Just before Christmas I spent some time doing what a number of African American filmgoers have done over the last few weeks: debating the use of the "N-word" in Quentin Tarantino's latest film Django Unchained. In my case, I was not just debating the issue with friends for the sake of doing so. The subject was one of the topics of discussion during a roundtable on the BET program Don't Sleep. During the segment, my friend, HuffPost Live host, Marc Lamont Hill, and I disagreed on the "I'm black so I get to use the N-word whenever" pass that some members in our community believe we are entitled to, while simultaneously expressing outrage when a white person attempts to assert the same pass in certain circumstances, like when writing dialogue for a film such as Django Unchained.
One thing we seemed to agree on though is that Tarantino is talented, so wherever you came down on the "N-Word" argument, the film itself would, cinematically speaking, be a work of art. As a longtime Tarantino fan, I will admit I was a bit nervous though. I was hopeful that despite Spike Lee, and others', previous high profile critique of the filmmaker's use of the "N-word" as gratuitous and racially insensitive, that I would, at the end of the day, simply be able to enjoy a well-done film.
But in the end I couldn't. Not because the use of the N-word was gratuitous, but because the explicit, ongoing violence directed at African-Americans -- and only African-Americans -- was. To be clear, there are plenty of white people who face violence in this film. After all in a Tarantino film violence is a given. So is revenge. But there is not a single scene of violence experienced by a white guy -- good or bad -- in this film that is remotely on par with the extended scenes of violence in which black men are on the receiving end. One scene in particular (spoiler alert) involving a slave and dogs is so graphic and disturbing I found myself covering my eyes for the first time in a theater, although it was not the last time before the film's conclusion. And I'm someone who considers the artistry demonstrated in the fight scenes in Kill Bill on par with watching ballet.
The definition of "gratuitous" according to Merriam Webster is "not called for by the circumstances." Based on this definition there is a valid argument to be made that the use of the N-word in Django Unchained is not gratuitous. I couldn't think of a single instance in which the word was used in the film in which I didn't consider it realistic, given the circumstances. (I was not around for slavery but I doubt many slave owners referred to my ancestors as African Americans.) But when it comes to the violence depicted in the film -- specifically the incredibly creative and disturbing violence born out against black people -- that's another story.
One could argue that all Tarantino violence is gratuitous. But the question I couldn't help asking myself during Django Unchained is what motivated Tarantino to kick things up a notch in this particular film, with these particular characters?
Tarantino revenge films tend to follow a predictable trajectory. Some bad person does something bad. Some good person -- or at least better person -- comes along to make him pay for it. The worse the person, the more we want him to pay, and the more painful we want the payment to be.
But here's the thing. I didn't need to see Jewish people tortured in Inglorious Basterds to know I wanted the Nazis to pay. Tarantino seemed to know that too, so we didn't see any Jewish characters tortured. We know some were killed, but their killing was not in any way, shape or form graphic, explicit or prolonged. Similarly, while we saw the aftermath of the attack on Uma Thurman's bride in Kill Bill, we didn't see Uma Thurman tortured for an extended period of time. Yet somehow we still knew whom to root for during her fight scenes.
So my question is why in Django Unchained did Tarantino feel it was necessary to depict black men being pummeled and tortured in such graphic, gory, and yes, gratuitous ways? Yes, slavery was brutal, but when films like Roots depict a slave being maimed it is not done in a voyeuristic way that goes on for several minutes, and that film was not any less effective in conveying the institution's brutality.
To be frank, I have a hard time believing that if a black director -- let's say Spike Lee -- directed his first ever film about the Holocaust and there were a few scenes that lasted for several minutes depicting Jewish males being tortured in some creative and prolonged ways, that someone wouldn't compare such scenes to his previous films and ask tough questions about what inspired Lee to get so "creative" in such a brutal fashion with this particular group of people. We would probably endure endless articles and television debates about Lee's suspected animosity against white males, or perhaps Jewish Americans in particular. And I'm not sure in such circumstances such questions would not be warranted. In the same way, that I believe such questions about Tarantino's motivations must be asked now.
Particularly, when Tarantino already has a controversial reputation in Hollywood when it comes to his depiction of African Americans, and not just in terms of his use of the "N-word" (which does constitute gratuitous in some of his other films, such as Jackie Brown). For years the director and Denzel Washington were estranged because of the actor's concern that dialogue pushed by Tarantino during his work on the script for Crimson Tide, was racially insensitive. Few have ever accused Denzel Washington of being some paranoid racial militant. (The two men have since reconciled and Washington's daughter appears in Django Unchained.)
But perhaps even more damning for me in terms of wondering whether or not Tarantino, and his fans, need to ask for greater accountability of Tarantino when it comes to his depiction of African Americans, particularly men, in his films, is a conversation I had with a white friend before writing this piece. When I expressed my concern at the level of brutality in this film, he replied, "Well don't forget Reservoir Dogs is pretty brutal and so is the sodomy scene in Pulp Fiction."
He was referring to the scene in which a black male character is sodomized with an object. But being a Tarantino film, a white guy saves him.
Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate and a Political Correspondent for TheRoot.com.
Follow Keli Goff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/keligoff