I've spoken a few times about how an abundance of creepy sex scenes in a script often makes me wonder about how demented the writer behind the script is. I think I've even alluded to an utterly misogynistic read that was so offensive that if I ever met the writer, I'd have a hard time not suggesting professional help. When you're reading someone's creative product, sometimes it's hard not to profile them, particularly with regards to their most intense writing.
Just as excessively violent rape scenes tend to unmask latent misogynists, latent bigots often expose themselves in their own work through the use of racial slurs. Look, I'm not a PC-thug. I'm not out to revise history either. If you're writing a Civil War-era script about slaves escaping via the Underground Railroad, I'm not going to blink at a few uses of the word "nigger." It's in context, and that word was a part of those times. Similarly, a WWII script focusing on American G.I.s is well within its rights to use the word "Jap." It's not politically correct to use those terms today, but the writer shouldn't feel like they have to rewrite history.
For me, the problem comes in when I can tell that the writer is enjoying deploying those words too much, as if the setting gives him license to say all the things he wishes he could say today. I read one Western script where the writer not only had at least one use of the word "nigger" on almost every page, but his characters regularly employed the terms "wop," "Chink," "Chinaman," and "Kike." The only major slurs I think he missed were the aforementioned "Jap" and whatever word is used to insult Eskimos.
Those words popped up to such an extreme degree that by p. 20 it was uncomfortable to endure this writer coming up with new slurs, on top of the physical beatings he had his black slave characters enduring. There was so much hatred for other races radiating from this script that I was convinced the writer conceived the story just so he could have unbridled use of these ethnic and racial insults. Certainly there can be legitimate reasons for using these words, especially to show what the slaves of the time endured and show how a character was racist. But if you're playing in this arena, take care to make sure you don't alienate your audience by making every sentence consist of "nigger-this" and "nigger-that"
Context is key, but remember that at some point this is a piece of culture that will be finding its audience in the 2010s, not the 1870s. Do your best to evoke the time and be true to it without turning off your audience.
Many of you probably noticed that I didn't use the euphemism "the n-word" in place of the offending slur. There are probably even a few of you who take issue with that. If my usage of the word offended you, I apologize. I would never use that word to describe a person, as I agree, it is a vile, hateful word. There is a world of difference between using that word as an example of bad language, and using that word as an adjective to describe someone, as in "Joe Schmoe is a ______."
My opinion on the euphemism "the n-word" is that it doesn't really help. Frankly, it reminds me of the ridiculous way that many characters in Harry Potter are terrified of the word "Voldemort." As I believe Dumbledore points out, that sort of fear only ends up giving that word, and thus Voldemort himself, more power than it deserves. I think that if that euphemism were retired, it would de-mystify the slur somewhat. (After all, when the news reports on someone saying "fuck" they rarely refer to it as "the f-word." They either bleep the word or report that "a profanity" was uttered. Yet any time this slur makes the headlines, "the n-word" tends to be the euphemism of choice.)
Let me just preempt one argument. And this is going to a lead to a digression more of the sociological variety rather than the screenwriting, so feel free to head for the exits before I set up my soapbox.
I am not one of those asshole white bigots who tends to whine in op-eds and calls to talk radio shows, "How come WE can't say 'n**er' without being called racist?" Well, assclown... No one's stopping you from saying it. But if you use it, we're free to evaluate your credibility based on that language. "Nigger" is a racist word, so if you call someone a "nigger," YOU are a racist. If I call my friend Fritz Schumacher "a dirty Wop," would I really have a leg to stand on when someone accuses me of being a bigot?
Though to be fair, Fritz IS kind of a dick.
The usual counterargument is "Well, they call each other that!" Speaking as someone who's been on a schoolyard (and the schoolyards of several schools with 50% or higher black enrollment) I can say, "No, they don't." The slang term is "nigga" (no "r" sound) and there is a world of difference between the two words. Not that any Caucasians should use that either. Think of it like this: I can say, "Man, my brother is an utter moron" and we'll all have a laugh, but the instant YOU say, "Dude, your brother couldn't find his own ass even with both hands and a laxative to point him in the right direction," I would be well within my rights to kick your ass.
But to get back to the main issue, be careful when using loaded language. Shock value can only get you so far, satire might get you a little farther, but going overboard often makes readers feel like you're enjoying it a little too much.
But just to contradict myself, I thought it was implausible in The Blind Spot when the incredibly racist opposing teams neglected to use the most culturally loaded slurs when taunting Michael Orr. The fact that "digger" was the worst they could come up with left me feeling like there had been some last minute dubbing going on.
However, I can guess the motivation for restraint. It's not unreasonable to assume that the producers wanted this to be a family film and didn't want to use the slur in a way that might encourage imitation from younger viewers. That's fair considering the movie's intended audience, but had it been an R-rated drama, that oddity would have stuck out even further.