I flew from JFK to LAX this week and, instead of doing work, decided to watch movies that were available for free in my Delta In-Flight Entertainment. I watched the new Riddick (2013) starring Vin Diesel, and Pain and Gain (2013) starring (Marky) Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson. Both action movies were expletive ridden, and rife with all the trappings of hegemonic masculinity, including objectification of women, rape jokes, and homophobia; Pain and Gain even featured a graphic strip club scene with bare breasts, thongs, and simulated sex. Although somewhat offensive, it was not unexpected.
What was unexpected was the unnecessary censorship in first scene of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. After a young slave master rapes an enslaved woman played by Mariah Carey, her husband stands up to the rapist and is shot in the head in front of his 10-year-old son. As the boy cries over his dead father, the woman of the house played by Vanessa Redgrave takes pity on the boy and tells him, “I’m going to teach you how to be a house…”
I was appalled. With all of the violence, sexual references, homophobia, and overt bigotry in Riddick and Pain and Gain left uncensored on Delta, the powers that be decided that the word “n*gger” was too offensive even in a historical scene. Furthermore, the censorship of the work confused the entire line. She is going to teach the boy how to be a house? How is that even possible? I realized that it was pointless to continue watching the movie given that Delta executives believed that the message of the movie was not acceptable to be shown in the airplane, even though they chose to make the movie freely available.
This is only the most recent manifestation of American hypocrisy when it comes to social categories and what is considered offensive and censorship worthy. Nevermind that both Riddick and Pain and Gain featured men dying in very graphic on screen scenes (Riddick slices a man’s head in half with a machete and the top half of the head slides into a box; Pain and Gain features multiple torture scenes and skull crushed by weights), content that can be seen by anyone passing by in the aisle; simply the word “n*gger,” only consumable via headphones worn by the passenger immediately in front of the screen, is too offensive to include. I am just grateful I didn’t bother to watch Fruitvale Station.
In 2011, Larry Wilmore discussed the attempt to edit the word “n*gger” to “slave” in Huckleberry Finn. However, this seemingly simple edit disregards the historic importance of the word…
“Mark Twain put that word in for a reason. The n-word speaks to a society that casually dehumanized black people. Slave was just a job description. And it’s not even accurate — in the book Jim is no longer a slave, he ran away. Twain’s point is that he can’t run away from being a nigger.”