I am someone who is absolutely IN LOVE with story. I love stories in books, movies, plays, poems, puppet shows, even a good commercial. But I am not undyingly loyal to any particular storyteller, regardless of how many accolades the culture has chosen to give, or withhold, from that person. For me, all that matters is the story. Is it told well, does it move me, is it gimmick-free, is it honest, does it portray a world I’m interested in – these are the types of questions I ask myself to determine whether or not I like a particular story. And I’m loyal to the storyteller only in so far as they consistently present material that meets these standards.
So, I’m not a big Tarantino fan. I have tried, because I am fond of a few of his stories. I love Reservoir Dogs. I like Django Unchained, and Inglorious Basterds. I despise The Hateful Eight. I’ve seen a couple of others, and for me, they are just okay. Frankly, if I’m going to be called a N—– to my face by anybody, particularly a white person – or several of them as in the case of The Hateful Eight – there’d better be some kind of payoff in the end. By payoff, I mean that the overall content of the story not only justifies the use of the word, but justifies why I would endure the direct insult when I don’t have to.
For example, the word is used liberally in the movie Detroit. But the movie not only justifies the use of the word (mostly by racist white cops) but also presents a heretofore untold and true story about police brutality and the culture that supports it. The movie has meaning and depth. Watching that movie can elevate one’s consciousness with regards to race and power. It depicts the effects of racial abuse on both the abusers and the abused. The movie is important as well as entertaining. And, as someone who sincerely wants to be a paid storyteller, this is the holy grail for me – entertaining and important.
But, back to the N-word. I don’t use it and never have. Not as a term of endearment. Not as an insult. Not even quoting someone else. The word is crass, low-class, outdated, and has no redeeming qualities in my opinion. Do I get mad when I hear other black people use it with one another? No. It’s disappointing, it tells me where they’re at, but I get it. It’s just not my thing. I also don’t refer to my friends as “dogs” or “sluts,” or any other playful pejoratives. But that is my spiritual discipline at work.
Words are powerful. The way you talk about yourself, and others, and the way you tolerate others talking to you, reflects your own level of awareness and self-esteem. So I don’t let people talk to or about me in just any old kind of way. I also don’t let ME speak any old way about myself. There’s a certain dignity with which I regard myself and anyone in my orbit, regardless of how mad I may get. Of course, certain things are outside of my control. If someone chooses to call me the N-word, which has happened, of course, I can’t do much about that. Nor does it change or effect who I am. But for me to spend money and/or precious time, and allow someone to hurl racial epithets to my face, would be acting counter to who I am, and how I’ve chosen to show up in this world.
The argument is often made: “It’s just the characters saying it! The author (or director, or singer, or whomever) isn’t racist!” Samuel L. Jackson even went so far as to say that it’s “impossible” for Tarantino to be racist because he made Django Unchained. I’ve heard that Tarantino is determined to rid the word of its power by saying it over and over. I’ve heard other white people make this claim as well – that they’re “taking the word back” somehow by tossing it around insensitively. Sorry, but no. It is not impossible for anyone to be racist. In fact, I would say that it’s almost impossible NOT to be racist to some extent, given the country we live in and its history.
And no, no white person can ever “reclaim” that word. Black people have actually reclaimed the word to a certain extent, and defused it of some of its power, through music. But anytime it comes out of the mouth of a white person, it is what it is – a vile word meant to degrade an entire group of people. If a character says the word, and it makes sense for the character to say the word, I have no issue with that from a creative standpoint. Life isn’t always pretty. If it makes sense for a character to say or do something that I find vile, bravo!
But for me to subject my little brown eyes and ears to it, I have to be able to justify it for myself. For example, pedophilia is a part of life as well. There are people who rape children, even babies. Would I watch a movie about that? Well, I have: Spotlight and the documentary The Keepers. Would I watch a movie that casually portrays a pedophile main character as a hero who just happens to indulge in a little baby rape in his spare time? No. Would I follow any particular artist who regularly portrayed pedophiles as main characters? Not a chance.
As a consumer, as well as producer of stories, I do feel a responsibility to consider my own soul, spirit, consciousness (whatever you want to call it) whenever I consume or produce a piece of art. Just as words are powerful, so are images. What we consume becomes a part of us in a fundamental way. When we get used to seeing disgusting things portrayed as acceptable – so acceptable that it isn’t even commented upon – we subtly believe that that’s just the way things are. In previous generations, almost all portrayals of racial minorities were bigoted. Not because it was right, but because they could get away with it, due to the laws and the social climate at the time. Regardless of how famous or successful someone is, that alone is not enough for me to accept and approve of whatever they do. Is Tarantino a racist? Who knows? Probably not. Are most of his movies offensive to me? I’m afraid so.
But that’s the beauty of the first amendment. It cuts both ways. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where Tarantino or any other creative person was prohibited from saying what he wants to say. And I’m sure in person he is perfectly lovely, smart, and interesting. That is the relevant separation between the art and the artist for me.
But, in response to “social critics” whom Tarantino says criticize his use of the N-word, he said his job is to “ignore them and not pay attention to them.” He’s right. And this is also my job as a consumer. When it comes to storytellers who tell stories that offend me while offering nothing of redeeming value in return, my job is to ignore them and not pay attention to them.
I know and embrace the fact that I’m in the minority on this. Fame and power are awesome things and I have neither. All I have is my opinion and a computer. But there it is. I don’t allow just anyone to access to my body, and I don’t allow just anyone to access my mind. That is spiritual discernment in a nutshell.
Peace and love,