On Reasonable Doubt, Jax Stewart (played by Emayatzy Corinealdi) is a sharp-minded, sharp-tongued and sharply dressed attorney at law who untangles some of the most complicated cases, all the while weaving her own web behind the scenes. She’s separated from her husband, having an affair with an ex-con, and (hopefully) dodging a bullet from the gun currently cocked at her forehead.
Just like she throws back her cocktails, Jax has no issues throwing around the N-word liberally to emphasize the situations and men in her life, even using it to describe her own son. In fact, this week’s episode is entitled, “N**** What, N**** Who.” Like all of the show’s episodes, it's in reference to a Jay-Z song, along with the series title, which is the same name as Jay-Z’s debut album that dropped in 1996.
Pete Chatmon, who co-produces and directed the second and Reasonable Doubt's upcoming season finale (airing November 15, 2022), explains why this part of Jax’s character is essential.
“I think that oftentimes we self-censor and self-govern—not for us, but for them. There’s a certain point when we do what we do normally and don't consider how it is received by them.”
Reasonable Doubt is the first drama from Disney’s Onyx Collective, a new brand for curated content. “You've got an all-Black writers' room, all-Black directors and all-Black executives,” who are working together to bring this voice to the screen. “Jax is a full, well-rounded window into a Black woman's experience that doesn't often get shown,” Chatmon says.
The series isn’t the first cinematic production to utilize the N-word on a regular basis. Filmmaker Spike Lee has used the word in his projects. In an interview with TV Guide, Insecure creator Issa Rae, whose HBO hit used the word repeatedly, stated, ”The word is ours. It's ours to decide what we do with it."
“Historically, folks who considered themselves part of the hip hop generation, particularly those born after 1973, use the N-word as a term of endearment, or are not offended by it,” says Dr. Daniel Jean, Assistant Provost for Special Programs at Montclair State University. “There is a notion that the word has been reclaimed and can be used exclusively by Black and Latinx folks who created the global hip hop culture in the destitute ruins of the South Bronx in the early 1970s."
Comedian Richard Pryor was a pioneer in using the N-word in the 1970s. One of his albums has the N-word as part of its title. He later denounced the use of it.
Chatman does emphasize with people who may be jarred hearing the N-word used so freely.
“I would never try and campaign and try to justify it for them,” he asserts. “I do feel that we are victim to, as far as it pertains to [media] content of the Black experience, we have so little of it. So we have to put an increased level of scrutiny and value on the things that do come out.”
And in this case, it's exploring an aspect of the Black experience that embraces the N-word. “I'm not in the writers' room, but what I think is being done is that this is a show for us," Chatmon surmises. "And there are folks for whom this is exactly what it is, day in and day out.”
Reasonable Doubt airs Wednesdays on Hulu.