Tarantino ‘Unchained,’ Part 2: On the N-Word

In the second of a Q&A series, he talks critics and Django's depiction of slavery with Henry Louis Gates Jr.

A scene from Django Unchained (Weinstein Co.); Quentin Tarantino (Getty Images)
A scene from Django Unchained (Weinstein Co.); Quentin Tarantino (Getty Images)

(The Root) — 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, opening Christmas Day. 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.

In the second part of a three-part interview with The Root’s editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Tarantino explains exactly how he feels about critics of the n-word use in Django. The filmmaker also chats with Gates 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 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.

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.