Tarantino 'Unchained,' Part 1: 'Django' Trilogy?
In the first of a Q&A series, the director tells our editor-in-chief about his next black film.
But I've written a big piece that I've never finished that is about the thought process that would go into making The Birth of a Nation, and you know, it's one thing for the grandson of a bloody Confederate officer to bemoan how times have changed -- some old racist Southern old-timer bemoaning how life has changed, complaining that there was a day when you never saw a n--ger on Main Street, and now you do. Well, if he's just going to sit on his porch and sit in his rocking chair and pop off lies, who cares? That's not making The Birth of a Nation every day for a year, and financing it yourself. And if you ever tried to read The Clansman [the book and play upon which The Birth of a Nation is based], it really can only stand next to Mein Kampf when it comes to just its ugly imagery.
HLG: Oh, it's pure evil, man.
QT: It is evil! And I don't use that word lightly. It was one of the most popular touring plays of its day.
HLG: And a foundational moment in the history of cinema.
QT: Oddly enough, where I got the idea for the Klan guys [in Django Unchained] -- they're not Klan yet, the Regulators arguing about the bags [on their heads] -- as you may well know, director John Ford was one of the Klansmen in The Birth of a Nation, so I even speculate in the piece: Well, John Ford put on a Klan uniform for D.W. Griffith. What was that about? What did that take? He can't say he didn't know the material. Everybody knew The Clansman at that time as a piece of material.
HLG: Right. It was a best-seller.
QT: And touring companies were doing plays of it all the time. And yet he put on the Klan uniform. He got on the horse. He rode hard to black subjugation. As I'm writing this -- and he rode hard, and I'm sure the Klan hood was moving all over his head as he was riding and he was riding blind -- I'm thinking, wow. That probably was the case. How come no one's ever thought of that before? Five years later, I'm writing the scene and all of a sudden it comes out.
HLG: So 98 years later, you've deconstructed The Birth of a Nation through Django.
QT: Yeah, it's actually funny. One of my American Western heroes is not John Ford, obviously. To say the least, I hate him. Forget about faceless Indians he killed like zombies. It really is people like that that kept alive this idea of Anglo-Saxon humanity compared to everybody else's humanity -- and the idea that that's hogwash is a very new idea in relative terms. And you can see it in the cinema in the '30s and '40s -- it's still there. And even in the '50s.
But the thing is, one of my Western heroes is a director named William Witney who started doing the serials. He did Zorro's Fighting Legion, about 22 Roy Rogers movies; he did a whole bunch of Westerns. Great action director for Republic Pictures. And he worked all the way into the '70s.
So he was like the low-budget John Ford where John Ford was the high-budget John Ford at Republic. And he worked with the same guy: Yakima Canutt is his stunt guy and everything ... William Witney ends his career directing the movie Darktown Strutters, directing the Dramatics doing the song "What You See Is What You Get" in his film. He also directed Jim Brown in I Escaped From Devil's Island. So it's like John Ford puts on a Klan uniform, rides to black subjugation. William Witney ends a 50-year career directing the Dramatics doing "What You See Is What You Get." I know what side I'm on.
Coming up in part 2: Tarantino defends his use of the n-word and chats with Gates about exposing the realities of slavery to a 21st-century audience.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root.