I have swirl of conflicting feelings about the Don Imus affair and the current turn in the Duke rape case that makes it difficult to write about them. That difficulty feeds itself because these are the kind of topics that I usually sink my teeth into. The longer I remain silent on these issues, the more confused I become over them, and that furthers my hesitancy to comment. Not a comfortable place to be for a strident cultural activist for whom language is important.
So today I want to vent about a recent "incident" in popular culture which has garnered little attention yet demands discussion and on which my position is clear, and that's Quentin Tarantino's excessive use of the n-word in his films.
On Wednesday, I was in Manhattan with time to kill between a meeting and a class so I decided to treat myself to a flick at Union Square. I had just enough time – three hours and eleven minutes to be exact – to catch the double feature Grindhouse. For those of you who don't know, Grindhouse is actually two movies and several faux trailers that harken back to the so-bad-their-good shock cinema of the 70s. The first movie Planet Terror is a zombie parody written and directed by Robert Rodriguez while the second joint Death Proof is a combined homage to the race car and girl revenge flicks written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.
There's a consensus among film critics about Grindhouse that I join: Rodriguez got it right, offering the same mindless entertainment as the films he attempts to emulate while, once again, Tarantino wallowed in a self-indulgence that turned a good concept into a mediocre film. Once upon time, critics heaped deserved praise on Tarantino for his way with dialogue. Characters in his films would wax on for minutes about topics that were irrelevant to the story, but audiences (myself included) ate it up because the tangents were so damned entertaining. The praise has gone to Quentin's head because Death Proof is filled with scenes where female characters go on endlessly about nothing of importance ( to anyone else except Quentin, that is) and, unlike their male counterparts in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, they bore you to tears.
What has yet to penetrate Tarantino's consciousness – and needs to with the same quickness in which Don Imus was put in check – is that his public love affair with the n-word ain't cute.
It seems that he has learned only one lesson only to evade another. Although Quentin has repeated the mistake of casting himself in his own movie, at least the n-word isn't sailing out of his character's mouth in Death Proof as it did in Pulp Fiction. The problem, however, is it flies consistently out of the mouth of thr stunwoman Kim (played by actress Tracie Thoms.) In fact, Kim is only one of two African American characters in Death Proof. The other character is a local radio DJ named Jungle Julia – I kid you not – played by Sydney Tamiia Poitier(yes, daughter and namesake of Sidney Poitier, the accomplished actor renowned for the dignity he displays both on and off screen.) Both Kim and Jungle Julia fall neatly into the stereotype of the quick-lipped sista who cusses and disses people without provocation, her closest friends being her favorite targets of her inexplicable aggression.
Now maybe, just maybe, these stereotypes are part of Tarantino's weak effort to emulate the films of this time. After all, the B-movies of the 70s weren't exactly bastions of character development and logical plots. The heyday of grindhouse theatre coincided with the decade of Blaxploitation, a genre that many of us celebrate to this day even as we chastise its equally stereotypical yet less politically inspired successor the hood flick. It's a hard sell, but I'm willing to entertain it.
I'm not willing to entertain, however, Tarantino's attempts to at once relish the n-word while dodging criticism for its excessive use by having it spew from the mouth of an African American actress. As an author of hip hop noir for adult audiences, I have experienced the challenge of writing around a word that is used so prevalently in the environment that you are trying to realistically depict. But Thoms' Kim uses the n-word so damned much, it's ridiculously unrealistic and undeniably purposeful. And unfunny. And offensive. Anyone and everyone's a n***a to Kim regardless of their gender or race and even her feelings toward them at the moment. Amused or angry, she tosses out the word when she can readily use something else -- or nothing at all -- that would be no less, uh, "appropriate" given the context.
I don't agree with Spike Lee on much, but he's right on this one. Quentin Tarantino is infatuated with this word. The gratuitous use of the word by an African American character in Death Proof is undeniably his way of using the slur without getting called out for it, and I just thought y'all should know. Despite those conflicting feelings about the various issues raised by the Don Imus affair, I'm harboring colorful fantasies of Black folks pulling a drop squad on Quentin Tarantino and forcing him into N***as Anonymous.
It seems we've reached a new low in the history of the n-word and all its variants, mi gente. When having your ongoing debates about who is "allowed' to say the word, the role hip hop plays in its proliferation, and whether or not the inconsistencies in holding people accountable for its continued use are justified, discuss this, too. The firing of Don Imus might make some Whites in media think twice about tossing out racial epithets in the name of entertainment, for sure. But it also may encourage the Tarantinos of the world who refuse to kick their n***** habit to invent more ways to make us say the dirty words for them.
What are we going to do then?