Halftimeonline: What made you want to do the documentary and how do you think it will forward the discussion on the use of the word?
Helena Echegoyen: I don’t know how it has forwarded the discussion because it’s just getting out into the DVD community but Todd do you want to try and answer that question?
Todd Larkins: I had the idea initially and a number of things just happened coincidentally. VH-1 wouldn’t allow us to use the word when we were producing a Behind the Music on Public Enemy. That was a little upsetting and then it was just a culmination of three or four things that really showed that people were avoiding it and no one was trying to sit down and talk about it. I called up Nelson George to see if he could help me and then I called Helena. So Helena jumped on and we started piggybacking interviews I was doing for other jobs because I was producing behind the scenes for studios. Then Helena was great about selling it and it got picked up by Trio and what you saw was what we’d like to call the director’s cut. In terms of forwarding the debate I don’t know how much we forwarded it. It just seems like something that is just always around.
Helena: I funny thing is I don’t even know if we forwarded it because we just found out that Wal-Mart and Target are not carrying the documentary because they said its too controversial and offensive to their consumer base.
Todd: That kind of spoke exactly to what the documentary is about which was censorship. That’s a perfect case of censorship with Wal-Mart and Target not carrying it. They’d much rather carry ignorant and degrading faire that demeans black people instead of something that is an intelligent discussion on race and language in America.
Helena: It is carried at Borders, Tower, and other places. We won a Peabody for making this documentary, which is equivalent to winning a Pulitzer Prize, so the truth is its nonsense and it’s not over. We’re not giving up on getting it into Target and Wal-Mart, so go into your local Target or Wal-Mart and say I demand my ‘˜N-Word’ documentary!
Halftime: What is each of your views on the use of the word inside the black community as well as outside?
Helena: I think it’s overused and used with very little grace. I think American culture, as well as world culture, is pretty vulgar. I just think all our restraints and good tastes have fallen away. I think one of the great things we got into the documentary was the old footage of Richard Pryor. Like Whoopi Goldberg said, he was one of the people who used the word artfully. It’s never been as beautifully used as he used it. He managed to take something that wasn’t very attractive and really bring a certain amount of elegance and poignancy to it. If I had to say something about the word now I would say it isn’t used artfully at all. It’s always used as something meaningless at best and grotesque at worst.
Todd: I would agree.
Halftime: During some of the interview with white people on their use of the word I felt that more than a few of them were uncomfortable discussing it. Did you find that some white people were resistant to discussing their use of the word?
Todd: I didn’t get that at all and to be clear I wasn’t present at all of the man-on-the-street interviews. Nelson did some of them and another journalist did some of the others. I didn’t ever get the feeling that they were nervous. There is always a bit of awkwardness because white people don’t have these type of discussions for a number of reasons, one being that race doesn’t effect them in America. The ones I talked to were very vocal and they understood the importance of what we were trying to do. Oddly enough I asked some other white celebrities I had worked with in some capacity or knew their people and most of them wanted to do it but were afraid of a backlash. And the worst thing you want to do as a white celebrity is go on television and defend your use of the word because then you’ll be branded as a racist. That’s a danger for every white person going in front of a camera and you ask them a question like that.
Helena: And for better or for worse we live in a thirty second sound bite culture so once you say something you can’t control the context in which it will be repeated. I think people are afraid that if I say nigger on TV I will forever be branded as the celebrity who said nigger on TV.
Halftime: Which is probably exactly what would happen, Haha. What would you say was the most surprising revelations or discoveries that you found that you didn’t expect going into producing the documentary?
Helena: I don’t know, I think the most surprising thing is that Target doesn’t want to carry it. You mean you can carry ‘˜Gangsta Party’ and ‘˜The Watermelon Heist’ but you can’t carry ‘˜The N-Word’? I think that what I’m still tripping off of is that we live in a culture where people want to not talk about things. They don’t want to address things they just want them to go away. They don’t want to address racial injustice, gender bias or immigration they just want it to go away by itself. It’s like a weird magical way of thinking. That’s what’s most surprising to me because instead of going forward we seem to be going backwards.
Todd: I guess one of the things that struck me as odd was the number of black people who did not want to talk about it and felt it would be better to just let it go away instead of talk about it. That shocked me because of the amount of white people we asked we got most of them and of the black people we asked we probably got the least.
Helena: Granted we asked more black people but in terms of sheer percentages we got more black people who didn’t want to talk about it.
Todd: That was probably the biggest surprise from the production standpoint but I was continually frustrated that no one wanted to do buy the documentary. At the end of the day two people who are both gay and Jewish were the main ones championing this project.
Halftime: What do you hope to have people take away from watching this documentary and what type of reactions have you gotten thus far from people who have viewed it?
Todd: It’s been overwhelming. From the initial release on TV Helena and I did a lot of interviews and people were very excited about it. We didn’t get anything negative. The big questions were why now and if we felt this would put the death nail in the nigger issue to which our answer was no. As far as what I want people to get out of it I made sure I took a historical approach to do the best I could to show where the word came from although there was no definitive answer. The other thing was I wanted it to be fun and entertaining, which sounds trivial making a documentary on the word nigger fun but that was the goal so people would tune in. That’s why we didn’t have a voice over. By not having one it allowed us as filmmakers to step back and let the story take on a life of its own.
Helena: We never had a definitive opinion on the use of the word and for me personally I still don’t but we didn’t want to make a film where the point was we were going to tell you how to behave. I’d rather not do that, we’d rather make a film where people would sit and talk about it after it’s over and I think we accomplished that.
Halftime: With shows like the Chappelle show and The Boondocks bringing the word nigga to basic cable and the growth of uncensored satellite radio what type of discussions do you think we’ll be having about this word in five years?
Todd: I don’t know if nigga is gonna figure as prominently as illegal immigrant. It’s gonna lose some of its power and impact. I don’t think white people are gonna get into conversations about it but they see the complexity in it and they know that they see black people calling themselves this all day long so it can’t be as hurtful as it used to be.
Helena: It’s a generational thing at this point honestly. It has to be painful for old southerners and white supremacists to hear young black people use the word so effectively. At some point it has to change context.
Todd: I think it’s like the Jew who goes back to Berlin and he is talking to somebody and says that I’m a holocaust victim. The German that is there gets nervous because whether you agree with it or not you participated in this. For white people they participated in one of the greatest atrocities in North America through the enslavement of black people. Nigger is as important to that as wearing the Star of David on your clothes. But as Helena said it’s a generational thing. White southern baby boomers feel guilty about it and want it to go away but for Gen-xers it doesn’t carry as much wait and for the ones after that it will hold even less weight.