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"The N Word": A Review by Briana Williams

The following review was written by Briana Williams, a Chicago high school student, as part of Columbia College Chicago's Columbia Links journalism program for high school students. RogerEbert.com has partnered with the Chicago Urban League and Columbia Links to mentor these students and to give them a platform for their writing. Read more about the program here.


"The N Word"

Directed by Todd Williams

4 stars

No matter how many times it’s heard or in what context, the N-word makes people uncomfortable. Many have pondered its meaning. Where did it originate? How was turned into a derogatory term? What movement made the word “cool”? But most importantly, who is allowed to use it?

Filmmaker Todd Williams’ cutting-edge documentary “The N Word” explores the evolution and controversy surrounding the acceptance of the word in the African-American community. The use of the N-word affects everyone differently. This documentary not only dives into the etymology of the word and how those interpretations shape its acceptance, but it also explores the generational differences in how the word is understood. An integration of interviews from a broad range of ages, careers and social status permits the viewer to have a rounded view of how people feel about it. Chris Rock, Nia Long, Samuel Jackson, Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy and director Brett Ratner are examples of the different points-of-view that come together to create this brilliant mash-up of ideas about society and the shifts in culture around one word.

Ostentatious language is used in its best form throughout the film. Instead of sugarcoating what seems to be a topic most people wouldn’t have the nerve to speak freely about, the interviewees spoke truthfully and with no restrictions. To truly engage the viewer, Williams did an amazing job of incorporating clips from films and even full prose and poetry pieces in-between segments of the documentary to evoke a more emotional and insightful view on the struggles black people have overcome. These pieces really put into perspective the way this word has stuck with the culture past everything else and made a statement.

The documentary begins with people recalling the first time they had ever been called the N-word. Some feel it was used venomously, while others had first heard it from another black person, which desensitized them to the derogatory nature of the word. A montage of the N-word is whispered in the background several times during the film which gives the viewer a sense of comfort with the word. Black people have begun to own the word and take away its negative connotation by giving it a new image and definition.

But, before giving it a new definition, they had to figure out the origins of the word. The shattering truth is that no one really knows. Linguists traced the word back to the 17th Century and believe it is derived from the Latin word for black which is “niger.” Each definition is broken down and explained. The first contemporary definition of the word is a term used by non-blacks to indicate that a black person is of inferior caste. The second definition is a word used as an affectionate leveler, which can be seen as true because of the revamp of the word. The third definition raises the issue of teens who are not black using the word to be “cool.”

Hip-hop made the word mainstream and it gained acceptance. As the word integrated into rap music, it also migrated to other cultures and in a way gave them permission to use the word as long as it was not in a derogatory form. Williams interviews people on the streets and ask their opinion of the public’s use of the word. The response was mixed. Some people thought it was okay to use the word and others felt it was still insulting to the African-American community.

The overall consensus of “The N Word” documentary is that the word is here to stay. There is no way it will go away. Removing the N-Word is like erasing a part of history. It isn’t the word that is bad; it’s the connotation and the meaning people associate with the word.

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