INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Why Can’t We Even Discuss the ‘N-Word’?

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By GUY AOKI

Last month, reporter Jake Hamilton of Houston’s KRIV-TV was interviewing actor Samuel L. Jackson about his current film “Django Unchained,” director Quentin Tarantino’s second revisionist movie (“Inglorious Basterds” had Jews rising up against and killing their Nazi oppressors; in this one, a former slave, played by Jamie Foxx, confidently goes up against slave owner Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s taken his wife).

Like many reporters, Hamilton wanted to ask Jackson about the movie’s frequent use of “the N-word” (reportedly over 100 times).

But Jackson tried to make a game of what exactly that “N-word” was.  “Have you ever said it?  Try it!  We’re not going to have this conversation unless you try it.”

Hamilton wouldn’t do it and moved on to another question. He later told BuzzFeed: “I have my own set of moral values, just like anybody else.  And I’m not going to compromise them for anyone, much less a celebrity.”

Hamilton said he wanted to ask, “Where is that line between that word being offensive and that word being art?  What does it take for an actor to read a word like that on a script page and say, ‘OK, I’ll say it?’”

It would’ve been a great question.  I wish the media hadn’t created such an atmosphere where reporters are afraid to just come out and say “nigger.” I first noticed this when local stations were covering the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995. When Mark Fuhrman was asked on the witness stand if he’d ever said “nigger,” reporters came up with the euphemistic “N-word” term.

I’d love to have been in the conference rooms where these editorial decisions were being made.  I always felt that reporters should tell us the facts, including slurs. It’s not like they’re condoning their use by saying them, but that’s how they acted in 1995, and it’s evolved since then.

Jake Hamilton interviews Samuel L. Jackson in this image from a KRIV-TV broadcast.

In 2006, when actor Isaiah Washington was fired for allegedly calling fellow “Grey’s Anatomy” actor T.R. Knight “a faggot,” some news outlets referred to it as “a gay slur.”  Why not just tell the public the word he used?  If kids who’ve called classmates that name were watching at home and saw the consequences of doing it in the workplace, they might have thought twice about using it at school. Same with slurs against Asian people.

On the other side of the debate are those (usually under the age of 35) who believe that we should use racial slurs in “positive ways” (e.g. in the names of bands) because it would supposedly take way the charge and sting of the words and eventually render them harmless. I’ve always said that’s naïve and doesn’t respect the history of the words, and they should always be regarded as slurs without any excuses.

I haven’t seen “Django” and have no interest in seeing it, but the black community certainly has; they initially made up a whopping 42% of the audience, apparently charged up by the thought of black slaves giving their white masters their comeuppance. I can’t comment on how necessary it was to use that slur so many times, but it’s historically accurate to depict people saying it during the 1800s, just as it was with the ’70s television mini-series “Roots.” How else can people understand the times in which blacks suffered if you don’t depict the racism?

The movie’s critically acclaimed, getting four Golden Globe and five Academy Award nominations, including both for best screenplay and best director. It’s also become Tarantino’s top-grossing film of all time, beating out “Basterds’” take of $120 million.  He also won a Critics Choice Award for best original screenplay.

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The Spanish M. Night Shyamalan? Department: During the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of late 2004, over 230,000 people lost their lives with the most deaths coming from, in order, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. Many people were up in arms when word got out that a movie about that catastrophe, “The Impossible,” would star white British actors Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor as two tourists affected by it. Of course, of the millions of brown/Asian people affected by this natural disaster, we should once again focus in on white tourists and care the most about them.

A scene from “The Impossible.”

It became further puzzling to learn that the story was based on the real-life experiences of a Spanish family – led by Enrique and Maria Belon – and that the production team, writer and director were also from Spain. Was Juan Antonio Bayona the Spanish version of director M. Night Shyamalan?

A few years ago, the Asian American community was up in arms when one of its own, Shyamalan, white-washed the casting of his live-action version of Nickelodeon’s “Avatar:  the Last Airbender” by initially casting white actors in the top four roles.  When Jesse McCartney dropped out as the villain, Shyamalan substituted Dev Patel, which made it even worse on another level, since his entire nation — and other dark-skinned people like him — became the villains.

Was Bayona worried that if he didn’t get a white family to focus upon, he couldn’t get funding from a major film company? Well, the fault may lie with the family upon whom the tragedy is based. When a Yahoo news reporter asked if she was bothered that white Brits were playing her and her family, Maria Belon told him: “I am fed up with this question all the time.  This movie is not about nationalities, not about races, not about colors. It’s about human beings. One of the conditions we put is that there should be no nationality for the family. I don’t care if they would be black, brown or green skin. I wouldn’t care about anything.”

Ah, but when have we ever seen a big-budget film focusing on black- or brown-skinned people? Belon gets the “Naïve Race Media Commentator” dunce cap of the month award.

The article went on: “Belon said she was involved in the making of  ‘The Impossible’ for several years and that she did have a say in the film’s casting. When Bayona asked Belon who her favorite actress was, she replied Naomi Watts because of her performance in ‘21 Grams.’”

This reminds me of “A Beautiful Mind,” which was also based on a true-life story. The scientist’s wife was from El Salvador, but in the film, she was played by a white woman, Jennifer Connelly. Just to show there’s no justice in the world, the role gave Connelly her first Academy Award for best supporting actress.  And now, Naomi Watts also received Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for best actress for “The Impossible.”

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On the Other Hand Department: Thank goodness for the Razzies.  They nominated “Red Dawn” in its “Worst Remake, Rip-Off, or Sequel” category. On the other hand, “Cloud Atlas,” which featured awful yellowface make-up of white and black actors playing Koreans, won the Critics Choice Award for best make-up.

Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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