(The Root) — As a filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino has always gone there.
When other people wouldn't hire has-been superstars, he offered them work in Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction. When other people were afraid to take an irreverent look at one of history's most heinous crimes against humanity, Tarantino poked fun at the Nazis in 2009's Inglourious Basterds. And when it occurred to him that the world needed a departure from the traditional chick flick, he made not one, but two Kill Bill movies.
So we shouldn't be surprised that he's tackling one of the darkest seasons in our nation's history in Django Unchained, featuring an all-star cast and the word "n—ger" as a secondary character.
The film, which opens on Christmas Day, stars Jamie Foxx as a rebellious ex-slave named Django who partners up with Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), an enlightened bounty hunter, on a killing spree from Texas to Tennessee. Once they reach their quota, Schultz, who bought Django from a pair of brothers just before killing them, offers to help Django spring his still-enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from the Candyland Plantation, owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
The characters — black and white — use the n-word so often that after a while it just rolls off the tongue like any other noun. At one point I tried tallying the number of times it was said, but I grew weary around the 40-minute mark. I stopped at 50. I'm sure, however, that the usage far exceeded the century mark. In fact, some reports have tipped the count at around 110.
If you're a baby boomer or just a few generations removed from slavery, "n—ger" is not a word you want to tolerate in any of its old-school or new age definitions. It's just hard to hear. In Django, however, it's really no more offensive than some of the stuff Wendy Williams says on her chat show, or the hip-hop music your kids listen to. Tarantino uses it to incite a plethora of reactions from his audience, but mostly to point out how absurd it is that a six-letter word yields so much power.
Samuel L. Jackson and Foxx use the word excessively to try to one-up each other in their scenes together. Jackson plays Stephen, the stereotypical HHNIC (head house Negro in charge), who is always sucking up to his owner, Candie. At one point he refers to Django as a "motherf—king black n—ger." Now, had this been a Martin Scorsese flick or an HBO series, the Rev. Al Sharpton's email box would have been flooded.
But here's the thing: Tarantino is an equal-opportunity disser. One of the funniest scenes in the movie is when the Ku Klux Klan is in pursuit of Django and Schultz. The Klan members have their little hoods on and are ready to roll, but the woman who made the costumes jacked up the eyeholes, and none of the men can see! It's not often that white men come off as the bumbling idiots — unless it's a Will Ferrell or Seth Rogen buddy comedy.
Yet given the number of horrifically violent scenes in the film — particularly the ones between the Mandingo fighters, and a nauseatingly gruesome one with a dog ripping off the limbs of a runaway slave — hearing the black characters call each other n—ger was akin to not having to stand in the long lines at Disneyland.
It was a welcome relief.
And even when the word was uttered by plantation owner Big Daddy (Don Johnson) or Candie (DiCaprio), it beat having to see yet another stomach-churning bloodbath. In this case it was definitely the lesser of two evils.
But how much is too much?
You could argue that the word's excessive use in Django is reflective of the times. The film is set in the South just a few years before the Civil War. That said, do we give Tarantino a pass? Does it matter if he used it 50 times or 150? Not really. Once is usually more than enough. But had he not used it all, some nitpicking film buff would have called him out for making a historically inaccurate Disney flick.
After a while the word just loses its sting, and that's by design. Essentially, Tarantino has found a way to defuse one of the most explosive words on the planet with some creative storytelling.
The bottom line is that Django is a very entertaining movie. And with all of the advance buzz — some of which has been tempered by the recent tragedy in Newtown, Conn. (the Los Angeles premiere was canceled) — Tarantino and crew could fare well during awards season.
Pass or no pass.
So if you have the constitution to endure two hours and 45 minutes of offensive language and hard-core gore, go ahead and pluck down your $12 to see one of the few big-budget films made this year with black folks in the lead roles. Take your calculator, too. Only you can be the judge of whether Tarantino went too far this time.
Miki Turner is an award-winning photojournalist in Los Angeles.