*If there is one truth voiced by the controversial director Quentin Tarantino, it is the fact that there are many, many stories to be told and he has taken that challenge many times.
Not sure to whom the man behind “Django Unchained” was directing that statement to, but it should send a clear message to Black filmmakers who are still putting out movies about drug dealers and drug addicts. Good examples, of course, of Tarantino’s acknowledgement are “Django” and “Inglourious Basterds.”
One of my favorite Tarantino tales is “From Dusk Till Dawn” in which a father and daughter’s road trip takes a completely unexpected turn. Tarantino not only appeared in that film plalying George Clooney’s brother but Fred Williamson turns up also.
Recently, Tarantino and his Oscar winning performers Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz, along with Sam Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Walton Goggins, Don Johnson and Jonah Hill showed up at the Waldorf Astoria in New York to promote their project.
The Film Strip asked the crew why they thought such an outrageous, yet courageous slave narrative was so widely accepted? Tarantino was first to answer:
QUENTIN TARANTINO: Well hopefully because it’s a good movie, and that’s not a smart ass answer. When you talk about this, you always seem to have to go down the dirt road of having to talk about the horrible time of that past, and that’s fair enough, but I hope that if you leave your house and go to a movie theater and pay for a ticket to sit with a bunch of strangers and watch this movie, you’re going to have ultimately by the end of it a great time at the movie.
SAM JACKSON: Quentin always writes movies he wants to see. We watch a lot of the same kind of movies and we talk about that stuff all the time, so he writes movies that he wants to see. He generally writes a role in there that I’m gonna do, because I want to see myself in that kind of movie. I think I represent a lot of moviegoers; he represents a lot of fans, also. When you get it right, you get it right. It’s an entertaining film. Yeah, you know there’s some stuff in there that’s horrific, but it’s a great film. When you come out of there, you feel like you got your money’s worth, and ultimately that’s what happens.
KERRY WASHINGTON: I also think the theme, the impedance for all the adventure, action and all of it is love. It’s a completely universal theme. Everybody wants to be loved, so badly, that their prince would slay the dragons—
SJ: [Interrupting Washington] Oh that’s some girlie sh*t, it’s ‘Shaft’ on a horse. [uproarious laughter from all] It’s ‘Shaft’ in the old west with a little Hong Kong ballet thrown in there.
KW: Something for everybody, something for everybody.
You’ve talked about wanting to make a Western but it is impossible to watch this movie without thinking about how slavery as a subject has been largely absent from Hollywood cinema in many years. What sense of responsibility did you have in terms of making a movie that brings slavery out front and center like this?
QT: Well, I always wanted to make a movie that deals with America’s horrific past with slavery. But the way I wanted to deal with it is opposed to doing it as a huge historical movie with a capital H. I thought it could be better if it was wrapped up in genre. It seems to me that so many Westerns that actually take place during slavery times have just bent over backwards to avoid it, as is America’s way. It’s actually kind of interesting because most other countries have been forced to deal with the atrocities they’ve committed. Actually the world has made them deal with the atrocities they’ve committed, but it’s kind of everybody’s fault here in America—white or black, nobody wants to deal with it. Nobody wants to stare at it. I think in the story of all the different types of slave narratives that could have existed in this 245 years of slavery in America, there are a zillion stories, a zillion dramatic, exciting, adventurous, heart-breaking, triumphant stories that could be told, and living in a world now where people say there are no new stories—there’s a whole bunch of them, and they’re all American stories that could be told. So I wanted to be one of the first ones out of the gate with it.
Jamie, Kerry and Sam can jump in if you want…
QT: Black question. [Uproarious laughter from all]
When you read the script, what were your first impressions about being asked to play a slave?
JAMIE FOXX: Well, I wasn’t asked to play anything. I actually saw that the movie was already going and someone else was supposed to play the role and I thought, ‘Wow, here’s another project that I don’t know about.’ [Laughter] Actually, I had a management change. To explain my acting hustle I said, ‘I don’t care what it is, it’s Quentin Tarantino and all these people here.’ These people here can tackle any subject matter through artistic ability, that’s the first thing. Reading the script—I’m from Texas so being in the south there’s a racial component—and I love the south. There’s no other place I’d rather be from. But there are racial components in the south and I was called a nigger growing up. So when I read the script I didn’t knee jerk to the word nigger like someone from New York or L.A. would because that’s something I experienced. What I did gravitate toward was the love story of Django and Broomhilda, and the firsts about everything in this film. When you see movies about slavery, as Quentin has made mention of, we never get the chance to see the slave fight back, actually do something for himself. In this movie there’s a lot of firsts. When we were shooting the movie we would comment on how these are some things people are going to see for the first time. For me, it was about the work and we knew that coming into it there would be a lot of other things said but it’s been a fantastic ride.
KW: I think a lot of times people in the past may have felt nervous about playing a slave because so many of the narratives that have been told in film and television about slavery are about powerlessness. This is not a film about that. This is a film about a Black man who gets his freedom and rescues his wife. He is an agent of his own power. He’s a liberator and he’s a hero so there’s nothing shameful about that. It’s really inspiring, exciting, and hopeful. I was very moved by the love story, particularly in a time of our history when Black people weren’t allowed to fall in love or get married because that kind of connection got it the way of the selling of human beings. So to have a story between a man and his wife at a time when Black people weren’t allowed to be husband and wife was not only educational, but again, hopeful. We’ve seen this love story a million times about star-crossed lovers. It’s just that they come from two different Italian families like Romeo and Juliet. The thing that stands in the way of them being with each other is the institution of slavery. Django’s out to get his woman but he’s got to take down the institution of slavery to do it. The other thing in terms of firsts was I wanted to do this movie for my father because my father grew up in a world where there were no Black super heroes and that’s what this movie is [for me].
Sam, talk about the psychology of your character and the relationship that he has to Calvin Candie and the other slaves.
SJ: I’m the power behind the throne. I’m like the spook Chaney of Candieland. [Laughter] Yeah, I’m all up in that. To tell this story you have to have that character, specifically in that type of setting. Quentin called me and told me he wrote a Western and he wanted me to read for Stephen and I complained about being 15 years too old to play Django. When I read the script I called him back and said, ‘So, you want me to be the most despicable Negro in cinematic history?’ We both kind of laughed together and said, Yeah! Let’s get on that.’ Not only was that a great artistic opportunity to create something that was iconic and to take what people know as Uncle Tom and turn it on its head in a powerful way; it also gave me the opportunity to do some really nasty sh*t to the person who got the role I should have had. [Laughter]
QT: Payback’s a bitch.
SJ: Yeah, it is. It was written beautifully that way so I could do that. To tell this story you’ve got to have that guy. Stephen is the freest slave in the history of cinema. He has all the powers of the master and literally is the master in the times when Calvin is off Mandingo fighting; he makes the plantation run. Everyone on that plantation knows him and fears him. He has a feeble persona that makes people disregard him in an interesting way even though they fear him. They think he’s physically unable to keep up and do other things. We used to refer to him as the Basil Rathbone of the Antebellum South and that’s what we tried to do. I wanted everybody to understand that when Django shows up, he’s a Negro we’ve never seen before. Not only is he on a horse, he’s got a gun and he speaks out. The first thing I have to do is let all the other Negroes on the plantation know that’s not something you can aspire to. So let me put him in his place as quickly as I possibly can. This nigger’s an anomaly; so don’t even think about trying to be that. I wholeheartedly embraced that.
QT: One of the things that really has to be taken into account it’s two years before the start of the civil war and they feel that, ‘All those northerners, those bleeding heart liberals can say anything they want, it don’t mean nothing down here. They don’t understand us and ain’t nothing gonna ever change.’
SJ: Even at the end you hear me saying, ‘There’s always going to be a Candieland. This ain’t going away. This is here to stay.’
Leo, it’s been quite a long time where you’re not the only name above the title—
Leonardo DiCaprio: And it sucks! [Laughter] It’s very uncomfortable for all of us.
Can you talk about what made you want to take on this role?
LD: Obviously, Mr. Tarantino here was a major factor. And the fact that he tackled this subject matter like he did with ‘Inglorious Basterds,’ taking on something as hard core as slavery. He combined it with the genre of a crazy Spaghetti Western feel to it, with this lead character that obliterates the cankerous, rotting south was completely exciting. He wrote this incredible character and as soon as I read it I was excited. This man, as Quentin put it, is a character that represents everything that’s wrong with the south. He’s like a young Louis XIV, he’s this young sort of prince that’s trying to hold onto his privileges at all costs. Even though he was integrated his whole life with Black people, even being brought up by a Black man, and lived with him his entire life, he has to find a moral justification to treat black people this way. He’s lives with and was brought up by Black people, yet he has to regard them as not human. There was absolutely nothing about this man I could identify with. I hated him and it was one of the most narcissistic, self indulgent, racist characters I’ve ever read in my entire life.
SJ: You had to do it. [Laughter]
LD: I had to do it. It was too good not to do. It was too good of a character in that sense. This man just writes incredible characters and of course, it was the opportunity to work with all these great people here, too.
I understand there is a scene where Leo literally breaks the glass?
JF: Man that was crazy. In one take, Leo slams his hand down and the shot glass goes through his hand. Now blood is shooting out of his hand and I’m thinking, ‘Does everybody else see this?’ This is crazy; he keeps going. I almost turned into a girl just looking at it. What was amazing was that he was so into his character that even when they finally said cut, he was still this guy. I think people were ready to give him a mini standing ovation at the time. It was amazing to see that and amazing to see the process from my end, of these two guys making it real. At one point, we were in rehearsals and Leo is saying his lines—nigger this and nigger that—and he was like, ‘Buddy, this is tough.’ Then Sam pulls him to side and says, I’m paraphrasing, but Sam said, ‘Hey motherf*cker, this is just another Tuesday for us, let’s go!’ [Laughter]
KW: That sounds like an exact quote.
I understand your surroundings also had a part in this film?
KW: We were shooting on an actual slave plantation called Evergreen plantation in Louisiana. That lent itself to all of us kind of disappearing into the story because you felt like you were making the film on sacred ground. You felt like you were re-enacting this behavior where these crimes against humanity were actually committed. It started to infiltrate everybody’s acting,behavior, relationships.
SJ: Crazy stuff like that happened, like when you got whipped [motioning to Kerry], all the bugs stopped making noises and the birds stopped singing. It was kind of like, ‘Oh shit, is this back’?
Jonah, when you get a call from Quentin Tarantino asking you to play a role called Baghead #2 in a movie about slavery, do you even ask to see the script?
JH: I don’t know about anybody else, but I got into this business to work with great filmmakers and so I don’t care if he wants me to be an extra in one of his movies. I mean, I don’t even know what I’m doing the f**k here with these guys; I only worked for like two days on the film. It’s kind of an ego stroke that you even want me here because I don’t really have anything to do with it. I think it was the weekend that ‘Moneyball’ had come out and I met with Quentin and he asked if I would do it, and I was just overjoyed. There wasn’t any thought about it.
Walt, as a southerner and someone who’s made a lot of films …
WALTER GOGGINS: Am I the only one? I thought we had a lot of southerner’s, Tennessee, [Points to Jamie] Texas…
KW: South Bronx. [Laughter]
Did you have any sense of a cultural responsibility or social responsibility in brining this chapter of southern history to life?
WG: The scene in the barn for me, what was so difficult about that and the responsibility I felt as an actor was showing literally and metaphorically, taking a man’s ability to spread his seed in my hands and rendering that impotent. I think that’s what slavery did to African Americans in this country for 245 years. I just tried to be as truthful and as honest as I could in order to respect the pain endured by African Americans in this country. I was just grateful to be given the opportunity to do that.
SJ: All that came through, too.
Leo, what did you learn from playing Clavin Candie?
LD: What was great about doing this roll honestly was the sense of community and the support mechanism that I had every single day. I’ve dealt with and seen racism in my surroundings in my life growing up, but to the degree that I had to treat other people in this film, was incredibly difficult and disturbing. I think it was disturbing for actors on both ends of the spectrum. During the read through I brought up the point of, ‘Do I need to be this atrocious to other people?’ Sam and Jamie both said, ‘Look man, if you sugar coat this, people are going to resent the hell out of you. You have to push this guy to the utter extremes because this is all, not only historically accurate, but it went even further than that with these atrocities!’
KW: I felt like we relied on each other because we’d be in these awful places and then Quentin would call cut and we’d all go, ‘Is everybody okay? Alright, let’s do it again.’
JF: Especially for Kerry, that one scene when they had to grab your head, we were all like, “Whoa, you took a beating.”
QT: For two days straight, too. There’s the real way to do it, and that’s Kerry’s way, anything else is bullsh*t, as far as Kerry’s concerned. She was taking a beating for like two days straight.
KW: Well, I’ll tell you one thing that came as a result of doing that though that was one of the most profound days on our set. We were shooting one of these days of picking cotton in the Louisiana heat and everybody was really hot and exhausted. You could tell that the waking up every day and putting yourself in the mental state of somebody whose constitution says you’re a fraction of a person and not a whole human being; you know it was just starting to wear on everybody a little bit. We had this one background actor who was a pastor who kind of paused everybody and said, ‘We have to remember that we are the answer to these people’s prayers. That the people who did this work dreamt of a day where you could not be property, but own property. Where you could read, where you could vote, where you can get married, where you could have a job and be compensated.’ Again, on that sacred ground it forced everybody to shift and man up, and own that fact that we can be so blessed to come here and tell this story, and not feel victimized by it, and know that it’s a story about a hero. That’s a profound opportunity.
QT: You know, one thing that need to be said here is, and it’s a shocking thing to contemplate is the idea that on the planet earth that there’s just not Anglo-Saxon humans, that the rest are sub-human—that being proved to not be the case is a relatively new idea. The idea of sub-humanity has existed for such a long time. In fact, Winston Churchill, as late as 1947; in trying to hold onto the British Empire in India talked about how we should not be embarrassed about Angelo-Saxon superiority—it’s just the way it is, and that was Winston Churchill. The idea that we all think that’s bullshit now, is a relatively, new idea.
Actually, Leonardo gave me a book because we were talking about the phrenology from a scientific angle, and talking about it coming from a religious angle. He gave me a book that was called, ‘Negro: Beast of Man.’ It wasn’t even written in the 1800s, it was written in like, 1904. I had this book and it introduced a word to me that I had never heard before; the adamic man. What that whole philosophy is to prove that Black people are sub-human to white folk’s humanity. Can it be possible that Black people are the descendents of Adam & Eve? To them it was positively, no. But what are they using? They’re using the stupid-ass white illustrations that they’ve seen in the bible that they actually feel is photographic evidence.
Syndicated columnist Marie Moore reports on film and TV from her New York City base. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org