Django Unchained aims to outrage
NEW YORK—One recent morning, Quentin Tarantino turned up at a New York hotel with dried blood from what looked like a cut on his right cheek. Given that he was there to talk about his latest movie, Django Unchained, an ultraviolent slave-revenge fantasy western in which the red stuff—in a starring role—spurts, sprays, and flows throughout its 165 minutes, a touch of gore seemed fitting.
The other stars of the movie had come along too. On a dais before several hundred buzzing international journalists, the actors Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Don Johnson, Jonah Hill, and Walton Goggins flanked the 49-year-old Tarantino, who was wearing a tracksuit and a Kangol hat.
The actors seemed upbeat and chummy, exhibiting an unusually fond reverence for their famously exuberant writer-director. But then, after all, he may be the only person in the world with the audacity, imagination, and will to make a movie about slavery in which the word nigger is uttered liberally; there’s a cotton plantation called Candyland; a man is torn apart (mostly off-screen) by dogs; Beethoven’s “Für Elise” is played on a harp before a bloodbath; and a former slave exacts sweet vengeance. Incidentally (being a Tarantino film), it is also a comedy.
All things considered, perhaps Tarantino felt a sense of responsibility about the decidedly touchy subject matter. “Well, I always wanted to do a movie about America’s horrific past with slavery,” he said. “But the way I wanted to deal with it—as opposed to doing a straight historical movie with a capital H—I actually thought it could be better if it was wrapped up in genre.”
Really, Django Unchained (which, speaking of audacity, opens Christmas Day) seems a logical, if potentially more controversial, follow-up to 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, that Second World War revenge-fantasy saga in which a Yankee Jewish death squad sends Adolf Hitler out in a barrage of bullets. And he’d already splattered his previous films with revisionist riffs on spaghetti westerns like Sergio Corbucci’s brutal, surreal 1966 film Django. Why not make his own Django, set it in the antebellum South to a soundtrack of Ennio Morricone, early ’70s folk rock, and hip-hop, and cast the original Django star, Franco Nero, in a cameo?
In Tarantino’s Django, a slave named, well, Django (Foxx) and a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) team up to rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Washington), from a villainous plantation owner named Calvin Candie (DiCaprio). As these things will go in Tarantinoland, a high body count follows.
In the hotel room, someone directed a question to Foxx, Washington, and Jackson. “Black question!” Hill interrupted. Everyone laughed. The questioner persisted. How, he wondered, did the actors feel about being asked to portray slaves?
“Well, I wasn’t asked to play,” Foxx said. “I actually saw that the movie was already going and someone else was supposed to play it and I thought, ‘Wow, here’s another project that I haven’t heard about.’ ” He made a joke, or perhaps it wasn’t, about hiring new managers. Later, he spoke thoughtfully about growing up in Texas: “There’s no other place I’d rather be from, but there are racial components in the South, me being called a nigger growing up as a kid. So when I read the script, I didn’t knee-jerk to the word nigger.”
Django goes from shackled slave to cowboy bounty-hunter hero dressed in head-to-toe suede and wearing period-correct—but nevertheless badass—tinted spectacles. His new life begins, Tarantino-style, to Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name”. Foxx rode his own horse, Cheetah, in the movie. A little later, he told a story about the horse galloping “28 miles an hour” with Foxx on the side instead of on top. “Now, on the outside I look like Django,” he said, “but on the inside I was Little Richard. ‘Oh, no, Jesus! Jesus! Jesus, stop this horse!’ ”
“That’s in my top three Django shots of the movie,” Tarantino said happily. “He’s got one hand of mane and the other hand holding the rifle, and that was just damn Burt Reynolds Navajo Joe, Corbucci’s Navajo Joe, in every way!”
Jackson plays Stephen, Candie’s head slave and a vicious twist on Uncle Tom. “I’m the power behind the throne,” he said. “I’m like the spook [Dick] Cheney of Candyland.” Reading the script, he told Tarantino: “ ‘So you want me to be the most despicable negro in cinematic history.’ ” In Tarantino fashion, Stephen utters such anachronisms as “black-ass motherfucker”.
Shooting the Candyland scenes at Louisiana’s historic Evergreen Plantation, Jackson was startled upon first seeing the extras in the fields picking cotton, “with white dudes on horses with shotguns”. He recalled thinking: “ ‘Oh, shit! We’re doin’ this. It’s almost like a Twilight Zone episode.’ ”
As for Candyland’s owner, perhaps no one was more surprised than the handsome movie star himself to don the velvet smoking jackets of the vile Candie. “There was absolutely nothing about this man that I could identify with,” DiCaprio said, laughing. “I hated him. It was one of the most narcissistic, self-indulgent, racist, horrible characters I’ve ever read in my entire life.”
Candie is an inspired Tarantino creation. He is an entitled dandy with a Vandyke beard and an unusual fondness for coconut-rum drinks, racist phrenology, and his own sister. He styles himself “Monsieur Candie”, though he speaks no French, and he trains slaves to “Mandingo fight”, gruesomely, to the death. “Mandingo fighting” is Tarantino terminology—a nod to actual historical combats and, one assumes, the 1975 film Mandingo.
Apologizing for being tired—he’d been filming Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street all weekend—DiCaprio admitted that the role was “incredibly uncomfortable”. In rehearsals, he wondered: “ ‘Do we need to go this far? Do we need to push it this far? Does it need to be this violent? Do I need to be this atrocious to other human beings?’ ” Foxx and Jackson convinced him that if he “sugarcoated” things, people would “resent the hell” out of him.
In the end, DiCaprio travelled so deep into Candyland that, filming a pivotal dinner-table scene involving, notably, a hammer and a skull, he slammed his hand down onto a shot glass and didn’t notice—or perhaps didn’t care—that he was bleeding rather dramatically. “Blood is shootin’ out of his hand,” Foxx said. “I’m thinkin’, ‘Do everybody else see this? ’Cause this is crazy.’ And he keeps goin’ and I just, like, almost turned into a girl all of a sudden. I was flippin’ out.”
A reporter was curious to know how Hill responded to the call to play a character known only as “Bag Head #2”. “I don’t know about you guys,” Hill said to his castmates, “but I got in this business to work with great filmmakers. I don’t care if he [Tarantino] wants me to be an extra in one of his movies. I don’t even know what the fuck I’m doing up here with these guys.” In a Tarantino-esque jab at the Ku Klux Klan, Bag Head #2 and his dimwitted cronies’ evil intentions are foiled by too-tiny eyeholes in their bag “hoods”.
Someone mentioned the posters and stills Tarantino acquired as inspiration for his female-revenge fantasies Kill Bill volumes one and two and for Basterds. “I think all these actors can actually tell you the feeling they have the first time they walk into my office,” Tarantino said, “and they see all the ’60s-western posters up and the blaxploitation posters and all this viscera that’s there that doesn’t exist anymore in movie posters. But that style of viscera…I’m tryin’ to get those kind of illustrations in life in my flicks.”
Suddenly it was time for birthday cake. Waiters appeared bearing four small cakes with candles and placed them before Foxx, Jackson, Hill, and Johnson. The four actors, it seemed, were all born in December. People began to sing: “Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!” as the director and his cast unchained themselves from their chairs and prepared to depart into the light December rain.