SoulCulture.co.uk speaks to Bhavna Malkani, director of ‘Guilty Or Innocent Of Using The N Word’
The elephant in the living room, otherwise known as the word “nigger”, became a high talking point when comedian Michael ‘Kramer’ Richards let loose a spray of the N-word with a lynching reminder at black audience members of the Laugh Factory last November, when UK Big Brother contestant Emily Parr (white) told a black contestant she was “pushing it out like a nigger” last month, and even when Don Imus didn’t say it but labelled a women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hoes” on the radio last April. But of course, the N-word was a highly contentious issue long before these unexpected mainstream utterances.
Has the word been flipped to put a positive meaning on something used to oppress and insult? Is it an intended insult regardless of the colour of the lips that utter it? Is there ever a scenario where it’s acceptable for white people to use the word? What if their black friends don’t mind? Can any ethnicity use it in an understood common bond of the prejudice they’ve experienced? Should it be banned from hip hop as advised by Def Jam co-founder Russell “Godfather of Hip-Hop” Simmons? Or is the attitude of one BBC News Online reader (“John”) – “Is it only racist if a white person says the word? If so then that itself is racist! Such a load of PC baloney!” – a credible point of view?
These are just a handful of the type of varied perspectives that inspired 25-year old UK-filmmaker Bhavna Malkani to begin making what would be proclaimed by Grouchy Gregg, CEO of AllHipHop.com as a documentary that “will change the way people view this topic forever…”, prior to winning ‘Best Film’ at London Portobello Film Maker’s Convention 2006, and more recently this June winning ‘Best Short Documentary’ at the 5th Annual Odyssey H20 Hip-Hop International Film Festival in NYC. “Guilty or Innocent of Using the N word?” is a 28-minute documentary which “breaks down the word chronologically from the history of the word all the way up to Hip Hop’s influence on the acceptance and commercialization” whilst questioning the “issues around the derogatory ‘N’ word that many feel shy to discuss as it’s often categorised as a taboo subject area. “
Malkani, born and raised North London, is a Goldsmiths University graduate with an academic background in Sociology and Communications; she was studying for her MA in Media when she embarked on this project in late 2004. “I have always wanted a career in either film/TV or journalism but I had no idea what I wanted to specialise in – so after I graduated, I decided to get experience in all areas,” she explains. “I still had no idea what I wanted to do, so I continued to work as a freelance hip-hop journalist and travel. I also decided to do an MA in Media; it was only then I decided I wanted to get into documentary filmmaking as it combined my interests of wanting to be a journalist and working on film. With my first independent documentary, I wanted to cover an area which provoked discussion, educated audiences and inspired the youth of today. As a person who is deeply into hip-hop culture, it seemed almost natural that my first documentary within this area.
“While I was thinking about an idea for my documentary, I was listening to A Tribe Called Quest‘s Midnight Marauders album, the track ‘Sucka Nigga’ came on and it hit me – I should cover a documentary on the N word. It was a topic that, especially during the 90′s when it was exposed to mainstream cultures, I always used to get into a debate about. Is it right to use it? Who should use it? Why use it at all? Especially since the UK does not share the same history as America. I carried out some research and found at the time I was in the planning stages of the documentary, there were many documentaries on hip hop but there wasn’t a film that covered the issue separately. There were various text books such as Randall Kennedy’s ‘Nigger: The Strange Career of the Troublesome Word’ – an excellent text I would recommend. I basically felt that it was a topic that needed to be discussed openly, honestly and was a subject area which mainstream audiences needed to be educated on, since they were being exposed to the word.”
‘Guilty Or Innocent…’ is Malkani’s first documentary which she filmed, narrated, produced, edited and directed solo in-between studying and working. The project required frequent travelling, as it was filmed in New York City, Philadelphia, Delaware – as she felt it appropriate to carry out much of the research in America – and her hometown London. Completed at the beginning of 2006, the documentary guest-features M1 (Dead Prez), Grouchy Greg, CEO of Allhiphop.com, The Last Emperor, up and coming rapper Marchitect and many others. The film is broken down into five chapters: ‘Chapter One – Where did Nigger come from?‘, ‘Chapter Two – Nigger – The Experiences‘, ‘Chapter Three – Definition of Nigga‘, ‘Chapter Four – Nigga in Hip-Hop‘, ‘Chapter Five – Who is Allowed to use Nigga?‘.
The film isn’t aimed to draw equal amounts of outrage and concurrence from the viewing public, nor does it employ the shock tactics of a Michael Moore film – instead, Malkani’s personal perspective is not made clear by the documentary. This is considered to be one of its universal strengths, and probably contributed to the awards it has won since its completion at the beginning of 2006. “I feel the documentary is neutral,” Malkani clarifies. “In fact, viewers often do not know my opinion on the word – which was one of my aims, as well as making people question the usage of the term. Many people have made comments on the film being unbiased. I don’t say it’s wrong or right to use the word, as I wanted people from a variety of backgrounds to watch the film. I know some are going to be totally against it and some are going to defend why they use the word… There are so many issues with the N word – films, film directors, television and even other aspects of music that used the word, way before rap started using it… however, I feel the emphasis on history and hip-hop made the documentary a success.”
Success is reflected in not just the awards, but the audience response at film screenings which drew hundreds of people at a time in the UK and America. “I have had a few people in the US stating they have stopped using the word after watching my film,” states Malkani, who goes on to say that regardless of their stance on the word, “Most audiences have been appreciative that I have created events where the public can openly discuss the N word issue. “
Whilst objectivity is a useful and important stance in facilitating the debate of the N word, it’s time to hear what she really thinks. The filmmaker and occasional journalist divulges her personal view on the subject to SoulCulture.co.uk: “I travel frequently to the United States and I have done since I was a child. I can understand why American rappers and certain African Americans use it,” she begins, “- but I don’t agree with anybody outside that culture exploiting it, such as English rappers, because the UK does not share the same black history as Americans. Many people asked why I didn’t film the documentary in the UK; it’s because of the historical and cultural reason. It’s great we have UK hip hop and all, but hip hop originated in the US – as well as using the N word in popular music… Anybody that has experienced American culture firsthand will understand the cultural difference more.
“The routes of the N word are extremely negative, no matter how you look at the word – but unfortunately when you’re walking around some African-American neighbourhoods you will hear people use the word in every other sentence. Do you think Jim Jones or T.I. will agree with abolishing the N word? Count how many times it’s used in that form of rap music. It’s completely normal to them. They have probably used it in their vocabulary for years – so I don’t blame them as it’s already a part of the way they talk. I do feel English rappers who use that word are just mimicking American rappers as I don’t remember hearing the word when I was growing up until I was exposed to American hip hop such as Schoolly D. “
“In an ideal situation, it would be perfect we got rid of the N word today! I’m sure it would have stopped the Big Brother contestant if the word wasn’t commercialised. I respect Russell [Simmons] for coming out and speaking about it to audiences, as hopefully more people in the industry will follow.”
Bhavna Malkani’s long-term ambitions include creating hip hop events, cultural documentaries, more writing, and setting up her own film production company. Further screenings of ‘Guilty or Innocent of Using the N word’ are scheduled for 2007 in The US and UK. Keep your eyes on www.myspace.com/bmalkani for info.
MARSHA GOSHO OAKES.