(The Root) — Django Unchained sounds like a pretty hard sell. Django (Jamie Foxx), a black slave-turned-superhero, slays every racist dragon in his gun-smoked path? But veteran writer-producer Reginald Hudlin (House Party, The Bernie Mac Show, Boomerang) didn't so much as blink when his good friend, writer-director Quentin Tarantino, asked him to help bring Django's story to the big screen. In a conversation with The Root, Hudlin explains why he couldn't pass up the opportunity.
The Root: How'd you get involved in Django Unchained?
Reginald Hudlin: Quentin and I've been friends for a long time. We met, actually, through Pam Grier when they were making Jackie Brown. We got into the conversation, maybe 15 years ago, about movies about slavery. I hated most of them because for the most part they're about victimology. There's only one great movie about slavery, Spartacus. Until someone made a movie like that about the American experience, I wasn't interested. Quentin called me April of last year and reminded me of that conversation we'd had years ago: "Yeah, I've written a script. You planted the seed, this is the tree."
TR: So the obviously controversial subject matter, the backdrop of slavery, didn't give you pause at all.
RH: No, because first of all, part of our problem as Americans — black and white — is that we don't understand slavery. If you don't have an understanding of America's original sin, then we can't move forward as a people. Jewish people have a saying about the Holocaust, "Never forget," and it serves them very well as a culture. It reminds them that they have to stay sharp so that something like that will never happen again, and it reminds the world of the kind of evil it's capable of. We need to do the same thing. I've been trying to make a movie about the Middle Passage for 20 years and couldn't get it done.
TR: What made Foxx such a perfect fit for the role?
RH: Jamie's an incredible actor. He's from the South. And the fact that Jamie really is a cowboy. When we cast Jamie, we didn't just cast him; we cast his horse, Cheetah, too. You haven't seen a combination actor-and-horse casting since Roy Rogers and Trigger. That level of authenticity makes all the difference in a film like this. I mean, he did two takes riding bareback. It was crazy.
His quick-draw skills? There's no sped-up camera tricks. It's all him. When you look at Jamie's work in the movie, between the emotional range of the character from slave to superhero and the physical challenges of the movie, there's never been a role for a black man as demanding as Django.
TR: According to the Hollywood Reporter, the film makes use of the n-word more than 100 times. Was there a conversation with Tarantino about that?
RH: We knew it was going to be an issue for folks. It was going to be one of many issues for people. But for me, it's kind of a tempest in a teapot. I've yet to talk to anyone who's seen the film who, after they saw the movie, that's what they talked about. They talked about the movie. They're caught up in much bigger issues. As much as the right wing tried to latch on to Jamie as racist because he talked about killing white people, I've seen hundreds of white people cheer as Django kills these slave owners, because they're bad. In that same way, when people see the world of the antebellum South and slavery, "nigger" is the least of their concerns.
There's every kind of violence in the film, and linguistic violence is the least of it. There's really been no huge pop-culture event about this period until now. So if this leads to people taking another look at the word, then it's good. But I hope that's not the only thing they're talking about.
TR: Speaking of the violence that far surpassed linguistic violence, there were scenes in the film that were almost impossible to watch. Were you concerned with how much audiences could handle?
RH: I always want to tell people, "Don't close your eyes; it's worse because the sound makes it insane." I was, for a short period of time, an African-American-studies major at Harvard, and I felt like a fairly educated person on the subject. I can tell you, whatever you see in the film, there are 10 examples that are 100 times worse.
The balancing act of the filmmaker is to make sure the audience understands slavery is an awful, evil institution, but balance that with how much the audience can take. We told a great story, and part of that was Quentin's idea of making it a Western where there are clear moral boundaries. You know there's going to be restitution, and there's going to be payback. So audiences can engage and cheer in a way that other films on the topic did not allow them to.
TR: Django Unchained has already been nominated for four NAACP awards, including best picture, which was won last by The Help. Are you prepared for some of the same criticisms about black films only winning awards if they depict black actors and actresses as "the help"?
RH: As a people, right now we don't agree on anything. There's no consensus. Whether it's by class, by gender, by region or educational background, black folks are in conflict. We don't agree that Cosby is a good thing, that Tyler Perry's a good thing or that Jay-Z's a good thing. Are there going to be some people who are like, "Nah, I don't like that"? Sure.
We can't feel that way. Part of slavery's history is that we always fought back, and we always stood up. The film is about celebrating the people who did. And hopefully that will make us as a people come to terms with that difficult part of our heritage.
TR: Do you think only certain people should be allowed to tell certain stories?
RH: The person who gets to tell it is the person who gets to tell it. There are no rules. I certainly don't want to be restricted to only telling stories about black people. I don't think race necessarily is an inherent advantage. It's one of many factors that determine whether you're the right person for the job. Almost no one could get a movie like this made — black, white or otherwise. Out of the five people who could have gotten this done, Quentin's the only guy who wanted to do it.
TR: Is this a "message film" at all? Is there something you want people to take away from it?
RH: The movie is profound on a lot of levels. It hits on so many issues. There's many a Ph.D. thesis on deconstructing the semiotics of Django, from class conflicts in the black community, our relationships with sports, white liberalism and black nationalism — the range of topics the film touched upon is extraordinary. People don't always see all those things because it's put in an entertainment context. How can it be profound if I'm entertained? I don't buy in to that worldview.