What Todd Larkins Williams' documentary, The N Word, does is thoroughly explore its use throughout history and modern day America. Collecting a variety of conflicting opinions on the subject from actors; rappers; poets; and a variety of "normal" people, black and white, the subject of the ambiguity of the word is by no means made any clearer, but it's definitely very compelling viewing.
Ice Cube, for example, discusses how the word was once considered offensive during the North American slave trade, but now (at least in his mind) it is primarily understood in the Hip-Hop world as a term of respect, less offensive than the word "bitch". Actress Nia Long goes on to say, that in the context of the situation, she would never use the word outside a close circle of family and friends.
Elaborating further, Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, who has barely ever used the word in his lyrics, says that it's "crazy" how the word been flipped around by so many people to denote affection, with its history considered. Chris Rock, in a popular comedy sketch, makes the point about the word being used to distinguish between different "types" of blacks ("I love black people, but I hate niggers".)
Then there's the whole other issue of people belonging to other races, mainly white, not being "allowed" to use the word at all, even though many of them feel like it's perfectly fine when used in the "non-derogatory" sense. One white student goes on record as saying, "I think it's a double standard to say one group of people can use it, but the others can't. [...] The rap community has to take that burden upon themselves".
It's a complicated subject, and one that won't be "solved" any time soon; by the end of The N Word, you may find yourself no closer to gaining a definite answer whether or not the word should be used. That is no fault of the documentary, though, which brings a memorable mixture of serious and comedic discussions on the controversial matter, with various monologues and powerful poetic readings sandwiched in-between.
Director: Todd Larkins Williams
Producer: Helena Echegoyen, Nelson George
Screenwriter: Todd Larkins Williams
Stars: Chuck D, Ice Cube, Saul Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Samuel L. Jackson, Quincy Jones, Nia Long, Chris Rock, Michael Rapaport, Richard Pryor