Tarantino 'unchained,' on the n-word
Since 1994's Pulp Fiction, the n-word has been an issue - not so much for Quentin Tarantino but for some of the viewers of his films. Why does he use it so liberally in his movies?
Things are no different with his latest film, Django Unchained, which opens in New Zealand on 24 January. In the postmodern, slave-narrative Western starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio as sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie, the word "nigger," by some counts, is uttered 110 times.
Tarantino explains exactly how he feels about critics of the n-word use in Django. The filmmaker also chats with The Root editor-in-chief Henry Louis Gates Jr. about the graphic and shocking ways he chose to depict the atrocities of slavery in the film and how he conceived of Samuel L. Jackson's despicable character, Stephen, Candie's head house slave.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Spike Lee's on your a-- all the time about using the word "nigger." What would you say to black filmmakers who are offended by the use of the word "nigger" and/or offended by the depictions of the horrors of slavery in the film?
Quentin Tarantino: Well, you know if you're going to make a movie about slavery and are taking a 21st-century viewer and putting them in that time period, you're going to hear some things that are going to be ugly, and you're going see some things that are going be ugly. That's just part and parcel of dealing truthfully with this story, with this environment, with this land.
Personally, I find [the criticism] ridiculous. Because it would be one thing if people are out there saying, "You use it much more excessively in this movie than it was used in 1858 in Mississippi." Well, nobody's saying that. And if you're not saying that, you're simply saying I should be lying. I should be watering it down. I should be making it more easy to digest.
No, I don't want it to be easy to digest. I want it to be a big, gigantic boulder, a jagged pill and you have no water.
HLG: Well, guess what? You succeed at that. One of the things that will disturb people much more than the use of the n-word, or much more even than the horrors of slavery, was Samuel L. Jackson's amazing depiction of Stephen [the head house slave of plantation owner Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio]. His character, Stephen, makes Stepin Fetchit look like Malcolm X. Did you write that or did Sam riff on that? Was he improvising?
QT: Sam is a good writer. Some actors try to improvise and everything, but you know, frankly, if they're not just adding "mmms" and "aahs" or cusswords, that's actually called writing, and that's usually not what you hire actors to do. Having said that, he sprinkles the dialogue with his own little bit of Sam Jackson seasoning. But that character is on the page.
And it was actually funny, because I talked to Sam on the phone after he had the script. When Sam heard I was writing it, I think he just assumed I was writing Django for him. And I think maybe I even kind of assumed that when I was writing it earlier on.
I think my idea initially - very, very initially - was I was gonna show Django's little origin story in a couple of scenes and then hop to after the Civil War. And have it be a Sam Jackson, older character. And then I decided, no, I can't do that. I'm missing the most important part of the story. So I decided to stay with the younger character.
So as I'm talking to Sam Jackson on the phone, I go, "As you can see, I kind of went a different way with the character. You're about 15 years too old for him."
[In a Sam Jackson voice.] "Yeah, I noticed that."
"So what do you think about Stephen?"
"What do you mean, what do I think about him?"
I go, "Do you have any problem playing him?"
"Do I have any problem playing the most despicable black motherf----- in the history of the world?" [Pause.] "No, I ain't got no problem with that. No, man, I'm already in it. I'm working with my makeup guy now about the hair, the skin tone. I want this man to be fresh off the boat."
HLG: Why was it important for you to set up an opposition between the baddest black cowboy in the West, as Django, and the biggest Uncle Tom in the history of film, as Stephen? Why is that binary opposition important to your narrative structure?
QT: I've been dealing with this whole Western adventure idea [in the plot], which has been playing out for a while - and it's been playing out pretty good - and then we go through that almost "Heart of Darkness" section, the procession to the Candieland plantation, and then getting to the Big House. But then when we get to the Big House, my idea is of the plantation owner at that time that had a big industrial, architectural plantation. I mean, the fourth-largest cotton plantation in Mississippi, which is what Candie's is - that's like owning Dole Pineapple or something today. It's a big, moneymaking, commercial enterprise. And a plantation could be 40 miles long or 65 miles long or something.
HLG: Oh, the greatest economic boom in the history of the United States up until that time was from the cotton plantations in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.
QT: Absolutely. And when you don't have to pay workers anything, you can have a family-run corporation. So you have all these slaves that are living on the plantation, and the plantation owner actually owns them; they're his property. But then you have all the white workers who also live on the grounds with their wives and their kids. So you have an entire community living on this piece of land. And when it's big enough and you have enough people there, those plantation owners literally are kings . . .
Exactly like the way a king can own their subjects and put them to death, they can do that with complete impunity when it comes to the slaves and pretty much do that with the poor whites, just without complete impunity. They have to come up with a way to do it. But they can still do it nevertheless.
And so the thing about it is in a fairy-tale term, they're going to the evil kingdom. And Broomhilda [Django's wife, played by Kerry Washington] is the princess in the tower.
HLG: And you named that explicitly by including the tale within the tale, the myth within the myth.
QT: But when I actually got to Candieland, if we were going to really do this subject justice, we had to deal with the social strata that happens inside the plantation versus the field - the kind of upstairs-downstairs aspect of how things work between the house slaves and the field slaves.
And in the script I wrote a big description for Stephen, and I said, "He's sort of like the characters that Basil Rathbone would play in adventures and swashbucklers, where he's the evil guy who has the king's ear. And he sits at the king's side whispering in the king's ear, holding on to his little fiefdom, and manipulating everybody through intrigues of the court."
HLG: I remember those characters and hated them. So creepy.
QT: Exactly. And in Hong Kong movies, they're the eunuchs. They had the power over the emperor in that way. And literally, after describing this entire thing, I wrote, "That's Stephen to a T. He's the Basil Rathbone of house niggers."
HLG: Well, it is an award-winning performance. It is so diabolically evil and selfish and self-loathing.
QT: If I couldn't deal with the actual social strata inside the institution of lifelong slavery itself, then I wasn't really dealing with the story.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root, the leading online source of news and commentary from an African-American perspective. The Root offers a unique take on breaking news, provides solid analysis and presents dynamic multimedia content. The Root raises the profile of black voices in mainstream media and engages anyone interested in black culture around the world. The Root is owned by the Washington Post Company.