Tarantino 'Unchained,' Part 2: On the N-Word

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.


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 …


Exactly like the way a king can own their subjects and put them to death, they can do that with complete impunity when it comes to the slaves and pretty much do that with the poor whites, just without complete impunity. They have to come up with a way to do it. But they can still do it nevertheless. 

And so the thing about it is in a fairy-tale term, they're going to the evil kingdom. And Broomhilda [Django's wife, played by Kerry Washington] is the princess in the tower.


HLG: And you named that explicitly by including the tale within the tale, the myth within the myth.

QT: But when I actually got to Candieland, if we were going to really do this subject justice, we had to deal with the social strata that happens inside the plantation versus the field — the kind of upstairs-downstairs aspect of how things work between the house slaves and the field slaves.


And in the script I wrote a big description for Stephen, and I said, "He's sort of like the characters that Basil Rathbone would play in adventures and swashbucklers, where he's the evil guy who has the king's ear. And he sits at the king's side whispering in the king's ear, holding on to his little fiefdom, and manipulating everybody through intrigues of the court."

HLG: I remember those characters and hated them. So creepy.

QT: Exactly. And in Hong Kong movies, they're the eunuchs. They had the power over the emperor in that way. And literally, after describing this entire thing, I wrote, "That's Stephen to a T. He's the Basil Rathbone of house niggers."


HLG: Well, it is an award-winning performance. It is so diabolically evil and selfish and self-loathing.

QT: If I couldn't deal with the actual social strata inside the institution of lifelong slavery itself, then I wasn't really dealing with the story.


HLG: Let me ask you this, though. What about making Django Superman? How did he manage to dodge all those bullets and ride off unscathed? Obviously that's the mythic ending. Why was it important to keep him alive and make him a superhero rather than, as you say, killing him off?

QT: On one hand, yeah, he doesn't get hit by these guys. At the same time, we actually show that they're such bad shots that they keep shooting each other.


But one of the things that I had to do — nobody brings it up, and it's such a big deal — you're used to seeing Hong Kong movies where guys have .45 automatics and Uzis, and they can do this and they can do that. You know, Django has six shots in each gun, and that's it. And this was before the time when they had actual case shells.

So it's like everything has to be prepared in that cylinder — where it's like a little ball of lead, and the gun powder … There's no, just like, emptying out your chamber and reloading. You have to prepare [the ammunition]. So in that whole big gunfight, his one big job is to keep killing guys and taking their guns from them.


It was interesting, because on one hand I'm telling a historical story, and when it comes to nuts and bolts of the slave trade, I had to be real and had to tell it the right way. But when it comes to more thematic things and operatic view, I could actually have fun with stylization — because it is taking parts from a spaghetti Western. And I am taking the story of a slave narrative and blowing it up to folkloric proportions and to operatic proportions that are worthy of high opera.

So I could have a little fun with it. One of the things I do is when the bad guys shoot people, the bullets usually don't blow people apart. They make little holes and they kill them and wound them, but they don't rip them apart. When Django shoots someone, he blows them in half.


HLG: I noticed that.

QT: And [there's something else I did] so obviously that I wasn't worried about historians having a hissy fit, because I made it so obvious in using the spaghetti Western ideal that life is cheap but death is expensive — death has a price. I made the slaves unnaturally low for what they cost, selling them back and forth, but I made the bounties [for wanted men] outrageously high.


HLG: I wondered about that. Why did you do that?

QT: That's just kind of a spaghetti Western thing. Life is cheap. Life is dirt. Life is a nickel. Life is a buffalo nickel. Life is a wooden nickel. But death is profit. Death can bring money. Death is gold.


HLG: I'm a scholar of slavery, and one of the things I notice in my classes [that I teach] is that we've become inured to the suffering and pain of slavery, that we've distanced ourselves enough from it, that people can't experience the terror, the horrible pain, the anxiety, the stress, et cetera, that came with the slave experience. I thought that in Django you really began to reinsert contemporary viewers into that pain, particularly through the scene when the dogs tear Candie's slave D'Artagnan apart. And by the way, I don't know if you know, but that actually happened. The French used these dogs in the Haitian revolution …

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QT: Oh, yeah. They get these vicious dogs when they're just little puppies. Have black slaves beat them and torture them and withhold food from them, so those dogs got to fixate on black skin as an enemy.


HLG: What will you say when people criticize you — because it is unsettling to see a man torn apart by dogs? How did you decide what to represent of the suffering the slaves went through?

QT: I write film criticism and film literature. I haven't published any of it yet, but I just collect it. You know, it keeps me writing and keeps me thinking artistically and analytically, and even critically.


And [after I finished Inglourious Basterds], I was working on a piece on Sergio Corbucci — a big, big piece. He's the guy who wrote and directed the original Django. And I was looking at all of his spaghetti Westerns, and I got really enamored with the West he created, because it seems to me that the really great Western directors had their own version of the West that they presented.

And the thing that really started jumping out from Corbucci's cinema was that there was no West that was as brutal as his — as the characters, the bad villains who ruled the story. No archetype can perform their function, except in contrast to the villain or in relationship to the villain. And the villains had a sense of depravity about them that was off the scale, and the other characters had such a pitiless nature, and life was cheap as hell. Violence was surreal.


And it really did seem like in his cowboy pictures what he truly was dealing with was fascism — which makes sense, as Italy was getting out from under Mussolini's boot heel not so long ago — just gussied up with cowboy-Mexican iconography. Even when his outlaws would take over a town or something, it had the feeling of a Nazi occupation, and with Holocaust-like suffering to the victims.

So I'm writing all this, and part of the thing that's fun about subjective criticism is it doesn't really matter what the director was thinking. It's about you making your point. So at some point I was like, I don't really know what Sergio Corbucci was thinking at the time, but I know I'm thinking it now, and I can do it.


And with that in mind, this violent, pitiless Corbucci West: What would be the American equivalent of that — that really would be real — that would be an American story? It was being a slave in the antebellum South. 

That could be a journey capable of the type of atrocity and that type of pain and that type of heroism, just like the fight against Hitler. So as opposed to trying to take you and put you in a Schindler's List kind of movie, which I really admire — but the whole movie is now you're under the barbed wire of Auschwitz for the entire time, and this is what it's like, and all the TV movies go away as you see what that's like — I wanted to have more of an entertainment value involved with my movie and have it be more of a thrilling adventure.


But there is this section [in the film]. And the deeper you get in Mississippi, the more you get into it. And you have to really see the pain. And to me it was really illustrated by the Mandingo fight [in which two slaves fight to the death], and the dog scene, and I even had another scene in the script that kind of was my Schindler's List scene, where once they actually get to Candieland and the Mandingo fighters that they bought are lined up and Billy Crash [Walton Goggins] kills a couple of them just to inspire the other ones.

And Candie even had a line. He goes, "You know, we only keep about three fighters of every five we buy, but those three fighters tend to be very lucky." That sequence in particular really played like a Holocaust movie. Ultimately I didn't need it … The dog scene and the Mandingo fight scene did it.


HLG: And putting Broomhilda in the hotbox [a punishment for runaway slaves], which is a horrible scene.

QT: Especially because whenever you've seen her [before that scene], you've only seen her in flashbacks or you've only seen her as a figment of Django's imagination. So the first time you meet her in the here and now, s—t's even worse than you thought. Her situation is even worse than you thought.


So what you're talking about, the way your class and people in general have so put slavery at an arm's distance that … just the information is enough for them — it's just intellectual. They just want to keep it intellectual. These are the facts, and that's it. And I don't even stare at the facts that much.

HLG: Why do you think we've had to distance ourselves from the pain as we have — which makes your representation shocking?


QT: I don't know the answer to that question because I don't feel that way. I can't understand why anybody would feel that way. I think America is one of the only countries that has not been forced, sometimes by the rest of the world, to look their own past sins completely in the face. And it's only by looking them in the face that you can possibly work past them. And it's not a case where the Turks don't want to acknowledge the Armenian holocaust, but the Armenians do. Nobody wants to acknowledge it here.

HLG: Well, however you want to depict the horrors of slavery, slavery itself was 10,000 times worse.


QT: That almost became our slogan. It's like, look, the stuff that we show is really harsh, and it's supposed to be harsh, but it was [actually] a lot worse.

Previously: Tarantino 'Unchained,' Part 1: 'Django' Trilogy?

Coming up in part 3: Tarantino explains Django's character arc and why his film isn't your typical "white savior" story.


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.

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