Quentin Tarantino's work is often a lightning rod for controversy. While this often manifests itself merely as a strong disagreement as to its relative quality, as far back as Pulp Fiction, he began getting criticized for his generous use of racial epithets, particularly what we will refer to as "the N-word." It was particularly galling to some that Tarantino himself played a character who hectored the otherwise indomitable Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) about hiding an inconvenient corpse at his house. Tarantino's Jackie Brown, while otherwise well-received, and a welcome return for blaxploitation queen Pam Grier, seemed to up the ante, featuring Jackson as Ordell Robbie, who uses the word perhaps as much as any character in screen history. Tarantino's most prominent critic at this point was Spike Lee, who seemed to suggest that Tarantino was psychologically defective in some way.
Slavery was No Picnic
Tarantino's new film, Django Unchained, is about a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) who becomes a bounty hunter, and gets to kill his former overseers, among others. This film has also been attacked for its use of the n-word. It seems understandable that it would contain objectionable language that was common for the period and locale. But Lee (again) and others have criticized Tarantino's decision to make a film about slavery in the style of a spaghetti Western. While Tarantino's previous film, Inglourious Basterds, dealt fast and loose with the facts of World War II, it didn't deal directly with the horrors of the Holocaust, as Django Unchained does with American slavery. It's reasonable that people, particularly those with no real interest in or understanding of the Italian Western tradition, would object to the filmmaker turning the signature trauma of American history into lowbrow entertainment.
Same Word, Different Meaning
As someone of the same generation as Tarantino (and Lee, for that matter), it was an adjustment for me as the n-word became a widespread part of popular culture, mostly disseminated through hip-hop. The word no longer shocks me as it once did, though I could never fathom white rap fans (like Tarantino?) who felt like it was okay to use the word themselves. We need to recognize the difference between putting offensive language in a character's mouth and being a racist. I have no problem with Ordell's use of the word, because it seems to fit the odious character. Tarantino's use of it in Pulp Fiction is more problematic, because it seems to be used approvingly, as proof of Jimmie/Quentin's toughness. (Look at the way he talks to Jules! What a cool guy! And his wife is modeled after Pam Grier in Coffy! He's not just a little video store geek anymore!) As far as Django Unchained is concerned, I think that use of the word is justified (more so than Tarantino's Australian accent in his cameo), but the broader criticism of its conceit is more intriguing.
Like Basterds, Django is a revenge drama, and a fantasy, offering up an anachronistic and simplistic solution to an historically complex problem. That the scars of slavery are still visible on our national consciousness makes Tarantino's decision to explore this subject matter through the prism of a degraded genre, and the movie's unpleasant mix of broad humor and brutal violence more problematic. His decision to turn Jackson, as the obsequious "house slave" Stephen, into the film's main villain throws things further out of balance. The movie itself is kind of a fascinating mess, and the response from African-American viewers has been anything but monolithic. It's a complex enough issue that I'd suggest anyone looking to criticize Django Unchained or tar Tarantino as a racist should see the film first, even if you're Spike Lee.