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Quentin Tarantino's Fascinating Interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Racism and the N-Word in 'Django Unchained'

The prominent black scholar and cultural critic gets Tarantino to open up and speak to the criticism he and his new film have received.
 
 
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A wide-ranging 3-part interview on The Root with Quentin Tarantino conducted by its editor, the Harvard Prof and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. , offers the public a chance to hear Tarantino's thinking about slavery, race, use of the N-word and the making of his latest film, 'Django Unchained.'  Prominent figures including Spike Lee have attacked Tarantino in recent days for being disrespectful and exploitative of America's racial past and present in 'Django.' The following are excerpts of some his most interesting remarks:

On working with Jamie Foxx to build the character of the hero, Django:

 

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: I watched Jamie Foxx recently on Leno. He said that he was playing Django with too much self-confidence and bravado at a time when Django had not evolved, and that you sat everyone down and said we have to go back in a time machine and be slaves and imagine what that's like. And he said it was a profound moment for him. Were there any awkward moments with the cast about what you were doing? Did they ever say, "This is too much"?

Quentin Tarantino:Nothing during the making of the movie at all -- and only when it came to just Jamie's arc, at the first day of rehearsal... Frankly, it was a situation where Jamie, being a strong, black male, wanted to be a strong, black male. But we're dealing with the first 15 pages of the movie. 

But the more it went on, we kind of just worked all day, and when it was over with, I got together with Jamie, by ourselves, and I said, you know, we don't have a story if Django is already this magnificent heroic figure who just happens to be in chains.

There is also a reality that you need to play here in this opening scene, which is just before this movie has started, you've been walking from Mississippi to Texas. So when we see you, you're half-dead from this walk. There will be people in the opening credit sequence who aren't on that chain gang when we pick it up in the first scene -- so there's this just survival aspect. And they only had so much food, just so you know, for the trip. So they had a little bit of food for you at the beginning, but after that if they don't find an apple tree, you don't eat, and that's just the deal. So you're weak and all this.

I actually took a piece of paper and I made seven X's on it. And I took the little legs of the X's and connected them with little loops, like chains. And I circled the sixth one, in the back. And I go, this is who Django is when we first meet him. The sixth from the seventh in the back. He is not Jim Brown. He is not a superhero. You want to be Jim Brown too soon. It's just that simple. You gotta grow into the jacket. You have to express a lifetime of slavery. You have to express a lifetime lived on the plantation.

Henry Louis Gates:And Jamie said it was a transformative moment immediately.

Quentin Tarantino:Well, he realized that I wasn't asking him to be meek. I wasn't asking him to give up his strength. We have to build it in front of the audience's eyes.

***

On use of the N-Word:

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Spike Lee's on your ass 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.

***

On whether Tarantino cut out any scenes while editing:

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Were there any scenes left on the cutting room floor that are just too graphic or depressing to include in the film? And if so, will we ever see them, and what were they?

Quentin Tarantino:  Nothing that was too graphic. But there were versions of the movie, getting to the version that we have now, where both the Mandingo fighting [male slaves fighting to the death for sport] and the dog scene [were] even worse ... even more violent. I can handle rougher stuff than most people. I can handle more viscera than most. So to me it was OK.

But you know, you make your movie and you get it to a certain point where we've seen it ourselves enough -- now we have to see it with an audience. And this movie has to work -- all my movies have to work this way -- but this one kind of even more so had to work on a bunch of different levels.

The comedy had to be able to work, the horrific serious scenes have to work, I have to be able to get you to laugh a sequence after that to bring you back from [the horrific scene]. We have to be at the right place in the story where the big suspense scene at the dinner table happens so that will pay off.

Now, I'll talk a little bit in code, but you'll know what I mean, and I don't think it will spoil anything. But by the way, I actually don't mind people knowing that Django triumphs at the end.

But there's that moment where Django turns to Broomhilda and has that kind of punky smile that he does. If I've done my job right, modulating this movie and doing it the right way, then the audience will burst into applause. They'll clap with Broomhilda. They'll laugh when Django and his horse do the little dance. That means I've done it the right way. The audience is responding exactly the way I want them to.

 
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