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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.

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?

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