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)

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–ker 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 lives 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 …