No contemporary white public figure has a more involved relationship to the word “nigger” than Quentin Tarantino. He’s used it in screenplays since the beginning of his directing career, he’s been criticized (and defended) by black peers for it, and he’s explained his rationale for it several times in a variety of ways. Americans are obsessed with the word “nigger,” a semantic memento of our country’s shameful founding legacy. But few white artists seem to me more obsessed than Tarantino.
The word is said roughly 65 times in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a post-Civil War Western that takes place in Wyoming. Maybe if I liked the movie more, and found it all around less tedious and its characters worth caring about, that would have been less distracting. But it did distract me, and that Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue character gets called a “bitch” repeatedly and is brutally beaten by the movie’s male characters (chiefly, Kurt Russell’s bounty hunter John Ruth) provides no contrasting comfort. If it is a matter of historical accuracy that Samuel L. Jackson’s character should be referred to as such dozens of times, the presence of modern phrases like “fucked up,” and “I don’t know about all that” suggests a selectiveness when it comes to keeping the language in step with the time portrayed.
At this point, especially after the relentless use of “nigger” in his last movie, 2012’s Django Unchained, I can’t help but wonder if Tarantino is inventing excuses, via his films’ premises, to have his characters use “nigger” as many times as possible in a single movie. He knows what he’s doing—his will is as explicit onscreen as the violence and dirtbag characters in his movie. He has acknowledged, specifically, the power of the word “nigger,” telling The Australian in a 1998: “When you’re talking about the word ‘nigger’, you’re talking about probably the most volatile word there is in the English language. The N-word is a word we can’t even say out loud. It has that much power.”
And yet, Tarantino has said it—through his characters (including the one he played in Pulp Fiction)—repeatedly in public for over 20 years. The Hateful Eight inspired me to look back at Tarantino’s history with the word—his often unsatisfying reasons for using it in his work as much as he does, the controversy it has caused, the feuds it inspired. I’m less interested in shaming Tarantino for his artistic decisions, or his comfort in using a word that makes so many uncomfortable, than I am in exploring and contextualizing, as I find much of his on-record discussion on this matter to be telling in itself.
Before we look at the press, though, here’s a a chronological compilation of the usage of “nigger” in the films he wrote to date (except for The Hateful Eight). This includes True Romance, which Tarantino wrote but did not direct, and is for the sake of putting this in cinematic context:
The earliest instance that I could find of Tarantino explaining his use of “nigger” comes in a 1994 article in The Toronto Star that focused on his second movie, Pulp Fiction. In that movie, Tarantino has a cameo in which he says the word “nigger” repeatedly (“Did you notice a sign out in front of my house that said ‘Dead Nigger Storage’? ...It ain’t there, ‘cause storing dead niggers ain’t my fucking business, that’s why!”). On “nigger,” Tarantino said:
The way women talk about men when there are no men around is different from the way women talk about men when there are men around. It’s like, when you say a nigger joke, you gotta use the word “nigger” or it’s not funny. It’s only the dirtiness of it, the nastiness of it, that makes it funny. So I don’t want you to censor the way my characters talk.
The following year, Spike Lee, whose feud with Tarantino is now nearing the end of its second decade, spoke out regarding Tarantino’s liberal use of “nigger.” Though many date their public disagreement back to 1997’s Jackie Brown, it was actually in response to Pulp Fiction—the scene quoted above in particular, in fact—that prompted Lee to respond. To the Boston Herald, Lee said, “In his defense, he says no word should have so much power. But that scene in Pulp Fiction is just too much. It’s not cute. He’s a fine director, though.” Lee’s defense caveat is likely in reference to an interview in the October 1994 issue of Vibe, in which Tarantino framed his repeated use of the word in activist terms. To Manohla Dargis, Tarantino said:
My feeling is the word “nigger” is probably the most volatile word in the English language. The minute any word has that much power, as far as I’m concerned, everyone on the planet should scream it. No word deserves that much power. I’m not afraid of it. That’s the only way I know how to explain it.
If you think these are the words of an outsider taking the act of reclamation upon himself, well, you don’t think like Tarantino did in 1994. Elsewhere in the piece, Tarantino stated that he could be identified as a “nigger.”
Before I quote that section, I’d like to repeat the last sentence: Elsewhere in the piece, Tarantino stated that he could be identified as a “nigger.” Here it is:
When I was growing up in the ‘60s, “nigger” was a fighting word. It never was to me because I always said, Okay, I can be identified as that, because it speaks volumes about who I am. It’s somebody who’s not to be fucked with, it’s somebody who grew up a certain kind of way, who has certain kinds of traits that will get your ass fucked up if you step to them the wrong way. I’m one of those kind of people, yeah.
Tarantino’s claim of his inherent blackness was undermined by his narrow definition of “nigger,” one that doesn’t actually account for the word’s status as a racist epithet. As a non-black, he couldn’t truly know what it was like to be degraded by that word. His perspective is blindingly white and downright fantastical. Spike Lee seemed to have a good grip on Tarantino’s heroic nigger badass fantasy when in 2000, he told the Vancouver Province, “His whole deal with African Americans is through black exploitation films. His knowledge of black people is based on black exploitation films from the early ‘70s.” In 1997, though, Tarantino told Howard Stern, “I was like the white kid that went to an all-black school that hung around all the black guys, and everything, and just had this black thing going.” (Narbonne High School, where Tarantino attended, is currently far from all black. It’s mostly Latino.)
Though the concept of “political correctness” was much-discussed in the ‘90s (kicked off by Richard Bernstein’s op-ed, “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct,” which ran in the New York Times on October 28, 1990), there wasn’t much of it to be seen. Pop culture was still teeming with white people who should have known better than to say the things that they did. In 1995, Madonna famously told Spin, “I’ve never been treated more disrespectfully than by the black men that I’ve dated,” and went on to offer her theories on why black men are the way they are. Courtney Love tried to get a crowd Madison Square Garden to say “nigger” in unison in 1994.
Pushing back against the idea of respect for disenfranchised people was considered edgy, and probably, for some, a way of expressing exemption from the rules that govern the behavior of lesser people; like saying, “It’s OK. I’m really down, not like those other white people. I can say recklessly racial things, including the word ‘nigger.’” What’s weird about that entitled mentality is it was shared with those other white people who also had no problem saying “nigger.” Could something as coarse as a white person saying “nigger” have nuance? Could its appropriateness really come down to tone or supposed intent? Regardless of the answer, that most justice-minded people would even consider such a reading is myopically idealistic. It’s yet another white-guy fantasy.
Given the fewer options for public communication from private people in the ‘90s, it’s hard to say what people made of all this. I was talking to my friend and former co-worker Cord Jefferson on Friday about this piece, and he told me, “Watching Tarantino’s movies made me wonder if all white people are saying the word ‘nigger’ all the time.” Well, not all, but there is some truth there (I certainly heard white people say it a bunch growing up in South Jersey). Tarantino would also explain that his characters using the word was “the truth.” This was more an ugly truth than a cool one.
In its December 1994/January 1995 issue, Vibe ran a response to its Tarantino profile from reader Chuck Mabry that’s worth reading for its reasoning.
Quentin Tarantino says that a word with the power to inflame like “nigger” should be shouted from the top of buildings to take away that power. I wonder if he’d take the same view of a word that personally degrades and dehumanizes people of his ethnic background. While I enjoy the audacious violence, nihilism, morbid humor, and trashy ‘70s revivalism of Tarantino’s films, I hope that his increasing use of black actors will lead to a more balanced view of minorities in his work.
Spike Lee wasn’t the only black celebrity to criticize Tarantino, either. Frequent collaborator and legacy Tarantino defender Samuel L. Jackson shared in Vibe that director brothers Albert and Allen Hughes (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents) complained to him about Tarantino:
Allen and Albert are my good friends. They said to me, “You know, Quentin’s got to stop using all that ‘nigger’ shit.” I was like, “Y’all said nigger 13,000 times in Menace II Society. He can’t and you can?” There’s something very wrong in that.
In a 1995 dual Independent profile of father/son directors Melvin Van Peebles and Mario Van Peebles, Mario said:
Tarantino stands there telling Sam Jackson, “This is not the dead nigger storage,” or whatever. Now you know that there is no way ever in his life Tarantino would say that to someone who looks like Samuel Jackson. No way! He’s just thinking, “I can finally say nigger to a black person - I must be cool.”
Part of Van Peebles’s hypothesis was seemingly proven in a September 12, 1996 profile of Denzel Washington in the Sydney Morning Herald. In the piece, Washington shared this anecdote from the set of Crimson Tide, for which Tarantino did uncredited rewrites:
Washington, in front of the cast and crew, gave Tarantino a dressing-down. “How come you use ‘nigger’ so much, huh? I mean, do you know what you’re doing with that word?” the actor wanted to know.
...“Well, I just told the guy what I thought. I was just being honest,” he says, not unreasonably. “But perhaps I shouldn’t have done it in front of so many people. I mean, I like the guy.”
And what did Tarantino do? Washington laughs again. “I think he was too shocked to say or do anything.”
It was at the end of 1997, upon the release of Tarantino’s third movie, Jackie Brown, that the public debate on Tarantino’s use of the word “nigger” truly boiled over, thanks to comments from Lee that ran in Variety. Citing the 38 occurrences of “nigger” in Jackie Brown, Lee said:
I want Quentin to know that all African-Americans do not think that word is trendy or slick. I don’t expect them to change [the movie], but I want him to know about it for future reference...I’m not against the word, and I use it, but not excessively. And some people speak that way. But Quentin is infatuated with that word. What does he want to be made—an honorary black man?
A comment printed in The Globe and Mail from Jackson (who has said Taratino’s “nigger” in more Tarantino movies than anyone else), corroborated this
“honorary black man” aspiration with no discernible incredulity:
Quentin wants to be black. He watched a lot of black-exploitation films growing up. He has a lot of black friends. He has an affinity for black characters. He’s like my daughter’s little hip-hop friends. They’re basically black kids with white skin.
At the Berlin Film Festival in 1998, Jackson repeated his disdain of a black/white double standard regarding the word “nigger,” and took some swipes at Lee directly. “[Jackie Brown] is a wonderful homage to black exploitation films [of the ‘70s],” he said. “This is a good film. And Spike hasn’t made one of those in a few years.” Jackson also took exception to, in E!’s words, “Lee acting like he’s the elected voice of African-Americans.” Jackson’s response was, “I didn’t get a chance to vote in that election.”
Incidentally, Jackson told The Observer, in a piece that ran March 8, 1998, that he was no fan of “dead nigger storage,” either:
The only time I had an issue was when he had to say “dead nigga storage.” I kept saying: “Quentin, as long as you say ‘nigger,’ it’s going to be like fingernails on a chalkboard. You’ve got to say ‘N-I-G-G-A-H, nigga.’ That means you’re familiar with the use of the word and you’ve used it in mixed company, not just with some white guys.”
Lee, with whom Jackson also worked previously (“I’ve said ‘nigger’ in Spike Lee movies,” Jackson told Playboy in 2000), framed Jackson’s defense of Tarantino as “a lot like the house negro defending the massa,” according to The Washington Post in 1998, though about 10 years later, The New Yorker reported that Lee said he was misquoted in that instance.
Instead of celebrating the nasty humor of “nigger,” or its political power, for Jackie Brown, Tarantino framed its use as “the truth” (with a dash of the double-standard disdain Jackson had repeatedly expressed). In its January 8, 1998, issue, the New York Daily News quoted Tarantino’s recent appearance on Charlie Rose, when the director discussed Jackson’s character Ordell:
He’s the one that says the word “nigger” all the time. Well, that is how he talks, all right, and that’s how a whole big . . . segment of the black community that lives in Compton, lives in Inglewood . . . and lives in Carson that is how they talk. I am telling the truth. It would not be questioned if I was black, all right? And I resent the question [being asked] because I’m white.
The plain irony of that last sentiment is that, in fact, several pieces were written around this time that used Tarantino’s use of the word as a peg to explore if anyone should be able to use “nigger”—black or white. The just-linked Daily News piece by Denene Millner is but one example. Which is to say: It very well could have been questioned if he were black. And Tarantino’s victim attitude on Charlie Rose starkly contrasts with the smugness he reportedly expressed during an audience Q&A at the National Film Theater in London in January 1998. As The Guardian reported on January 6, 1998:
A questioner, a young black man, threatened to spoil the love-in. “Why are there so many uses of the word nigger? You won’t get away with it.” “Yes, I do,” Tarantino said, attracting a round of applause.
Additionally, during a promo appearance for Jackie Brown in 1997, Tarantino said this to Howard Stern:
My feeling about this whole ‘nigger’ issue—and I have a very strong feeling about it—is, to me, there’s two questions going on here when they say that. One question is this: If they’re coming from the place, by asking that question, that I’m a racist—if they feel in their heart of hearts that I’m coming from a racist place, well, then that’s the question. OK, that’s where they’re coming from.
If that’s not the case—and that’s not the case with, Spike, he knows—if that’s not the case, then it’s simply about me being a writer. All right? And they cannot say I can’t write another character. They can’t say I can’t write black characters, I can’t live my black characters, I can’t be my black characters, I can’t be my Filipino characters. I can...Spike Lee can do the Johnny Cash story if he wants to. I am not saying that he can’t. Not gonna say that. But the thing about it is, as a writer, I am God. As a writer. And all these characters are mine and they’re me and I’m telling the truth. And you know what? He might not like it, but there’s a hell of a lot of black guys in Compton saying “nigger” all the goddamn time...You know, in Carson, in Inglewood, that’s where I’m from. Not everybody, but there’s a hell of a lot of guys...
Tarantino also called Lee’s discussion of his racial politics in the press (rather than to his face) “a cowardice situation.”
Around this time, Tarantino had a few alleged confrontations regarding his racial attitudes. Whether it was a product of people’s imaginations running wild based on Tarantino’s liberal use of the word “nigger,” or if his real-life behavior reflected people’s worst suspicions of his fiction, an outrageous gossip item ran in the February 2, 1998, issue of the New York Daily News. Here it is in full, because every word is worth savoring:
Oh, that Spike Lee could have been a fly on the wall when Quentin Tarantino dined at Dok Suni on the lower East Side Thursday night. A young blond confronted the motormouthed moviemaker about why his characters in Jackie Brown utter the “n-word” 39 times throughout the picture. It was Spike who had kept score, after counting 28 uses of the racial epithet in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and accusing him of wanting to be an “honorary black man.”
Tarantino let his pork ribs cool as he lashed back at the woman, while dinnermate and Jackie Brown star Michael Keaton ate on. “This is ME we’re talking about! You’re fucking wrong!” Tarantino fairly shouted at the woman. “I have a great affinity for black people and black culture.”
The 34-year-old then made a bizarre claim: “Ricki Lake and I are the most admired white celebrities in the black community!”
When the chastised fan balked perhaps in astonishment that the wunderkind director would link himself up with a grade-C talk-show hostess, Tarantino started to sound a bit like Samuel L. Jackson’s character in the film. “No, no, no!”
Tarantino blasted. “Don’t be talkin’ ‘bout Ricki like that!”
Tarantino has said he was raised with black people, including a black father figure. His spokeswoman, Bumble Ward, would only say, “Quentin doesn’t just speak his mind without thinking things over very carefully.”
And then, just a few months later, in the May 5, 1998, issue of the New York Post, this Page Six item ran:
The Post’s Faye Penn reports Tarantino was dining with a group of Asian women and two white men upstairs at Three of Cups restaurant at 83 First Ave. late Friday night.
According to PAGE SIX spies, after an African-American couple sat down next to Tarantino and pals, the Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown director struck up a conversation with the duo, which soon deteriorated into a diatribe on racial differences.
At one point, Tarantino demanded whether the couple knew what common feature blacks supposedly share.
“You know what they all have?” Tarantino snarled. “You know what it is?”
He then jammed his fingers up his nose to flare his nostrils to demonstrate. “It’s the wide nose!” he declared.
The man and his date were clearly angered, but no punches were thrown until the restaurant was closed and everyone was sent to the downstairs lounge, where a screaming match erupted into a full-fledged fist fight.
After the brawl was broken up, the couple left. Tarantino sat on the sofa with his buddies to chill out before departing voluntarily. Police were not called.
Similarly bonkers, in 2007, a quote apparently from British GQ was passed around, in which Tarantino allegedly stated, regarding reincarnation: “I know I was a black slave in America. I think maybe even like three lives. Yeah, I know that.”
In a 2003 Playboy interview, Tarantino reflected on his feud with Lee by calling Lee “self-serving,” as if Tarantino’s use of the word “nigger” for taboo laughs, or for a not entirely well-reasoned sense of activism, or for the fact that it fueled his reputation as a renegade artist, which made him money and allowed him to make more movies, wasn’t also inherently self-serving.
Michael Fleming, who interviewed Tarantino for the piece, asked, “Do you think some of [Lee’s] arguments had merit?,” to which Tarantino replied:
It’s funny, because he talks in these grandiose terms, but as much of a loudmouth as he can be, the press doesn’t really listen to what he says. They print his tone. If you boiled down what he was saying, it wasn’t that I didn’t have the right to say “nigger” as many times as I did. It was why do I have the right to say “nigger” 37 times, but he doesn’t have the right to say “kike” 37 times? That is really what he was saying.
“If I had used the word ‘kike’ 38 times in Mo’ Better Blues, it would have been my last picture,” is actually the Spike Lee quote that was printed in Variety. Elsewhere Lee pointed out the disparity between the outrage Michael Jackson caused by using the word “kike” in his 1995 single “They Don’t Care About Us,” versus mainstream acceptance of Tarantino’s use of the word “nigger.” In neither case did Lee cry, No fair! I want to call people names, too! You can make the argument that “nigger” and “kike” are not colloquial equals, but here Tarantino managed to dodge the question and mischaracterize Lee. (In all fairness, Lee had been criticized for perpetuating Jewish stereotypes with his characters Moe and Josh Flatbush in Mo’ Better Blues.)
In 2012, Tarantino again was made to answer for his characters’ liberal use of the word “nigger,” this time in Django Unchained. (And unsurprisingly, he was once again criticized by Spike Lee.) An interviewer for BlackTree TV praised Tarantino’s courage for writing a screenplay that used the word so frequently, to which the director responded:
In each situation I’ve ever done it, it’s just been the truth of the characters. And here it’s also the truth of the characters and the truth of the time period. Nobody’s actually suggesting that they didn’t say it that much in 1858 in Mississippi . That would be ridiculous. They’re not even saying this, but they’re saying maybe I should have cleaned it up. Well that’s just not what I do. I don’t clean it up. And thank you for saying the courageous thing.
Tarantino continued, explaining why he ignores feedback regarding his use of racial epithets:
There’s film criticism and there’s social criticism. And the people who’ve complained about my use of that have been social critics. And I have to just say there’s not one iota of social criticism that has ever been leveled my way that has changed one word of any of the scripts I’ve written. Or any scenario I’ve ever done. It’s my job to ignore them and to not pay attention to them because I believe in what I’m doing wholeheartedly and passionately, and it’s my job to just get on with it
But, of course, film does not exist out of society. Sometimes it informs it, in fact, which Tarantino happily took the credit for doing elsewhere. In another interview, the director said:
I’ve always wanted to explore slavery, but I guess the reason that actually made me put pen to paper was to give black American males a Western hero, give them a cool folkloric hero that could actually be empowering and could actually pay back blood for blood.
In the case of laying waste to a genocidal, white racist class and the institution of slavery, yes, that would be the reason to [make a movie like Django Unchained], as opposed to just a historical story where this happens and this happens and this happens and this happens and that happens.
[Django Unchained is] creating a nice debate…I am responsible for people talking about slavery in America in a way that they have not in 30 years.
These two arguments represent contradictory principles. Either a movie is just a movie, and thus exempt from any explorations of its larger societal implications (such as what it means when a white man expresses his fascination with the word “nigger” in public for over 20 years—a white man, who according to his friend RZA, by the way, uses “nigga” in his private life), or movies and larger society are in conversation, reflective of each other. Movies are either a series of images you watch to forget the world, or a way at uncovering the world’s truths and facing its uncomfortable cultural practices. Tarantino pushes buttons, but when he elicits responses that, whether valid or not, are completely predictable, he avoids the issue, he compartmentalizes the critiques, he accuses people of not getting him. He rests his case on the response of those who love his work. In 2012, when Sway asked Tarantino about Lee’s remarks about Jackie Brown, Tarantino replied, “Fifteen years has proven the case. That movie’s beloved.”
In a recent Village Voice profile, writer Amy Nicholson points out that “Tarantino’s use of the N-word has evolved” and that of the 60+ instances of “nigger” in The Hateful Eight, “Tarantino...felt that a period piece about the Civil War where Confederates didn’t use the N-word would, problematically, make racism sound more politically correct.” And yet, even if 2015 Tarantino would think twice about a bit like “dead nigger storage,” his attraction to the word remains intense, as does his confidence about his usage of it. You can’t tell him nothing, and you never could. To Nicholson, he said, sounding very much like the powerful white man that he is:
I like the idea that some black critic who has been paid to write three different think pieces about me and always looked at me with a jaundiced eye will be sitting at Thanksgiving when he’s a grandfather and his grandkids are studying my films in school and it’s their favorite class. That’s my revenge.
“It’s been a long time since the subject of a writer’s skin was mentioned as often as mine,” is how he put it to Bret Easton Ellis in the New York Times’s T magazine earlier this year. Again: not true. The appropriation of black culture by white artists is discussed frequently today, as are the politics of black art. As far as the latter category is concerned, you’d think that a self-consciously “down” white guy like Tarantino would understand that to have the color of his skin as such a focus is actually something he shares in common with the black people he portrays and emulates. What he meant, really, was that it’s been a long time since the subject of a white writer’s skin was mentioned as often as his. The ability to go throughout life not considering race or having yours dissected is a cornerstone of white privilege. Tarantino seems irritated that his privilege was interrupted. To Ellis, he continued:
You wouldn’t think the color of a writer’s skin should have any effect on the words themselves. In a lot of the more ugly pieces my motives were really brought to bear in the most negative way. It’s like I’m some supervillain coming up with this stuff.
Tarantino isn’t a supervillain. He’s a man, and men have flaws. They act selfishly, they protest, they produce brilliant works of art. They’re more than one thing, which means they can be critiqued without being negated. The fact of the matter is that the word “nigger” is a key part of Tarantino’s legacy of shock and manipulation. He is not above manipulating, as he admitted to Stephen Colbert last week. Over the course of his career, Quentin Tarantino has asserted his right to use the word “nigger” in a variety of contexts. In fact, his right to say “nigger,” is one of his platforms. This is his legacy. He once argued that his objective was to reduce the word’s power. Over 20 years later, it’s clear that his experiment just didn’t work. The power of “nigger” has not diminished. Meanwhile, Tarantino’s has only grown.
And what he said to that “young black man” at the National Film Theater in 1998 was correct: He does get away with it.
I reached out to the publicist that handled online press for the release of The Hateful Eight to request Taratino’s participation in this piece. I have not heard back.
[Top chart above by Sam Woolley]