(The Root) — Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is about a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who gains his freedom and becomes a bounty hunter with the help of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). They travel (under a ruse developed by Schultz) to Mississippi to free Django's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from evil plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Despite how that brief synopsis might make it seem, Django is absolutely not, Tarantino tells The Root Editor-in-Chief Henry Louis Gates Jr., a "white-savior tale." In the last of a three-part interview series, the writer and director explains in detail the real reason that Django and Schultz's relationship unfolds the way it does, and when and why the power shifts (possible spoilers).
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: The history of Hollywood is replete with black Christ figures, and we can just list them off the top of our heads. Why did you decide to make Dr. King Schultz the Christ figure?
Quentin Tarantino: Here's the thing. There was actually some talk when the script got out there. Some people were speculating, is Schultz the white-savior character? He whips [out] a magic wand and Django is able to do this and he's able to do that and he's able to do the other thing, but all because Schultz allows him to do it.
And you know, I completely did not think that that was applicable to my story. But the thing is, it's actually kind of interesting at the same time. While I'm telling a black story, I'm also telling a Western. And I have Western conventions on my side to help tell my story.
HLG: In fact, I call it a postmodern, slave-narrative Western.
QT: I'll buy that. But you know, one of the tropes of Westerns and telling a story like this is you have an experienced gunfighter who meets the young cowpoke who has some mission that he has to accomplish, and it's the old, experienced gunfighter who teaches him the tricks of the trade: teaches him how to draw his gun, teaches him how to kill.
Whether it be Kirk Douglas teaching young William Campbell in Man Without a Star or Brian Keith teaching Steve McQueen in Nevada Smith, or actually most of Lee Van Cleef's spaghetti Westerns that aren't with Sergio Leone — that's kind of Van Cleef's role. Now, you go to the kung fu films — that's always the case. There's an older guy teaching the younger guy and sending him on a vengeance journey.
HLG: It's a fundamental trope of the genre.
QT: Absolutely. So I'm falling back on that. However, knowing you have the history of cinema where, OK, this is a movie about Stephen Biko, but we're telling it through Kevin Kline's eyes — that kind of situation — I actually was hoping to get a little bit of narrative anxiety going on about halfway through the movie: Wait, is this just going to be Schultz doing everything? What's going on here?
Hopefully, if you're unbiased, from where I'm coming from, it makes sense how the whole first part of the story's going. But when is Django going to be the hero? Because truthfully, in the first half of the story, he is Schultz's sidekick. But to me that's OK.
HLG: But that's an apprentice period.
QT: Exactly. It's his origin issue of his comic book. And frankly, just to have one little digression — it's a small little moment — to me one of the most meaningful moments in the first half of the movie is when [Django and Schultz] ride up in the snow to that sheriff's office to deliver those bodies, and the sheriff goes, "Hey, Django! Schultz! How ya doin'?"
HLG: I was taken by that because he accepts Django in his role as a bounty hunter.
QT: It's the only time in the movie [that] a white man has addressed him, aside from Schultz, who has not even mentioned his color and treats him with respect. Not even just respect — he treats him as a professional. It's obvious they have become a true team. They are both invited to come inside and partake of the man's birthday cake.
HLG: You did that, not to say something about the sheriff, but to say something about Django's maturity.
QT: Three months were wrapped into one exchange. And you see now that he's a professional. And he's invited inside. He doesn't wait outside with the horses. And that's one of those really important things.
Now, going into Mississippi, that's when the power starts shifting. But even then, not to completely jump to the end of the movie and give away all the narrative surprises, but suffice it to say they have a plan, and it being a good story, the plan doesn't exactly work. So they're forced to improvise and do other things.
Now, here's the thing, though. If Schultz's plan had worked and they were able to kind of con Broomhilda out of her owner Candie's clutches and get her bill of sale, then Django would have taken her to New York. She probably would have gone on the abolitionist cocktail party circuit, telling her tales of woe and everything, with Django because he's not an outlaw now.
He's still on the right side of the law at this point, if that were to happen that way. And everything would be great for Django, and everything would be great for Broomhilda, but he would not be the hero of the story.
QT: Schultz would be the hero of the story. Things have to go awry, and Schultz has to be taken out of the picture for Django to truly emerge as the hero. He has to actually be caught. He can take down a lot of people, but he actually has to be caught.
And like a character through Negro folklore, he has to get out of his predicament solely through cunning and guile. And then he has to make the choice to go back yet again. Anything else and he's not the hero of the story.
HLG: So that's why you sacrificed King Schultz.
QT: He had to pass on for Django to truly take the torch. And there's another narrative thing going on as well. Just the way Django probably feels about it, a little bit to some degree, the audience feels that I have shown two big sequences where Schultz has painted his way into a corner that there's no way he can get out of, and then he talks his way out. So we have two set pieces setting this up, and now we have a big third one. And by this time, the audience should actually feel that Schultz can handle anything.
HLG: But Schultz makes the decision to sacrifice himself. He's won [against Candie]. They've given [Candie] $12,000 ransom money. He's going to shake hands — I mean, being humiliated, but hell, he can get over that. But he decided, "F—k you, I'm going to blow you away."
QT: Right. Well, you know, there are a few different reasons, and I don't want to spill it all out because I'm hoping that the audience will come up with some of their own of why Schultz does what he does. I actually think one of the definite reasons, though, is he had to put on this facade in dealing with this inhuman depravity that he's witnessing. Now that he's on the other side of it, it's all raining down on him.
HLG: He's haunted by these memories.
QT: What he was working hard not to allow himself to feel is now permeating him. But something else is also permeating him. I think he's actually realizing inadvertently he caused D'Artagnan's [a captured runaway slave who was torn apart by Candie's dogs] death.
Where I'm coming from is, I don't think Candie would have actually killed D'Artagnan in that situation, just for running away at that moment — not that he couldn't have done it another time with somebody else. But just where it was leading, where it was going, he would have punished him, but he wouldn't have sicced the dogs on him at that moment. That doesn't make him nice — I'm just saying it wasn't his plan to just destroy him at that moment.
HLG: So why did he destroy him at that moment?
QT: To test Django. Because when Schultz offered to buy him all of the sudden — Whoa, what the hell? That was phony-baloney. He knew it wasn't right. This is weird. These guys are up to something. What's going on here? Why would he care? He's getting into Mandingo fighting; why should he care about this guy?
HLG: So Django had to sacrifice him in order to keep the ruse up.
QT: Schultz reveals himself[, breaking the characters they had created in order to infiltrate Candieland to free Broomhilda]. Django stops him and says no, we're not doing that. And Candie realizes this and decides to test Django's resolve.
HLG: A friend of mine said to me, "I really liked the film, but would he have had James Bond watch one of his fellow spies be torn apart by the dogs?" Why was it important for Jamie Foxx's character, for Django, to let this man be sacrificed?
QT: If I was writing the James Bond movie and the job was for him to go undercover, then yeah, he would, and James Bond would be good at that. He's a professional. He knows what's going on.
It has to cost Django something to go on this mission. He's not Spartacus. It's not about him liberating everyone in shack row and them storming Canada together. He's got one mission and one mission only: extract his wife from this hell. And nothing else means a damn compared to that.
HLG: And he has to get in character.
QT: He's got to be convincing. And he knows that more than Schultz does. To me, that's one of the interesting things.
You know Django goes on a tutelage in the first half of the movie, but then the teacher-student relationship shifts once they get into Mississippi. Because Django knows exactly this world and understands it. And Schultz is coming from almost a 21st-century perspective. He understands, intellectually, slavery, but he's never seen the everyday horrors and degradation of it.
HLG: Were there any scenes left on the cutting room floor that are just too graphic or depressing to include in the film? And if so, will we ever see them, and what were they?
But you know, you make your movie and you get it to a certain point where we've seen it ourselves enough — now we have to see it with an audience. And this movie has to work — all my movies have to work this way — but this one kind of even more so had to work on a bunch of different levels.
The comedy had to be able to work, the horrific serious scenes have to work, I have to be able to get you to laugh a sequence after that to bring you back from [the horrific scene]. We have to be at the right place in the story where the big suspense scene at the dinner table happens so that will pay off.
Now, I'll talk a little bit in code, but you'll know what I mean, and I don't think it will spoil anything. But by the way, I actually don't mind people knowing that Django triumphs at the end.
But there's that moment where Django turns to Broomhilda and has that kind of punky smile that he does. If I've done my job right, modulating this movie and doing it the right way, then the audience will burst into applause. They'll clap with Broomhilda. They'll laugh when Django and his horse do the little dance. That means I've done it the right way. The audience is responding exactly the way I want them to.
HLG: Well, the audience in Bethesda, Md., last Sunday at the screening I saw applauded at that moment.
QT: But you see, the thing about it is, when the Mandingo scene and the dog scene were rougher [in previous versions], I traumatized [the audience] too much. They were too traumatized after that moment, and they resented me a little too much, because they actually had been enjoying the movie before then.
HLG: I understand that.
QT: I understood it, too. And the thing is, I actually got them back. It's not like there were [comedic moments] that happened later where they didn't laugh. They were just traumatized. And the response at the end was a qualified response.
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.