Notes from a Festival Programmer: Filmmakers, Please Stop Being So Cavalier Using the Words "Homo" and "Fag"

I wasn't sure if I should write this one. Telling any artist, any creator, any filmmaker what they can and can't include in their movies is not something I endorse or believe in. Any piece of art is a result of  a series of choices and while some choices may or may not work, some are strong, some are weak, some are just plain confusing, it's in the hands of the artist to make and decide which of those choices they think are the right ones. However, I'm a programmer for a festival in a city with one of the largest and most culturally, politically and socially active LGBT communities in America. We're a festival that has an LGBT award, if we program a film in which characters, which in films submitted to us are overwhelmingly white, male and straight, drop the word "fag" or "homo" every five minutes we have to be able to defend why we chose that film. If the use of terms doesn't add to the film, if it's more distracting than illuminating, if the use of those words don't organically (be it a comedy or a drama, fiction or non-fiction) exist as a part of the film, why should we select that film over another?

I'm personally a huge Tarantino fan. In fact, I was the only one on the staff who came out of an afternoon screening of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS who loved the film and I've been eagerly awaiting DJANGO UNCHAINED. Yet, when Spike Lee had issues with Quentin Tarantino's use of the word nigger after the film JACKIE BROWN was released, I totally understood why.

 "I'm not against the word," [Spike] Lee said. "And some people speak that way. But Quentin is infatuated with that word. What does he want to be made--an honorary black man? ... I want Quentin to know that all African Americans do not think that word is trendy or slick."

When my roommates and I, four young black men in our 20s, rented RESERVOIR DOGS, this was about a year after PULP FICTION had come out. One of our roommates had seen FICTION in the theaters like the rest of us. When we had told him that DOGS was from the same writer and director of that film, he expressed his concerns over Tarantino's use of the word nigger, but he said he would give the film a chance.

My roommate gave the film a fair shot and two-thirds of his way into the film he got up and in a visible rage left the room. He didn't come back in till we had finished and moved onto the next movie of the night.

“I am working with The English language. I am not just a film director who shoots movies. I’m an artist, and good, bad, or indifferent, I’m coming from that place. All my choices, the way I live my life, are about that.” - Quentin Tarantino

What many folks forget is that Tarantino was cast as the character QT in Spike Lee's GIRL 6. A film that came out after DOGS and FICTION and before BROWN. If Lee had taken exception to the use of the word at all I doubt the incredibly outspoken Spike would have included him. Although, considering QT is auditioning African American actresses for "the greatest romantic, African-American film ever made. Directed by me, of course," Spike might have been channeling a lot of his issues and critique into a meta casting stunt.

I didn't have an issue with Tarantino's use of the word in either DOGS, FICTION or JACKIE BROWN. In each case I felt the use fit the worlds he had created. But, I like Lee did have to wonder and be concerned why the word had showed up so prominently in three of Tarantino's films back to back. Four if you count Tarantino's script for TRUE ROMANCE.

I can AND will defend a director and writer's use of any word. Language is as much an artistic tool as the camera itself.

What is not always defensible is the why a word was used. Which can be easy to parse at times and at others can be muddy and convoluted. And sometimes there is no why. Again, it comes down to choice.

What becomes incredibly difficult to defend is when any creator demonstrates a continued lack of understanding and empathy, especially when they have ultimate control over the worlds they are creating. As Spike put it later, "[Tarantino] says he grew up on Blaxploitation Films and that they were his favorite films but he has to realize that those films do not speak to the breadth of the entire African-American experience."

Tarantino never seemed to truly acknowledge that it would be natural and right for folks to be offended when he used the word "nigger". He's defensiveness at times signaled almost an unwillingness to take responsibility for what he had written and created.

Spike on the other hand, never really acknowledged that Tarantino's worlds are specific and were never meant to speak to or replicate the African-American experience. At least not the African American experience that existed outside of a certain genre of films. A genre that, while reflected the themes and issues of African-Americans, never claimed or aimed to be realistic. Tarantino has repeatedly noted that some of his movies are meant to exist as a heightened reality in an alternate universe he's called the "Realer Than Real World Universe". Others exist in the "Movie Movie Universe" and these moves are much more like comic books and films.

SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT, DO THE RIGHT THING, RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION are by no means constructed using the same rules. As far as I'm concerned, PULP FICTION is the film characters in DO THE RIGHT THING could rent and watch, but never be in. While, even for all their intelligence and experience, PULP FICTION's character would likely struggle to last more than a month in Mookie's shoes.

For all the shocking things that happen in PULP FICTION, there's a grounded reality in DO THE RIGHT THING that even Samuel L. Jackson's Jules would be ill prepared for psychologically. From the mundane work of delivering pizzas to watching his neighborhood explode, I truly believe Jules would be rendered powerless and go into shock if he had to watch Radio Raheem killed in front of his eyes. In PULP FICTION,  the violence is integrated into that world on an almost a molecular level and its effects, while impactful, are so common and natural, they could not happen with the open regularity they do in that film in the real world. DO THE RIGHT THING is still a powerful work because the source of violence in that film is tangible, experienced by men and women of all races, classes and religions in the United States everyday as well as by young protesters in Arab countries and workers fighting for their rights in Russia today.

We receive films that have women calling each other "bitches" and "ho's", black men and women calling each other "nigga" and LGBT characters calling each other "fags" or "dykes". Over the years we have programmed some of those films with no reservations and with no concerns.

But, the number of film submissions over the years that have had straight characters casually calling each other "fag" and "homo" has been troubling. Yes, it's true that people straight and gay call each other "fag" or "homo". However, just because one replicates an event, big or small, in a film,  in a book, or on stage, doesn't mean that replication has verisimilitude. It doesn't mean that replication gets deeper to the ideas, themes and undercurrents that those events represent and what  led to those moments to begin with.

I grew up with guys who playfully called each other "fag" and while they may have not meant each other harm, their inability to connect or interact with gay men said volumes about what all that "playfulness" reveals about how they truly felt, knew and understood about sexuality, gender and masculinity. The irony wasn't lost on me how many of those guys who wanted to grow up to be "real men" never quite achieved the vision of manhood they were striving for: home, car, wife, good job and kids. Did some of those guys fail because they used some word 20 years earlier? NO. However, their lack of insight into the power and meaning of the words they used. Their lack of growth to look back and gain that insight is definitely reflected in their inability to see their own lives with clarity.

To be truthful, some of those guys are also now very successful, happily married and have gotten pretty close to their childhood dream. I'm not going to lie to you and say they were punished or that they'll likely have horrible, crappy lives at some point. However, I do wonder how they'd cope not only if one of their children comes out to them, but if their child comes to them with anything that doesn't fit their worldview. A few may be able to adjust, others may completely reject their kids and others may need some time to work at it.

Just a few weeks ago, a filmmaker at festival related a story of a friend whose mother was incredibly supportive of her coming out. She marched in parades, wore the shirts and donated to organizations. Then her daughter announced her engagement to her partner and this mother started to freakout and some of what she said shocked her daughter.

Filmmakers are free to put anything they want in their films. And a viewer, an audience, is free to be offended by whatever has been included. However, it's not the offense itself that we should be concerned about it. The ability to offend is what not only makes some art work, it's what fuels it. Without it the art is inert. Without elements that may offend, nor can a creator be free to comment, explore or document any number of issues or events. They can't raise questions, nor can they attempt to answer ones that have been posed. Without the ability to offend so much of our comedy and humor would become bland and lifeless. It's history reduced to dates and names without any of the understanding and awareness.

And it's that awareness and understanding that should be first and foremost in a filmmaker's mind. A filmmaker could never use the word fag or homo, include Gay and Lesbian characters, even have them get married as part of their stories, and still create a film that offends. A few weeks ago me and my fellow programmers watched a short film at another festival that we found to be incredibly sexist and misogynistic. It's steampunk fairytale aesthetic couldn't cover up what were some troubling messages and themes. That it won an award troubled us. Having spoken with many filmmakers over the years, I'm sure the filmmakers of that film never intended to create a sexist short, however, I can't ignore the results and go on intention alone. It was a really good looking film and minus the issues I would have enjoyed it. Just a few tweaks, or even a tacit acknowledgement of the sexism that was made a part of the story, and it might have been a work we would have invited to submit to us for consideration.

When a filmmaker uses words like "nigger", "fag", "bitch", "dyke', "homo", et cetera and they're submitting to us as a festival, we're never going to automatically dismiss the films. Nor are we going to evaluate a film on those words alone.

However, even "nigger" is not used so blatantly casual as the word "fag" in film submissions. That filmmakers aren't submitting anywhere near the same number of films that have non black characters using the word "nigger" as they are "fag", it's an indication of one of three things.

One, filmmakers are aware of the problems using the word fag and they're choosing to ignore it. Two, filmmakers still don't have an understanding of not just the problems with the word fag, but the larger social implications of that word. Three, they know the word is damaging, but are underestimating just how damaging it can be.

Again, let me stress in very big, bold letters: I'M NOT TELLING FILMMAKERS WHAT THEY SHOULD OR SHOULDN'T INCLUDE IN A FILM. I'M NOT SAYING THEY CAN'T HAVE CHARACTERS CALL EACH OTHER WHATEVER THEY WANT. I'M NOT SAYING A FILM THAT USES ANY OF THOSE WORDS WILL NEVER BE PROGRAMMED, BECAUSE WE HAVE PROGRAMMED THEM AND WE WILL CONTINUE TO PROGRAM THEM.

While we want risky, bold and interesting films, we take this job seriously and we aren't just programming films, we're programming films for our community as a whole. We are programming to reflect where we are in the world not just where we've been. As such, we will aim to judge fairly, but we won't turn a blind eye. Filmmakers shouldn't create work to just please or appease, but the "I'm an artist" defense can and only will go so far.