The N Word (2004)

Genres - Culture & Society, Language & Literature  |   Sub-Genres - Linguistics, Race & Ethnicity, Social History  |   Run Time - 60 min.  |   Countries - USA  |  
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Most people have had at least one conversation about the historical usage, current meaning and potential for rehabilitation of the harsh derogatory term that takes center stage in The N Word. Todd Williams' documentary transplants that conversation to film, and casts a wide array of relevant personalities as the conversationalists. The result is not necessarily a clearer idea of who "can" and "can't" say this word (or who gets to decide that for the rest of us), nor is there any consensus whether the newer fraternal usage has displaced the original hurtful associations. But that also gets at the word's totally subjective nature -- just as some African-Americans embrace and empower it, others recoil from it like a verbal slap. It's also heavily dependent on context and inflection, as even the same person might use it alternately to honor or to humiliate. (Toward that end, the dichotomy of meaning between the word as spoken with an "a" ending and an "er" ending is also explored). Williams has gathered just the right mix of cultural commentators, ranging from academics to comedians (George Carlin, Chris Rock) to hip hop artists (Ice Cube, Chuck D) to athletes (John Salley) to representatives of the older generation (Quincy Jones). Their opinions frequently defy prediction. But the real underpinning voice is that of Richard Pryor, who is credited with first confronting audiences with the word -- and then repudiating said word upon further reflection. There could be no more apt metaphor for the word's status as a living, evolving entity, even if the evolution may be traveling in the opposite direction of what Pryor experienced. Williams has done diligence to his history as well, researching the earliest known uses of the n-word, and including segments in which prominent African-American actors give voice to the writings of authors who have grappled with it. The N Word seems to endorse this ongoing grappling, in order that the word doesn't normalize itself in a way that's more insidious than it may appear.