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The N-Word
by Spotlight Mike

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Don't Even THINK About It!

Don't Even THINK About It!

The "N" Word.

No other word in the English language invokes such an immediate, powerful emotion. It's been the cause of fights, deaths, sorrow, anger, and a hundred other negative emotions. Its roots (sorry, no pun intended) go all the way back to before the slave trade, where the original word was a derivative of the modern word, meaning "stingy or misery."

Being the only African-American writer on the Matchflick staff, I have taken it on myself to look at the use of this word as it was used in cinema (because I can - explanation below). Second, although nearly every other term used for the African-American was widely used - and accepted in cinema dialogue, the article will focus on THAT word. Lastly, for the sake of not being too euphemistic, and to demonstrate how much this word controls us all - ALL of us, we'll use just the second syllable of the word, since we'll demonstrate that the way the second syllable is pronounced gives the word different meanings.

For all its power, it is all of us that have given this word so much power, building emotion in the last half of the last century. Up until the previous century, the Nineteenth Century, the word had little power, even used conversationally in popular literature (Mark Twain used the word to name one of his main characters in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and in as late as the 1950's in J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye").

When I looked up how many movie titles used 'ger,' there were over thirty. Matchflick has only three of these titles, all of them being one movie series. When used in the context of the three 'CHARLEY' movies, the hard 'ger' is used as an insult, but mainly as a badge. The movie, though rooted in the blaxploitation 70's, was set in the pre-Civil War South, where there was really no other popular word used.

Polite Society would used softer, less offensive words, as explained earlier, but the meaning, and the purpose, was the same.

Ironically, it was only two years after this movie was made that 'ger' became the softer 'ga,' and used affectionately as a sign of camaraderie when Cleavon Little played sheriff Bart (Black Bart - get it?) in Mel Brook's wild, irreverent send-up of the
Them vs. The Man

Them vs. The Man
traditional western, BLAZING SADDLES.

I'd just like to share a little side story, from this movie: it took me almost six viewings to catch the punch line, "As Honorary Chairman of the welcoming committee, it's my privilege to present a laurel and hearty handshake to our new...." because of the broader humor that preceded and followed those lines.

Moving on.

In the musical HAIR, Hud proclaims his "N" Word-ness in the song "Colored Spade," where he sings about every epitaph that African Americans have been called over the years, including 'ger.' Ironically, HAIR has more than a few songs extolling the glory of the African American.

The African-American experience was celebrated - more or less - as an entire genre of movies that pit the African American anti-hero against The Man as blaxploitation movies flourished in the 70's.

Afro-Americans (anyone remember that term?) like Shaft, Superfly, Cleopatra Jones (yes, there were female blaxploitation stars) and Mandingo fired up the imagination of urban movie goers, showing African Americans in strong positive roles, albeit anti-heroes, but more important, beating The Man in their own defiant way. 'Ger' was used by all sides, angrily by the bad guys, timidly by the white good guys and defiantly by the stars.

Another, more affectionate use of a non-"N"-word epitaph that was used more respectfully (If THAT wasn't an oxymoron) was the African American character in the movie version of M.A.S.H., whose character was written out of the more politically-correct, Alan Alda television series (Google the character - Since that was an equally offensive word, I'm not using that word in this column either!).

After the novelty of the blaxploitation anti-hero wore off, mainly because budgets dried up, many of these stars went into more substantial theater work, leaving room for the young, hip African American actors like Eddie
That's OUR Word

That's OUR Word
, Richard Pryor (and one of the writers of the Mel Brooks comedy BLAZING SADDLES and who used the exaggerated term "gar" in his stand-up routines) and Denzel Washington. Their use of "The Word" was definitely more reserved, using it for dramatic effect, and in most cases, when they did "period" pieces (HARLEM NIGHTS, MALCOLM X).

In the last two decades, the word has developed a double standard, as African Americans have taken "ownership" of the word, changing "ger" to "ga," and emphasizing the first syllable rather than the second, proclaiming, "That's OUR word," as if our ethnicity came with a secret handshake and a decoder ring. No movie drove that point home than in RUSH HOUR, where the same word used the same way to the same people had two completely different reactions. When Chris Tucker tells Jackie Chan to do everything he does, when he gives a friendly greeting to a patron in the bar exactly as Tucker did, he inadvertently starts a riot. When trying to explain what happens, Tucker scolds him by yelling he can't use that word.

The "N" Word, a term coined during the O.J. Simpson trial, replaced the epitaph with a softer, more acceptable term, like calling someone a cootie-face. But the actual word is now considered a forbidden word, like Voldemort in the HARRY POTTER series. You can skirt around it, you may be able to whisper it, but use it in conversation, and you're instantly a pariah. You can use any other ethnic or racial slur and it won't get the reaction as "ger," or "ga," or "guh," or "gar."

I'm reminded of the power of words, particularly "The Word" in question because LENNY has been on heavy rotation on cable lately. Known for his often borderline risque material, he went on a different tangent during one of his routines. One of the scenes in the movie, he assaults his audience by asking if there are
Are there any __________s out there?

Are there any __________s out there?
any "gers" out there. The audience went dead silent. In a mixed audience, in the racially-charged Sixties, he goes in the audience looking for one. He stops at a particularly large man, who found no humor in his routine at this time, just sat there, ready to explode. Lenny finally breaks the connection, and begins to rattle off every racial and ethic slur of the times that he could think of. His point: that people give power to words. And if people of all kinds took the power back, these epitaphs would have no power over them, or anyone, that the adage, "Sticks and stones, etc." would apply to these words as it would any other derogatory expletive.

Words are powerful tools. And like any tool, they can be perverted into weapons. Words can kill (and in the case of Kyle MacLachlan's Paul M'uad Dib, it literally does). But like the schoolyard bully, it's power comes from what you as an individual give it. If you are called a slur, it affects you the way you WANT it to affect you. It is only in a reaction that you lose that power. BUT, if the word does not evoke an reaction, then the word loses its power.

From Slave Traders to Carpetbaggers to Mark Furman to Richard Pryor to Rappers to Laura Schlessinger and "The LEGEND of 'N' WORD CHARLEY" (you know how ridiculous that sounds?), the "N" Word has given them the power to control their listeners. It calls to the most primal of emotions, even when used affectionately or defiantly.

It's a word, like the "J" Word, and most recently, the"M" word, that does not necessarily need to be eliminated, but it needs to be controlled.

Of course, I could be wrong!


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Oct 6, 2010 10:18 PM
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I believe that the first time that the "N-Word" was actually spoken in a mainstream Hollywood film goes all the way back to 1947 in Gentleman's Agreement.

And maybe you can tell me this - Why in movies such as Baadassss! (which has a cast that is predominantly made up of African-Americans) do these people continually refer to each other as a "n__ger"? Is it, sort of, Ok for African-Americans to call one another this, but not Ok for "whites", or whoever else, to do the same thing? I mean, these characters in Baadassss! just never let up on using the "N-Word".
Mike Thomas
Oct 7, 2010 12:00 AM
[X] delete
I know the word has been used in entertainment as long as the word existed, but as I've written, it changes with each generation.

In every ethnic - EVERY ethnic, they all have their "N-Word," a language they use among their friends, but not to "outsiders." You can even see that to some extent as late as in AVATAR. But, in the same way other ethnics can't use "our" word, we could not walk up to people out of our circle and affectionately curse at them the way their friends affectionately curse at them.

It's a secret language every ethnic has, it's just that African-Americans are a little more protective of "their" word.

I'm sure that even "down under," there are peoples who you can't understand when they talk amongst each other. That's done for a reason. And it's to keep them "in" and others "out."

It's complex social structure that has unspoken rules and guidelines.
Oct 7, 2010 8:52 AM
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Uh... No. This isn't about affectionately cursing your buddy using the N-Word.

In movies like Baadasss!, School Daze, Boyz In The Hood - The N-Word is used as a direct insult, exactly the same way I'd use the term "you frickin' arsehole".
Mike Thomas
Oct 7, 2010 12:20 PM
[X] delete
And that's exactly the point. Whereas you could call someone an arsehole, even to an African American, African Americans use the N-Word as a common insult. But, because of the double standard, if the N-Word OUTSIDE the circle, it's implied as a racial slur. I equate it to the Italian slur w_p, the Irish slur h_rp, the Jewish slur H__k-nose, and so on.

It's a double standard, I admit it. But it is no more a double standard than any other ethnicity.

And the use of the N-Word did become more of an affectation after rappers starting using it in their videos, and actors starting using it in films, like the aforementioned RUSH HOUR
Oct 7, 2010 9:37 PM
[X] delete
Yep. I see your point. It's all double-standard to some degree, or other.

Anyways -

I know that this is a little off the topic here, but let me ask you this -

In Africa there are 2 countries, one is called Nigeria, and the other called Niger.

Now, the people of Nigeria are called Nigerians, so, what are the people of Niger called? And, no, you can't call them Nigerians, too.
Mike Thomas
Oct 7, 2010 10:05 PM
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I actually had to look that one up.

The people with which you speak that are from Niger (since they are a French-speaking people it is pronounced (nee-ZHAIR) actually have two terms for their people. They are called Nigeriens (nee-ZHAIR-e-ans) or Nigerois (nee-ZHAIR-e-os)

So it's Nigerians are from Nigeria, and Nigeriens are from Niger.

Mais oui!
(only 5 levels of comments are allowed)

Oct 8, 2010 5:54 AM
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"Sticks-N-Stones" etc. How many epithets have there been in America for Jews? Italians? Irish? Polish? over the years. If someone called me a Heeb or a fellow I might punch their ticket. Any derogatory term demeans the user, the recipient and ALL of US. It's time we stop judging everyone by ignorance. Carrying epithet/hate signs at funerals doesn't create progress - just more hate. Thanks Mike.
Mike Thomas
Oct 8, 2010 12:34 PM
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Preaching to the choir, Jon.

That was the purpose of the Lenny Bruce story. As far back as the Sixties, people were railing about the damage caused by allowing words to affect us.

As you said, it's not just African Americans, but Jews, Italians, Asians, you name it.

It hurts the caller more if you don't acknowledge their assault.

Oct 12, 2010 7:02 PM
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I just said it aloud for the first time that I can ever remember (in my entire life) when I read a passage of Dr. Martin Luther King's letter from Birmingham jail to my class, made up of a mixture of black, Latino, and white students and it felt weird. I felt weird doing it, even though it was in context and I meant it in the most respectful way possible, as I was reading Dr. King's words.

It feels to me that the N word has the most power out of any that I can think of.
Mike Thomas
Oct 12, 2010 9:42 PM
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I hadn't realized, until after I started writing this particular column, how much of a schoolyard bully this word is. It intimidates EVERYONE, even if you just hear it.

No word should have that much power.
Bobby B
Nov 5, 2010 10:41 PM
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It's funny though, sometimes it doesn't. I'm a bartender and I had this guy who I had cut off because he'd had too much to drink. He started yelling at me to "go back to Africa" etc. And I'm like, "Really? Go back to Africa? That's what you came up with? You've got three seconds to leave quietly before I call the police. Bye now." I was completely untouched. I was just like, man, I am PAST that. Of course, he was a drunk. If I go to a gas station and the attendant says "we don't server your kind here, n----r, well, that would be different.

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I Could Be Wrong
Every other Wednesday

Until I find my footing, I'd like to vent on the state of today's movies. I will occasionally praise a movie that piques my fancy. But it's a whole lot more fun railing against a person's work who makes more money on a single project than I would make if I lived 500 years. Oh, I will usually make observations on movies rather than films. The difference? Films are critically acclaimed, while movies are just darned good fun.

Other Columns
Other columns by Spotlight Mike:

Adventures in WonderCon

In Praise of the Movie Producer

The Life of a Film Reviewer



All Columns

Spotlight Mike
Born in the Fifties with an extreme phobia for movies in general, I became obsessed with movies when I broke that phobia with the first movie I actually enjoyed, “The Ten Commandments.” I particularly like the kind of movie where you can put your brain on hold. I get enough reality and drama in my everyday life; I refuse to pay someone to subject me to the same.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Spotlight Mike by clicking here.

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