunch of white racists. For Tarantino it’s a bold chance to turn the tables on centuries of the depiction of black victimhood, subjugation and violence at the hands of white Americans, a chance to have the last laugh as the last bullet is fired on the last motherf*cker who dares to call a black man the N-word.

The problem for me is the underlying sentiment here, the suggestion that black people, and black men in particular, are empowered and redeemed only through violence. Tarantino’s black revenge fantasy is more about playing out white guilt to its furthest stage—it’s more an expression of what white people fear or desire than anything to do with what black people want. Black people are too busy chasing our own piece of the pie to sit around dreaming of killing white people. We want the same stuff every other American wants, a fair chance to make the most of ourselves as best we can, and to do so in peace.

I’m always suspicious of the cake-and-eat-it-too approach to controversial subjects. When filmmakers show tons of lurid violence or racism or misogyny as part of an artistic strategy to critique those ills, things get muddied. You wallow in the imagery because secretly you like it, but then you wash your hands with ironic detachment, and, if you’re lucky, you’re praised for your unflinching artistic vision. You get to fill a movie with comically outsize versions of characters who hate black people, and then claim you’re doing it because you so admire black people. This is a very thin line.

Tarantino overuses the N-word with a glee that would feel childish if he were a child, but instead feels vulgar. He might tell you he’s showing the absolute moronic absurdity of white racism, but he ends up making his own work absurd as well. In the end, I think he uses the word over and over because he just likes to use it, and because he can, and because he wants to dare you to find fault. It’s like a fart joke with him. Or he’s like the bratty kid who keeps repeating everything you say. He’s not being daring. He’s just being an irritating little sh*t.

Tarantino might want to, in good faith, examine the legacy of racism and white supremacy in America. But those horrors cannot be adequately addressed in the guise of a Blaxploitation Western in which a lot of white characters use the N-word dozens of times and then, for their trouble, are blasted apart in gruesomely comic symphonies of blood. It’s a dead end, no matter how funky-Morricone-cool the soundtrack might be.

These are the played-out antics of an artist who refuses to grow up. They’re a sign that Tarantino’s head is so far up his ass, he can’t get out of his own way. Or, worse, he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t think he has to. And as long as we keep turning up and lauding his artistic genius, maybe he’s right to think that way. That’s the real problem.

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