It was the last interview of the day at the Django Unchained's December 15th press junket at the New York Ritz Carlton. Jake Hamilton, "movie guy" for Fox TV Houston's KRIV-TV, had already done interviews with Quentin Tarantino, Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, and Christoph Waltz. He was feeling good going to his last interview of the day, with Samuel L. Jackson.
There were a half dozen people in the room — the junket production staff, camera man and the guy in the corner telling Hamilton how many of the three minutes allotted for him to interview Jackson were left. Most of the crowd were people Hamilton knew from six years of doing interviews like this.
He sat down and fired his first question. The footage of what happened next — Hamilton squirming as Jackson prods him to use “the N-word” — has now been seen by most of the Internet.
“Every day is that day that I think it’s going to die down and I generally really do think it’s going to be tomorrow,” Hamilton says. ”But it has kept snowballing, it’s kept getting bigger and bigger.”
People have been sharing the video because, let's face it, it's funny to watch Hamilton squirm under the pressure from one of the biggest movie stars in the world. But Hamilton's discomfort — and our discomfort watching him — says something else about what is and isn't off limits today.
“It has spurred an actual debate as to the legitimacy of this word. When or is there a way to use this word and what are the ‘rules’ of using it,“ Hamilton says.
Which, even though it wasn't the way he planned it, was kind of the point.
Jackson, if he let Hamilton finish, would have had to reckon with his question, which is, fittingly—when is it okay to use the N word?
“My question was going to be," Hamilton reveals, "where is that line between that word being offensive and that word being art? What does it take for an actor to read a word like that on a script page and say ok, I’ll say it.”
“You can make the argument that the word in Django is justified," Hamilton says. "The movie takes place in 1858, on a plantation in Mississippi — of course that word is going to be used. But Sam Jackson has been known — and has been criticized — for using that word in Quentin Tarantino films, specifically Jackie Brown, in the past."
According to Hamilton, there was never a point — even with Samuel L. Jackson barking orders at him — that he says he even considered saying the word. However...there is one moment in the interview where he looks, like he might be thinking about it. “There is one moment in the interview if you watch where I pause and look off camera and a lot of people have asked me if in that moment are you thinking about saying it?” Hamilton says.
He wasn’t. “It was more along the lines of okay, where do I go from here? Do I continue this interview, do I get up and walk out? How am I going to do this?”
“He’s an intimidating guy. I’ve talked to him once before for The Avengers and that interview went okay. But it’s one of those things where I have my own set of moral values, just like anybody else and I’m not going to compromise them for anyone, much less a celebrity."
“After that it was just kind of like well, we have to be here and I’m not going to get up and walk out and I’m obviously going to keep going and plow through this,“ Hamilton says.
The next three minutes passed without incident, the routine of the junket interview reasserted itself. And then the interview was over.
Hamilton edited together his interviews and slapped it up on the "Jake’s Takes" YouTube page, where the video sat in obscurity for two weeks, until a Reddit user stumbled upon it and posted it to the site.
Reaction since then has been split. “There is a big group of people who sort of pat my back in the sense that they agree that I shouldn’t have said it,” Hamilton says. “Then there is a large following of people — and I get where they are coming from — who say that I should have said it, and that by not saying it I’m only empowering it more and making the word even worse.”
“I get that and I understand what the argument is and a lot of people say that’s the point that Mr. Jackson was trying to prove. But at the end of the day, I just — I don’t say it. You can make the argument that I’m making it worse by not saying it but so be it. I’m just not going to say the word.”