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The following review was written by Brandon Towns, 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
Todd Williams’ 2004 documentary “The N Word” is an accomplished film. The director’s technique really shines with clever edits, pop culture references and appealing color to keep the audience’s attention.
The film opens with quick cuts between interviews with historians and stock footage from African-American history, some dipped in sepia tint color, which establishes the N-word as a part of black history and its continuation today. This powerful film brings to question the use of the word and its relevance.
Director Williams creates a dividing line between the new school and old school definition of the word and its impact through seamless camera angles. He uses a more stable eye level shot for the interviewee who is confirmed and concrete in their definition, while he uses a Dutch angle on those who are uncertain. The film’s great use of allusions provides insight into the N-word as rooted in the African-American culture while presenting a humorous take on the subject through the comedic styles of Richard Pryor and Chris Rock.
This structure also creates a dramatic atmosphere as Williams inserts quotes from historical figures, thought-provoking poetry and famous literature such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” These ideologies form a breakage from the traditional layout of the film, keeping the pace dynamic. During this breakage, director Williams creates suspense through extreme close-ups and conveys a serious tone through music. Each break cleverly presents three generations of insight on the N-word, and its usage for that time.
In its essence the film asks several questions, which are unanswered, and provokes a debate. A particular debate topic that stood out to me was: “Is it okay for white people to say the N-word?” Williams remains unbiased about this question by showing both sides of argument. It was interesting to see the contrast between the various beliefs and it’s difficult for the audience to take sides.
Furthermore, “The N Word” is an extremely stylized visual wonder that takes an interesting look into the most controversial word in the English language. It creates suspense while maintaining its comedic tone through playful pacing and fast cuts.
“The N Word” is a must-see.
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