Words Don't Do Obscenity, People Do

We have a new television network in the Southland. Well, the "we" is a bit tricky. I'm talking about Los Angeles-based Bounce TV, a broadcast network whose slogan is: TV Our Way — the possessive pronoun in question referring to black people.

TV Our Way is not a statement of exclusion; it's not an attempt to set up a network equivalent of a whites-only country club with the tables turned. It's merely a reaction to the uncomfortable fact that even well into the 21st century, the darker your skin tone, the less likely you are (statistically speaking) to wield corporate power, in the entertainment industry or any other.

Undoubtedly our country is moving in the right direction. As demonstrated by 2008's election of Barack Obama to the presidency of these United States, we are on a path to a place where skin color will have no bearing on one's relation to power.

I'm not a prolific watcher of television, but I enjoy having options. And Bounce, with its Afrocentric programming, is something new. Without Bounce I doubt I would ever have seen 1976's Car Wash — the film featuring the famous Rose Royce title song ("Car wash / Workin' at the car wash, yeah / Whoa-oo-whoa-oo-whoa-oo-whoa-ooo") — which I was surprised to find is not only the formulaic comedy (of a group of motley misfits trying to make good) I expected, but also a rather eloquent statement about black-white relations of the time and the oft-delayed fulfillment of the late-'60s promise to finally remake our country as one where "all men are created equal." There is great value in enlightening the past.

That value was dimmed slightly by a bit of typical censorship Bounce recently exhibited during a broadcast of To Kill a Mockingbird, the redoubtable film version of Harper Lee's 1960 novel concerning honorable Atticus Finch's taking on the legal defense of a wrongfully-accused black man in the Maycomb, Alabama, a story very much about considering the world from another's perspective.

It doesn't take much imagination on the part of a white person to understand how sensitive black people can be to the word "nigger"; and Bounce is far from the first commercial television network — black-owned or otherwise — to censor the epithet from a film, as they did from To Kill a Mockingbird. Nonetheless, such censorship in a case like this is misguided.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, the slur is uttered a handful of times by the character Bob Ewell, father of Mayella, who falsely accuses Tom Robinson of raping her. And to be sure, Ewell is an ugly, ugly individual, not only bigot but also a liar and an attacker of children.

It is in the depiction of Ewell's ugliness — and part of the ugliness of the Depression-era South — that screenwriter Horton Foote writes the slur. That ugliness is a truth of our history, and it is a mistake to whitewash that history in any way.

For all the understandable furor around the word "nigger," we should not forget that it is just a word, as reliant as every other word on context. Thus has the word been used in the spirit of ugliness, as well as being used in the way it is by Foote in his screenplay: to demonstrate ugliness. Bounce's mistake, I feel, is to treat both of these usages in exactly the same fashion. To Kill a Mockingbird's employment of the slur is no more obscene than its depiction of a courtroom in which blacks were not allowed to sit in the same section as whites. The truth of bigotry is obscene; its depiction is often anything but.

Shortly after Finch's son Jem has witnesses Ewell calling Finch a "nigger-lover," father tells son the following: "There are a lot of ugly things in this world, son, and I wish that I could keep them all away from you. But that's never possible." But it seems Bounce missed the point of Finch's lines, overreaching in the attempt to keep the ugly things from its viewers, even when that ugliness helps to paint the true picture of the ugliness done to the antecedents of the network's target demographic. Because what Bounce viewers hear is Ewell calling Finch a "______-lover," which is just a bit less ugly than the truth of what transpires.

There may be no more eloquent statement on the intellectually dishonest, hateful, ignorant nature of bigotry than To Kill a Mockingbird, and the Bounce programmers made a wise choice in showing the film. Where they came up short was in their unwillingness to trust the filmmakers' artistry and obviously good intentions, as well as their own viewers' ability to differentiate emotionally between varying usages of a racial slur. In language use, intentionality is what should matter, not the words themselves.

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