Greenbook – on the roads of the South: why the film aroused a lively controversy?

In an exchange with the public after the screening of the film “Green Book” in November 2018, Viggo Mortensen had the misfortune to pronounce the famous “N-Word”, or “nigger”. Back on the meaning of an ultra taboo word that is driving America crazy.

Greenbook - on the roads of the south: why the film aroused a lively controversy?
Metropolitan FilmExport

Wednesday 7 November 2018 in the evening. The stylish Arclight Cinema, located on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, is hosting a preview of Peter Farrelly’s new film, Green Book: On the Roads of the South. The true story of Tony Lip, an Italian-American bouncer from the Bronx, hired to lead and protect world-famous black pianist Dr Don Shirley on a concert tour. A story that takes place in 1962, against a background of racial segregation and the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement. The room is packed, and for good reason. At the end of the screening, an exchange of questions and answers is planned with the film crew, including Viggo Mortensen, named in the Best Actor category, on the 5 quotes awarded by the Academy of Oscars.

Do not say that !

As Peter Farrelly and African-American comedian Mahershala Ali sit side by side, Viggo Mortensen speaks at length to the audience on the issue of racial segregation in the United States. And to end up letting go in his educational demonstration: “For Instance, no One Says” nigger “anymore”“for example, nobody says” nigger “anymore. Stupor and trembling in the audience. The actor has just woken up, despite himself, the demons of the word banned in the United States. The outcry is obviously going viral, feverishly seizing the twittosphere. “It was crazy! Why did he say such a thing? You can’t say that! It’s sad to hear such a thing when the movie is great!” we heard in the audience at the end of this presentation.

The incident in question allegedly took place while this session of Q&A post-screening was already well under way. Mortensen would have chosen to answer a question that was originally not intended for him. Dick Schultz, a freelance director present at the evening and cited by the Hollywood Reporter, says: “Viggo started talking, and things got out of hand very quickly. He began to talk about how, in the current political climate and the world today, progress might take a long time to come. On the fact that racism comes in a recurring way and that we still face it, that racism is also ingrained in human nature and that these things came in waves. he said, “I don’t like to pronounce the word, but, for example, people don’t pronounce the word ‘nigger’ anymore. As soon as he said that word, you could immediately feel the atmosphere tightening in the room. […] A woman questioned him immediately after that: “Don’t say that!” In his story, Dick Schultz obviously refrains from pronouncing the taboo word, therefore speaking of the “N-Word” …

Greenbook - on the roads of the south: why the film aroused a lively controversy?

eOne Germany

The next day, Mortensen had it published, via the Hollywood Reporter, a press release, to apologize for having used the word in his demonstration, was it educational, and in no case, obviously, with provocative purpose. “I just wanted to point out that at the time the film is set, in 1962, it was a word in common use and fully pronounced. Although my intention was to speak clearly against racism, I have no right to even imagine the pain it causes when it is mentioned in any context, especially when it is spoken by a white person. I do not use this word in public or in private. I am deeply sorry that I used the whole word last night, and I will never say it again. “

So much for Mortensen’s act of contrition, who in turn received the support the next day from actor Mahershala Ali, his partner on the screen, also shocked by the sequence. “Even though the conversation was quite well-intentioned, it was not appropriate for Viggo to utter the N-Word. He made it clear to me that he was aware of this, and the apologies immediately flared after the Q&A session. Knowing that its intention was to show that removing N-Word from your vocabulary will not necessarily prevent you from continuing to make yourself a racist or prevent you from participating in actions or prevent you from harboring fanatic thoughts and intolerant, I can accept and embrace his apologies “.

The taboo word that drives the United States crazy

This is to say if the semantic and political ground concerning this word oh so taboo is particularly undermined. Even for someone like Barack Obama, now retired from the White House, who dared to say the word in June 2015 during a radio interview, about the Charleston bombing, where three men and six women were killed by a white man in a church where the African-American community traditionally met. Noting that the slavery and racist heritage still remained in the American DNA, he let go: “Politely refraining from saying ‘nigger’ in public is not enough to get rid of a 300 year old evil.” Words struck with common sense. Except to cause yet another uneasiness and a puzzle in the editorial staff of newspapers and other JT TV. Impossible to print the word, let alone pronounce it …

Greenbook - on the roads of the south: why the film aroused a lively controversy?

eOne Germany

To stay in the cinema department, we remember the very lively controversy that had surrounded and somewhat marred the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained in the United States at the end of December 2012. Some – the director Spike Lee in the lead – contested at the QT’s work on the treatment he gave to slavery in his film, and in particular the use of the word “Nigger”. “I will not go see the film, out of respect for my ancestors!” then fulminated the director of Malcolm X, even if the latter is obviously very far from being the spokesperson for 33 million African-Americans, who do not all share, far from it, his convictions. And the African-American director to drive the point home despite everything: “I’m not against the word […] But Quentin is infatuated with it! What is he looking for ? To become an honorary member of the Black community? I want him to know that not all African Americans think that word is trendy or chic. “

Still on the subject of the film, and to fully understand the emotional charge that the word “Nigger” / N-Word causes, we must review this interview given by Samuel L. Jackson during the promotion of the film. Interview during which the American journalist, white, is paralyzed at the very idea of ​​pronouncing the word in his question, for fear of offending the actor who, on the contrary, pushes him to pronounce the “N-Word”. “We won’t have this conversation [NDR : à propos de la polémique autour du mot] as long as you don’t pronounce it. Say it! “ launches the actor. And the journalist replied: “Say it, you!” “No, it’s not the same!” argues Jackson …

High above these controversies around the word cursed, the shadow of the all-powerful NAACP hangs over. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an American civil rights organization founded in 1909, is one of the oldest and most influential in the United States. The organization has long condemned the use of this word, whatever it may be. And even dreams of having it deleted from the dictionaries. In 2007, moreover, she had symbolically organized a false funeral of the word, in Detroit.

A word carrying a painful history

Why has the word “nigger” become so racist and arguably the worst insult you can do in America? “This racial epithet is even more offensive than insults like youpin, niakoué, boche or chinetoque” explained Randall Kennedy, professor at the Harvard Law School, in his book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (“Nigger: The Curious Journey of a Troublemaker Word”) published in 2002. “A word once used by whites to hurt, humiliate and degrade African Americans for three centuries. Paradoxically, it has also become a loving word within the Black community, and even a source of pride.” In the 1970s, with Blacksploitation cinema, the use of the word “nigga” was thus common. But, as historian François Durpaire reminded us, “this is a misuse, which continues until today for example in some rap texts. But it is obviously very different when it comes to members of the community who appropriate words bearing the scars of this painful history, the better to go beyond them “.

Anyway, it is a word that, from the beginning of the 19th century, is already considered insulting. In his famous book A Treatise on the Intellectual Character and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the United States: and the Prejudice Exercised Towards Them published in 1837, author and activist – African-American abolitionist Hosea Easton already writes that the word “nigger” is a term “ignominious used to impose a deep contempt on blacks as an inferior race. The word itself would be perfectly harmless if it were only used to distinguish one social class from another. But it is not used in this intention. He springs in order to hurt.

Greenbook - on the roads of the south: why the film aroused a lively controversy?

African Americans working in a cotton field in the state of Mississippi at the turn of the century.

Hence also a semantic evolution. From the end of the 19th century, the word “colored” (that is to say “of color”) takes more and more importance, then the term “black” is substituted for it. And finally, since the 1990s, the term “African-americans”. In the 60s in the United States, the term “nigger” remains however still widely used in the racist States of the South, historical cradle of the Ku Klux Klan, and especially grounds of reception of the laws known as “Jim Crow Laws”, promulgated between 1876 ​​and 1964. These laws distinguished citizens according to their racial affiliation and, while admitting their legal equality, imposed legal segregation in all places and public services.

Why this name anyway? The name “Jim Crow” comes from a song by Thomas Rice, an English emigrant to the United States, who was the first to perform in public, blackening his face and hands. The song and the whole show in which it was performed revealed a black from the deep South, whose character will be one of the infamous minstrel shows. It is in all this context that in 1962 in Alabama, Governor George Wallace was elected with an ultra-segregationist program. His campaign slogan? “Breaking the nigger, segregation yesterday, now and tomorrow” … This State will count, between 1882 and 1968, no less than 347 lynchings, of which 299 victims were African-American. The record, terrible, is sadly held by the State of Mississippi, which will count over the same period more than 581 lynchings, of which 90% of the victims were African-American.

“A word is not crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought which can vary greatly in color and content depending on the circumstances and the time in which it is used” wrote very aptly the American essayist, poet and doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894). Viggo Mortensen learned it, despite himself, at his expense, in a country haunted more than ever by its painful past.

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