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Movie Answer Man (12/28/1997)

Q. As you've probably heard, Spike Lee has attacked Quentin Tarantino and his latest film "Jackie Brown" for using the word "nigger" a reported 38 times, Lee claiming it was gratuitous in almost each use. He also said if he used a word like "kike" 38 times in one of his films, his Hollywood career would be over. My feelings: QT has a right to do whatever he wants in films, as does Lee. Your thoughts? (William Batts, New York City)

A. They have the right, but that's not the issue here. Spike Lee added in his statement, "Some people speak that way. But Quentin is infatuated with that word. What does he want to be made--an honorary black man?" But it wasn't Tarantino who was using it, nor was it Samuel L. Jackson, the actor. It was Ordell Robbie, the character, and the relevant question is: Would Ordell talk that way? He might, as a street gun dealer who is disparaging black customers he has contempt for. Lee's parallel with "kike" is not valid, because some African-Americans use the n-word, while Jews do not use the k-word. If a filmmaker wrote a character who did habitually employ the k-word (an anti-Semite like Henry Ford, for example), that could be a justified usage. (Consider the slurs in Jack Nicholson's dialog in "As Good As It Gets.") In a recent issue of the Chicago Reader, writer Bennie M. Currie helps put the issue in perspective in "The N-Word and How to Use It." Noting the use of the word in the black community, he writes: "Is this a 'self-hating thing'? I say no. Its what blacks have always done since we hit America's shores 400 years ago. We find that's given to us, or thrown at us, and find a way to make it our own...blacks took the loaded term 'nigger' and disarmed it by making it a household word." A movie is not a household, however; the word is permitted when used among African-Americans (although most find it demeaning and shun it even then), but offensive when taken outside that circle. Tarantino, in effect, has written private black dialog for a public place with whites in the audience, and that's what Lee's mad about--that, and the 38 repetitions. I felt the word was overused in the film, but would be able to understand the defense that it was a verbal mantra of Ordell's, a part of his style of speech. (The original Elmore Leonard novel, by the way, doesn't use the word.)

Q. In 1991 I suffered vision loss from an aggressive and virulent case of glaucoma. I am not totally blind, but "visually impaired." What this means is that I can get around without a cane or seeing-eye dog, but have blurred vision, blind spots and color blindness. This brings me to my point. I hope when you review the upcoming Disney release "Mr. Magoo" that you don't get too swayed by recent criticism directed at the character by certain activist groups for the blind. On a recent "Public Eye" with Bryant Gumbel, some blind advocates said Mr. Magoo demeaned the blind by portraying them as inept and objects of ridicule. I heartily disagree. Mr. Magoo was often oblivious to the chaos he generated around himself. However, he usually triumphed with great comic aplomb. I believe that's an admirable trait. When I try to describe my vision loss to friends, I use Mr. Magoo as a point of reference: "sometimes I confuse a penguin with a head waiter." I consider Mr. Magoo as a role model. They say when you lose your sight your other senses become heightened. I hope the groups offended by Mr. Magoo don't lose their most important sense--a healthy sense of humor. (Bob Leal, Bartlesville, OK)

A. Your letter expresses my own feelings exactly. "Mr. Magoo" ends with a ludicrous, politically correct disclaimer tacked on by the studio, beginning, "The preceding film is not intended as an accurate portrayal of blindness or poor eyesight." Duh!

Q. Okay, 1997 is just about past us. What one moment or image from a film this year do you think you'll remember the longest? (Jeff Alan McGinnis, Bowling Green, Ohio)

A. This is a seemingly simple question, but it has brought me to a dead halt, staring into space while a slideshow of images flickers through my memory. I can't limit myself to one. I will recall: The Titanic breaking in two and sinking. The whirling alien machine in "Contact." The futuristic city traffic in "Fifth Element." The memory reflected in the mirror in "Eve's Bayou." The ghostly images on the heat-sensitive film in "Waco: Terms of Engagement." The death struggle of the beetles in "Microcosmos." The human body used as a writing tablet in "Pillow Book." Jon Voight's wink in "Anaconda." The line "She is Lana Turner," in "L. A. Confidential." The enigmatic woman in the window in "Shall We Dance." And the woman lost in thought, walking back and forth on the beach, in "Maborosi."

Q. On May 15, 1997, I posted the message header "What's the scariest movie you've seen?" on the alt.horror newsgroup on the Internet. Now it is being used as the tagline in the ads for "Scream 2." Should I sue? Go on the news? Is there any way of my getting paid for their use of my line? (Scot Murphy, Highland Park, IL)

A. Hey, I know how you feel. Years ago I used the line "one of the year's best movies," and now everybody's using it.

Q. Why do film preservationists go ballistic when black and white films are colorized but nobody says a word when cable or broadcast channels censor, edit and butcher films beyond recognition? What's the point of showing "Scarface" without the swearing and coke snoring or "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" without the sex and drugs? There's nothing left. (Vic Stanley, Des Plaines, IL)

A. Preservationists go ballistic then, too. As when Milos Forman saw his "Hair!" on TV without a dozen of the songs, and John Boormann's "Deliverance" was so badly cut that one viewer described it as "a movie about a bunch of guys walking out of the woods looking real upset."

Q. I visited Universal Studios today, and during the studio tour the guide mentioned that Angela Lansbury made her screen debut in "Birth of a Nation." I asked the guide to confirm this after the tour, and she said that Lansbury was 15 years old at the time and played a Southern Belle. As this would make Ms. Lansbury almost 100 years old, I'm rather skeptical. (Dominick Cancilla, Santa Monica, CA)

A. And well you might be. Angela Lansbury's screen debut was in "National Velvet" in 1944. I have a hunch that guide is about to discover the meaning of "Murder, She Wrote."

Q. I suspect whoever trains the tour guides at Universal is a historic revisionist of no small talent. During one tour we were shown a building which the guide proclaimed was used in the filming of "Animal House" as the Delta Frat. When I had a chance to corner him, I told him that "Animal House" had been filmed in my home town and that the building he had pointed out was actually used in the TV series "Delta House" instead. I even took the time to visit the tour office to complain. Months later, when I took the tour again, they were still referring to the movie instead of the TV show. (Alan Wagner, Eugene, OR)

A. "Animal House" was indeed filmed in Eugene, Oregon. We took the Universal Tour last summer and had a great time, until the bridge buckled under our bus, a shark attacked, a barn burned down around us, and we were caught in the middle of an earthquake. What a day!

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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