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An Entire Drama in One Word When Lifetime's 'Any Day Now' confronted the power of a racial epithet, emotions ran high on and off the screen.

February 18, 2001|JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN | Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

"Of course she's going to keep saying 'nigger,' that's the whole point," yells writer Denitra Harris Lawrence across the crowded courtroom set of "Any Day Now." She's 10 hours into a production day that started well before daybreak on the Lifetime series' third-season finale, a special two-hour episode airing in March, in which Birmingham civil rights attorney Rene Jackson (Lorraine Toussaint) puts the racial epithet on trial.

Aside from the long hours, Harris Lawrence says, this has been a particularly difficult episode to shoot. "Everyone around here, in the beginning was a little uncomfortable hearing the word so much," says Harris Lawrence, who is African American.

But this episode is supposed to prompt those squeamish feelings, or at the very least provoke a little thoughtful discussion among its viewers on the way in which the word has become one of the most loathed in the English language, evoking images of hatred and fear in some; while at the same time, others have chosen to embrace it as a way of empowerment--with the divisions running along racial and generational lines.

This is, of course, typical of the brave little cable series that navigates the treacherous regions of race and racism in America. It's this journey into the muddied waters of bigotry that other prime-time series--broadcast or cable--have largely stayed away from since the days of "All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons." But that is precisely what fuels the drama, from creators Nancy Miller and Gary A. Randall, that follows the friendship between Jackson, who is black, and her childhood pal, Mary Elizabeth O'Brien (Annie Potts), a white housewife. Both live in the same Alabama town they grew up in during the '60s civil rights movement. And now the show's executive producers are dipping into the creme de la creme of the indigestible smorgasbord left over from Jim Crow.

"I read a story about a kid who was kicked out of school [for fighting] because someone called him a 'nigger,' " Miller explains. "Then I read in the Los Angeles Times about a black kid who went up to another black kid and said, 'Whassup nigga,' and he got expelled because the school has a zero tolerance policy about using this word, and then a guy loses his job because he said the word 'niggardly.' And from the O.J. [Simpson murder] case . . . how the press coined the 'N-word' to talk about things that were going on in the courtroom. And it got me thinking about this word, and how there's just no other word in our language that is as horrible as that.

"I think there is a distinction between the white point of view and the black point of view about this word," Miller continues, "and I don't think the hip-hop movement will diminish the ugliness of this word. It's still too volatile. [I'm] a white person from the South who knows the hatefulness of that word--all the people who got hurt from that word, who died from that word. It's just so hard to see it as benign."

In the episode titled "It's Not Just a Word," the first hour written by Miller, the second half by Harris Lawrence, Jackson finds herself in the middle of an unusual self-defense case. Her argument: that an African American high school basketball player who hit, and subsequently killed, a white student retaliated in fear for his life after being called a nigger. This despite the fact that his best friend and key witness, Ajoni (Derrex Brady), who's also Mary Elizabeth's black son-in-law, perceived no immediate danger from the use of the slur.

It's not just a case of sticks and stones and words that cannot hurt. But whether the very utterance of the word--though bandied about in music and movies, and sometimes used in an affectionate way among African Americans--can also be regarded as a threat to an African American. "You will find old white people of a certain generation who will still, to this day, use the word as the most derogatory insult that can be hurled," Toussaint says during a break from taping the heated courtroom scene. "It's a word of violence and an awful, awful word.

"And then you have the other end of the spectrum," she continues, "young people--young blacks, young Asians, young whites--who are referring to each other as 'My nigga' like 'That's my boy,' " she says, admitting, "I use it as a term of endearment. I surely do--among my peers and with my significant other, as we say in the community, with my man. And there are some people who don't approve of that. It's a personal choice. But that's the interesting thing about this word, because it has evolved. African Americans secretly reclaimed this word unbeknownst to most of the white community, and for two or three generations, it really was our own, and we kept it as our own. Now it's out. Everybody's saying it now."

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