(The Root) — If you thought Quentin Tarantino was done with historical revenge fantasies after Inglourious Basterds and his latest, Django Unchained — a "postmodern, slave-narrative Western," in the words of The Root's editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr. — you'd be wrong.
The spaghetti Western-inspired Django Unchained, in theaters Dec. 25, depicts the horrors of slavery — with graphic violence and racial slurs aplenty — in the antebellum South with the irreverence we've come to expect from a Tarantino film. Of course, the epic tale, about a slave-turned-bounty hunter (Jamie Foxx) on a mission to free his wife (Kerry Washington) from a brutal Mississippi cotton plantation with the help of his mentor (Christoph Waltz), has generated praise from black critics and intellectuals, as well as criticism. In part 1 of a three-part, sweeping interview with The Root's resident scholar of the slave narrative, Tarantino details his idea for a Django-Inglourious Basterds trilogy, Foxx's initial disconnect with his title character and the scene that The Birth of a Nation indirectly inspired.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: You've targeted Nazis in Inglourious Basterds and slave owners in Django Unchained. What's next on the list of oppressors to off?
Quentin Tarantino: I don't know exactly when I'm going to do it, but there's something about this that would suggest a trilogy. My original idea for Inglourious Basterds way back when was that this [would be] a huge story that included the [smaller] story that you saw in the film, but also followed a bunch of black troops, and they had been f—ked over by the American military and kind of go apes—t. They basically — the way Lt. Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt) and the Basterds are having an "Apache resistance" — [the] black troops go on an Apache warpath and kill a bunch of white soldiers and white officers on a military base and are just making a warpath to Switzerland.
So that was always going to be part of it. And I was going to do it as a miniseries, and that was going to be one of the big storylines. When I decided to try to turn it into a movie, that was a section I had to take out to help tame my material. I have most of that written. It's ready to go; I just have to write the second half of it.
HLG: That might very well be the third of the trilogy.
QT: That would be the third of the trilogy. It would be [connected to] Inglourious Basterds, too, because Inglourious Basterds are in it, but it is about the soldiers. It would be called Killer Crow or something like that.
HLG: When would it be set?
QT: In '44. It would be after Normandy.
HLG: I watched Jamie Foxx recently on Leno. He said that he was playing Django with too much self-confidence and bravado at a time when Django had not evolved, and that you sat everyone down and said we have to go back in a time machine and be slaves and imagine what that's like. And he said it was a profound moment for him. Were there any awkward moments with the cast about what you were doing? Did they ever say, "This is too much"?
QT: Nothing during the making of the movie at all — and only when it came to just Jamie's arc, at the first day of rehearsal, just when it was him and Christoph Waltz [who plays King Schultz].
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HLG: Tell me about it.
QT: Frankly, it was a situation where Jamie, being a strong, black male, wanted to be a strong, black male. But we're dealing with the first 15 pages of the movie. And I noticed that he almost had an attitude about Schultz. I said, well, I'm not going to correct him. Let's just let this play out. Let him get some of this out of his system. Let him go his own way. I don't want to rush to judgment here, either.
But the more it went on, we kind of just worked all day, and when it was over with, I got together with Jamie, by ourselves, and I said, you know, we don't have a story if Django is already this magnificent heroic figure who just happens to be in chains.
There is also a reality that you need to play here in this opening scene, which is just before this movie has started, you've been walking from Mississippi to Texas. So when we see you, you're half-dead from this walk. There will be people in the opening credit sequence who aren't on that chain gang when we pick it up in the first scene — so there's this just survival aspect. And they only had so much food, just so you know, for the trip. So they had a little bit of food for you at the beginning, but after that if they don't find an apple tree, you don't eat, and that's just the deal. So you're weak and all this.
I actually took a piece of paper and I made seven X's on it. And I took the little legs of the X's and connected them with little loops, like chains. And I circled the sixth one, in the back. And I go, this is who Django is when we first meet him. The sixth from the seventh in the back. He is not Jim Brown. He is not a superhero. You want to be Jim Brown too soon. It's just that simple. You gotta grow into the jacket. You have to express a lifetime of slavery. You have to express a lifetime lived on the plantation.
HLG: And Jamie said it was a transformative moment immediately.
QT: Well, he realized that I wasn't asking him to be meek. I wasn't asking him to give up his strength. We have to build it in front of the audience's eyes.
HLG: Right. The character has to be dynamic. There has to be, in other words, a narrative arc.
QT: And the fact is, Django is an exceptional human being. That's why he is able to rise to this occasion. We don't have to show that in the first scene.
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HLG: Did you, as a white director, and your black characters have disagreements or moral dilemmas that clashed when you were making decisions like this?
QT: I never, ever relate or touch base with Quentin when I'm writing my pieces — people can say to a fault. I follow the characters wherever they want to go.
The most I have anything to say in the matter maybe happens in the first half of the story, because I have to plan it out a little bit, build the road a touch, but I don't try to figure out much more as far as the story is concerned from the second half on. Because I know by that time — and you're trying to predetermine something before you're actually writing — by the time I'm actually writing, I've gotten to half of the story.
Now everything's different. I'm now those people. I've learned more about them. I am them. They are going their own way. And I might have some places I want them to go. Usually they take their time about getting there. But sometimes they get there. And if they don't want to go there, if they want to go their own way, that's them telling me it's bulls—t. So I follow their way. For better or for worse.
So the characters really dictate and really decide. All my characters are coming from me. I don't think twice about my female characters or my male characters, my black characters or my white characters. And when I come into it, it really is to clean up plotting.
HLG: Let's see: We have Lincoln playing; Steve McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave is about to come out in the next year, I suppose; I'm co-producing a feature film on Frederick Douglass for Sony with Peter Almond and Rudy Langlais — that's in development. [Editor's note: Sony Pictures is the international distributor for Django Unchained.] Why slavery now?
QT: Gosh, I don't know. Look, when I was doing this, I didn't know anything else was coming out. Frankly, nothing could have me more excited, from an American storytelling perspective and an American healing perspective, that maybe there is something in the air.
HLG: Why, then, was it in the air for you? Why, then, combine the slave narrative with the Western? And the romance, which is always part of the Western.
QT: It's two separate stories I've always wanted to tell. One, I've always wanted to tell a Western story. Two, I've always wanted to re-create cinematically that world of the antebellum South, of America under slavery, and just what a different place it was — an unfathomable place. To create an environment and again, not just have a historical story play out — they did this and they did that, and they did this and they did that — but actually make it a genre story. Make it an exciting adventure.
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But eight years ago — one of the producers on the film is Reggie Hudlin — we got into a conversation about a movie about slavery, and he didn't like it. I actually hadn't seen the movie, and I was interested to hear why he didn't like it. And he was dissecting it — why he didn't think, ultimately, it was as empowering as the film hoped to be.
And so he's talking, and I'm, hmm, he's making a kind of interesting case. And then he had kind of a, almost a closing Johnnie Cochran-finishing-up-the-summation line that knocked me out — absolutely knocked me out. He goes, "Look, this is a movie obviously made with the best intentions, yet at the end of the day for black folks watching it, it's not half as empowering as The Legend of Nigger Charley."
HLG: And what did you say when he said that?
QT: I said, I have nothing to say to that. It was 100 percent right. I got exactly what he meant. It was a diamond bullet of reality. I understood exactly what he meant. I took it in, and then I said, I have to make that movie one day.
HLG: So you're riffing on The Legend of Nigger Charley. You're signifying on it.
QT: Yes, exactly … The thing is, that actually is an empowering movie. And it wants to be a good movie, but they had no money. Nevertheless, it stands alone.
HLG: Django is an opposite extreme of The Birth of a Nation. Did that play a conscious role in your mind? Reversing the depiction of slavery that The Birth of a Nation registered?
QT: Yeah, you have to understand, I'm obsessed with The Birth of a Nation and its making.
QT: I think it gave rebirth to the Klan and all the blood that that was spilled throughout — until the early '60s, practically. I think that both Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr. and D.W. Griffith, if they were held by Nuremberg Laws, they would be guilty of war crimes for making that movie because of what they created there.
I've read about its making. I've read the book that just got published on Rev. Dixon a little bit ago, American Racist, which was a very disturbing book — more disturbing because I hated him forever, and the book made me actually understand him a little bit, when it is much easier to think of him as a monster. That's not pleasant — things aren't as easy, unfortunately, when you dive into things with a microscope.
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.