REPORTER JAKE HAMILTON ADDRESS SAMUEL L. JACKSON “N-WORD” CONTROVERSY
As an entertainment reporter for Fox 26 in Houston, Texas, Jake Hamilton is used to asking the questions, not answering them.
But the Emmy® and National Entertainment Journalism Award winner now finds himself doing just that after his interview with Samuel L. Jackson for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained made its way to the front page of Reddit, the social news-sharing site. In his interview, conducted in New York City in December prior to the movie’s Christmas Day release, Hamilton was setting up a question to the Oscar® nominee referencing the use of the N-word in the movie, but Jackson cut off Hamilton, who did not say the actual word, sarcastically asking Hamilton which N-word he was referring to, then urging the reporter to say the word. When Hamilton refused, Jackson then refused to answer any question about it. Adding insult to injury, Jackson said the question wasn’t a good one anyway. Nevermind the fact that Hamilton never got to ask the full question before being interrupted.
Almost 25 years old, Hamilton may be young, be he certainly isn’t lacking experience. A search of his YouTube channel, Jake’s Takes, reveals millions of views of his chats with the biggest names in movies – Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Angelina Jolie and Will Smith among countless others – including a previous interview with Jackson (The Avengers). Needless to say, this one didn’t play out as Hamilton was expecting.
Hamilton’s interview with Jackson starts at 13:56 in the video, which also includes interviews with Tarantino, Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington and Christoph Waltz:
Presumably, Jackson had fielded a lot of questions from reporters rotating in and out of his room that day about the use of the word, which is very prominent and said quite frequently, at some point by nearly every actor in the movie, including Foxx, Waltz, Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio. And presumably, the questions, possibly to the annoyance of Jackson, became mundane and monotonous.
But as Hamilton told me today, he had a different plan and approach to the question and controversy. Jackson’s intentions can only be explained by him, of course, but watching the interview, it’s not unreasonable to think he believes a conversation about the word can only be had by actually using the word, which, of course, isn’t necessary. Hamilton owns his choice to not say it, a decision for which he has largely been praised.
In our conversation, Hamilton reveals the question he never got to ask. He also addresses his own reason for not saying the word, despite Jackson’s insistence, why he chose to share the exchange between them, and whether, looking back, he would’ve handled it differently.
Gerrad Hall: At press junkets, reporters sometimes have the same question for filmmakers or actors – it’s the nature of the beast. You and I have talked in the past about trying to ask questions that haven’t been asked or at least taking a common topic and giving it a fresh, unique approach. From the video, it appears you are setting up the question, but Sam Jackson interrupts you, assuming he knows what you’re going to ask. So what was your actual question?
Jake Hamilton: I’m really glad you asked me that; you’re the first person who has asked me that in all of the interviews I’ve done today. What I was going to ask was: You can justify the use of that word in Django Unchained since it’s a period piece, but Quentin Tarantino – who I love, by the way; he’s one of my all-time favorite filmmakers – has used it in all of his movies, whether it be Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown, and more importantly, Sam Jackson is usually the one saying it. So my question was going to be, where is that line between it being art and it being offensive? What kind of situation, as an actor, do you read it on the page of a script and say, ‘Ok, that’s cool. I’ll say it as long as it’s like that.’?
So, that was going to be my question. And that’s the frustrating thing is that I’m reading a lot of articles saying, ‘[Hamilton] just asked a generic question.’ Well, no, I was cut off in the opening statement to my question, which I felt was a good question, and I thought it was unfair of him to say that it was not a good question when he ultimately didn’t even know what the question was going to be.
GH: By the way, Tarantino and Waltz both comment on your good questions presented to them, so you get some credit there. What’s interesting watching this is that, at first, it’s almost like he is giving you permission to say the word, that it’s ok for you to say it in front of him. But then it turns to a place where a lot of people think is insulting when he just assumes that your question is not a good one strictly on the basis that you won’t say the word.
Jake Hamilton: Right. Anyone watching the video can see that he’s laughing, he’s having a good time seeing me squirm … it’s not a bad thing; it doesn’t make him a bad person. I felt that I stepped up and said I wasn’t comfortable saying it, and it should’ve been left at that. I’ve interviewed the guy before, I’m sure I’ll interview him again. That said, it is what it is. I just wanted to ask my question, to be honest, and I felt that it was a relevant question and he was a relevant actor. I specifically saved that question for him. It was frustrating.
GH: For those who don’t know how a press junket works, we reporters sit in a hotel hallway waiting our turn for what is typically a four-minute interview with each actor, who has their own room. There is never a specific order to the interviews; we go to the room when a studio publicist tells us they are ready for us. On this particular day, you spoke with several people from the movie. Where did your interview with Sam Jackson fall?
Jake Hamilton: He was actually my last interview at the Django junket, which also put a weird damper on it because all of the other interviews had gone so well. I was so excited to have my first interview with Quentin Tarantino; in my opinion, the interview went really well with him. Jamie Foxx told me a great story. Christoph Waltz and I always have a great back-and-forth together. So I thought I’d go in with Sam Jackson and have a good time, have an interesting conversation with an interesting actor, and it just didn’t go the way I thought it was going to. You’ve done these before; you know how it works. It’s not just you and him in the room; there are probably half a dozen other people standing around you, and for me, the most awkward thing was seeing everyone awkwardly freeze and see what was going to happen.
GH: Do you know if he had taken this same approach with other reporters who brought up the “N-word controversy” and wouldn’t say the word or did you alone get singled out?
Jake Hamilton: I don’t know. I can’t really testify to that – I don’t know anyone else who had a situation like that who had brought it up. I feel like I’ve seen some links [to other interviews] to what he has to say about it when other reporters have asked, so maybe at that point in the day he was just tired of talking about it and he thought my question was going to be just another generic question about the situation.
GH: But gauging the reaction of everyone in the room, it seemed to you that it was definitely awkward for everyone else as well?
Jake Hamilton: Oh yeah. A lot of people in the room are people I’ve worked with for six years [going to junkets], the [production] crew, the people we see week in and week out. They’ve known me long enough to know I was uncomfortable in the situation…[and] if I’m uncomfortable, then something unusual is going down. So I think they just wanted to see how this guy they’ve seen essentially grow up [doing junkets] would handle this situation. Hopefully I handled it the right way.
GH: So let’s talk about your refusal to say the word. Why did you choose not to use it? And do you understand why he wanted you to say it?
Jake Hamilton: My thing is that every single person has a different opinion on the “rules” there are with saying the word – this person can say it in this type of situation as long as it’s in this way with this sort of pronunciation – and I think that’s just stupid. If there has to be that many rules and you have to say it so that you don’t anger this group of people, but you might anger another group of people, just don’t say it. If there are “rules” to it, I don’t get it. I don’t feel comfortable with it, and I don’t like the history behind it.
Ultimately, I really do understand what I think Sam Jackson was trying to do, which was prove that by calling it the N-word, you’re actually making it worse. I think Louis C.K. has a great stand-up act about it – using it and when not to use it. But ultimately, I don’t know what the politically correct time to use it and not use it is, but I know that, as a reporter, with the rounds that this video is making, as bad as it may possibly be right now, it would be ten times worse if I had actually said it on camera.
GH: So when you sat down and watched the interview, were you satisfied with how you handled it or do you wish you would’ve responded differently?
Jake Hamilton: In any situation like this…when someone rags on you and gives you a hard time, you think of all the great comebacks an hour later. I look back and wish I had said something, maybe manned-up a little bit more, but I am ultimately happy with the final product, which was just me not saying it. But yeah, I wish I had stepped up and explained it [more], because I think he said, ‘They’ll just bleep it out whenever you say it,’ to which I wish I would’ve explained to him, ‘I don’t think you truly understand the repercussions of what would happen if a reporter actually said this on camera and aired it.’ And as someone who is ultimately in control of what people see or don’t see from my interviews, it was still my call to leave it in because I felt it was an important moment.
GH: In listening to you say that about wanting him to fully understand the repercussions, it sounds like you think you would have lost your job if you had said it.
Jake Hamilton: I totally think I would. There was nothing to be gained by my saying that word, professionally or for the greater good of the interview.
GH: You also touched on being in control of your interviews and what people see of them – I think a lot of reporters just would have edited out that portion for fear of being embarrassed or perceived as being “shut down” by Samuel L. Jackson. So why leave it in?
Jake Hamilton: I just felt that if it had, in my opinion, made me look that bad or made him look that bad, then we’d be having a different discussion. But I felt like, in terms of the conversation people are having about this movie – and don’t get me wrong, I’ve said this a thousand times, this is my #1 favorite film of the year; I love this movie – but in terms of the conversation that it’s bringing about, I thought it was interesting to leave it in. You have an actor who’s said [that word] constantly throughout his career in movies, and you have a journalist who doesn’t feel comfortable saying it. A hundred years later after everything that’s happened, we’re still in the situation where we don’t really know what the rules are. And I hate to call them rules, but [I do so] because I’ve been reading the comments people have been posting throughout the day, and everyone has a different opinion on when or why you’re allowed to say it and how you’re allowed to say it.
GH: Even Jamie Foxx, in your interview, tells a story about growing up in Texas and how it was used against him. He could’ve easily used the actual word, but even he says “the N-word.”
Jake Hamilton: It’s interesting, there have been a lot of articles coming out today, and some of them are giving me a hard time for my refusal to say it, but in doing so, in all of their headlines and articles, none of them have actually typed out the entire word; they have referred to it as “the N-word” or they [use an * in place of letters], something like that. So I find it interesting that the people who have been giving me a hard time aren’t saying it either.
GH: Well, this is certainly an interesting topic, one that started surrounding this movie well before it hit theaters. And even more interesting for you, I’m sure, since you’re now part of the conversation.
Jake Hamilton: It’s kind of weird because we aired all of these interviews on my local affiliate in Houston a week before Christmas. We sat down and had a conversation about how we would approach [using the video], so to us, this is all old news. We did a special segment about it; we brought in a university professor to talk about her opinion of the situation, so the fact that it’s happening now is a testament to the power of Reddit, which is where it was first posted, and how quickly these things can come about when you think it’s long gone and completely done.