Set in the South two years before the Civil War, “Django Unchained” stars Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave whose brutal history with his former owners lands him face-to-face with German-born bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz). Schultz is on the trail of the murderous Brittle brothers, and only Django can lead him to his bounty. The unorthodox Schultz acquires Django with a promise to free him upon the capture of the Brittles — dead or alive. Success leads Schultz to free Django, though the two men choose not to go their separate ways. Instead, Schultz seeks out the South’s most wanted criminals with Django by his side. Honing vital hunting skills, Django remains focused on one goal: finding and rescuing Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington), the wife he lost to the slave trade long ago.
Django and Schultz’s search ultimately leads them to Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), the proprietor of “Candyland,” an infamous plantation. Exploring the compound under false pretenses, Django and Schultz arouse the suspicion of Stephen (played by Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s trusted house slave. Their moves are marked, and a treacherous organization closes in on them. If Django and Schultz are to escape with Broomhilda, they must choose between independence and solidarity, between sacrifice and survival. Quentin Tarantino, who wrote and directed “Django Unchained,” won his second Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for “Django Unchained.” Waltz also won his second Oscar (for Best Supporting Actor) for “Django Unchained.” Waltz also won his second Oscar (for Best Supporting Actor) for “Django Unchained.” The movie had sneak-preview footage shown at 2012 Comic-Con International in San Diego, five months before the movie was released that year. Here is what Washington said during a “Django Unchained” roundtable interview that she did with me and other journalists at Comic-Con.
How does the experience of being directed by Quentin Tarantino match up to an actor’s fantasy?
I don’t know if I actually fantasized about working with Quentin Tarantino. In this town, everyone can come with rumors about who they are and what it’s like to work with them. And I try to not listen to any of that, because I find that very little of it is true. I went into it with an open mind.
I guess I would say that would probably surprise a lot of people is that for somebody whose work can be so dark and gory and violent and evil, he is delightful and hilarious and really committed to having a good time and enjoying the process of making movies. He’s a very generous spirit and very loving.
Did he give you any cinematic reference points to develop the Broomhilda character?
I watched a few movies from the ‘30s that he and I talked about, but every moment of working with Quentin is like being in film school, because his encyclopedia of knowledge is ridiculous — and not just movies. Movies, music, theater, television. He just has this limitless trunk of knowledge.
We actually have this cast dinner before shooting. He kept talking about this TV show or movie that Don Johnson had done. And Don was like, “No, I wasn’t in that.” And Quentin was like, “Yes, you were. This was the cinematographer and the producer and this guy was the production designer.” And Don was like, “Oh yeah. I was in that.” That’s how good [Tarantino] is.
Quentin Tarantino has said that the movie “Goodbye Uncle Tom” partially influence “Django Unchained.” What are your thoughts?
I’ve never seen that film.
What do you think about the controversy over the violence in “Django Unchained”? Did any of it worry you?
I will say that there have been a lot of changes that will surprise people. I have this weird thing about being really curious about work that scares me, like being drawn to it. “Why does this scare me? What do I need to be exploring as an artist?” There were parts of [“Django Unchained”] that concerned me, and that led to lots of conversation.
But, for me, it felt like this part of our history, this dark, very awful part of American history has never been dealt with in a narrative film, in a way that honors the brutality of this, what a lot of people call the “original sin of America” — slavery, the institution. And I thought it was a fascinating moment that a director who has never been intimidated by brutality and evil and gore and violence and the dark side of the human spirit, that he was going to tell this story, which meant it wasn’t going to be a sugar-coated representation of what slavery was. It was going to have those moments.
There’s this example of in the script, in the writing, there was an example of Jamie’s character Django being put in this horrific metal mask to silence him and to keep him in place. And I thought, “That’s just some crazy Tarantino absurdity. Where did he come up with that? That’s wild.”
And then, doing research, I was in the production designer’s office, seeing those masks that were used on a regular basis. I, as an African-American, had never been taught of that brutality of this history. So there was an interesting important matching up of somebody who had the courage to be as horrible — or as close to horrible — as it was in reality.
And for my character, I felt like what’s most important about this was that this was a time when in order to keep black people in slavery, there was the breakdown of the black family. Black people were not allowed to be married. Your child could be taken from you and sold down the river. That’s where we get the expression from: “sold down the river.”
So there was no marriage that was allowed, because there couldn’t be that emotional connection. It might get in the way of the economics of slavery. So here you have a story about two people who, in our own Constitution at the time, are considered only three-fifths of a human being.
And they believe so much in their own humanity and in their love for each other, that he journeys across the United States and into the depths of hell to rescue her from the brutality of slavery. And that I felt was important. And I knew that to have that rescue mean something, we had to know how horrible it was for her. To have our hero truly be a hero in a way that we’ve never seen, to be a phoenix rising out of this awful, awful evil, he had to face that evil.
“Django Unchained” is set in the 1800s. How do you think the audience will contextualize the movie as it relates to people today?
I think it’s difficult to run from history. I am not in any way saying that this film is a documentary. It is a Quentin Tarantino film. It mixes humor and brutality. It does all of that. It is a truly Quentin-esque film, but it also goes to places where we have been unwilling to go. And I think that when we don’t face the things that make us uncomfortable, we run the risk of repeating those ills.
What was it like to see Quentin crafting those moments that people might think look cool on camera?
I can only think of one moment where I felt that way, and it has to do with the end of the film. I don’t want to say a spoiler. But it really has to do, for me, with seeing Jamie in this heroic role, which I thought was really important.
I think a lot about when we were growing up, I had a cousin who used to color comic books. And my dad said to him, “How come you never draw any black heroes in your comic books?” And my cousin was like, “Well, there are no black superheroes.”
And I think about Jamie in this role being a badass black superhero and literally going into battle with the very institution of slavery itself. We have been told this story of slavery in cinema, but it’s always been some white person helping a bunch of black people or the good slaves or whatever it is. And this is about somebody who fights back. We wouldn’t have had the abolition of slavery if it weren’t for slaves who fought back — not that I’m sanctioning violence.
Quentin Tarantino is a huge fan of music. What kinds of music did he play on the set of “Django Unchained”?
All kinds of music. He changes it up. He played every single genre, but I will tell you that we actually shot for a couple of days on a real slave plantation in Louisiana, which was chilling. We’re shooting these scenes where you know these things actually happened. The sound of whipping had actually echoed in that oak alley, hundreds of years before. And on days like that, we played only gospel, morning to night. It was so hard to process.
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