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Feature: The 'N' word gets its own show

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   June 29, 2004 at 8:15 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, June 29 (UPI) -- The "N" word, long banished from polite conversation, remains a subject of fascination in American culture, and a new Trio cable network documentary takes a frank look at the phenomenon.

"The N-Word," which premieres July 4, examines the roots of the word "nigger" and the ways in which it has been used over time in American culture.

The one-hour documentary features interviews with dozens of celebrities -- including George Carlin, Ice Cube, Whoopi Goldberg, Samuel L. Jackson, Quincy Jones and Chris Rock. It also has interviews with leading academics -- including John McWhorter, a linguist and associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley; Todd Boyd, who teaches critical studies at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television; and Randall Kennedy, the Harvard law professor who wrote the 2002 book "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word."

The documentary is punctuated by readings from American writers such as Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, making use of the word to describe the human condition as it was often experienced by blacks in America.

Todd Williams, the writer-director of "The N-Word," told United Press International that -- although many participants were willing to be interviewed for the project -- he was surprised at the number of people who turned it down.

"I was really shocked," he said. "Al Roker and people like that."

Executive producer Helena Echegoyen said Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino also refused to participate, as did Los Angeles-based talk-show host Larry Elder and nationally syndicated shock-jock Howard Stern. She said the refusal is at the core of why she and Williams made the documentary.

"What has happened in America where people can't talk about certain topics?" said Echegoyen. "What it's really about for me is, how did it become like this?"

Williams said researchers for the show tried to pinpoint the origin of the word but could not.

"We talked to a number of linguists to find out where exactly, what is its birthday," he said. "There is no official birthday, but we got it narrowed down to the late 1600s, when the slave trade started to pick up."

The documentary features examples of the widespread and unabashed use of the word -- in black-and-white newsreels, on sheet-music cover pages and in other everyday applications throughout the 20th century. The unwritten rules for using the word changed radically during the Civil Rights era, then changed again during the 1970s -- when comedian Richard Pryor, so-called blaxploitation movies and even the Mel Brooks' comedy "Blazing Saddles" challenged the taboo on speaking the word for mainstream consumption.

In one clip, Quincy Jones calls the word "a very dangerous animal" and said that a lot of people -- including entertainers such as Pryor, Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx -- tried unsuccessfully to take the sting out of it by using it freely in their work.

"They've all tried to flatten it so it wouldn't have the meaning, but it does have the meaning," said Jones. "It is designed to be derogatory, and it's an expression of hate."

But Ron Shelton, writer-director of "Bull Durham" and "White Men Can't Jump," said he thought Pryor's use of the word had a salutary effect on race relations.

"He made white people as well as black people and brown people start looking at the world differently, and at race relations differently," said Shelton.

In any event, Pryor had a very public change of heart about using the word and resolved to drop it from his act.

Writer Stanley Crouch said that by that time, the word was already loose upon the linguistic landscape -- and post-Pryor entertainers ran with it.

"Once he repudiated it, it didn't stop anything," said Crouch. "They ... took it to a place that I don't think he could even have imagined."

The word has become a staple of rap and hip-hop, but Echegoyen said it only entered the idiom when West Coast rap came to prevalence with such artists as N.W.A.

"Before I moved to Los Angeles 12 years ago, hip-hop had a more consciousness-raising approach," she said. "It was far more political and far more pro-black than it became, once the switch went from East Coast to West Coast."

Echegoyen said she was drawn to the project by, among other things, the complex relationship that blacks have with the word. Some comments in the film by rapper Ice Cube elicit the complexity of its use.

"I'm a man that's standing here on my own two feet," he said. "I mean, I can use any word I want to use, at any time I want to use it, about anybody. And I'm not going to feel bad about that."

At the same time, Ice Cube said the word is "all used up, to the point where it don't offend at all -- even when white people say it."

Echegoyen said it seems at times as though the "N" word is a word that society cannot use, but cannot throw away.

"It's clutter," she said. "Psychic clutter."

She doubts that Americans are likely to begin a meaningful dialogue on the subject any time soon.

"I think the focus right now -- and maybe it's always been like this -- is on selling stuff to people and not offending people," she said. "And I think that will probably remain the focus for a long time."

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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