Despite the site-unseen criticism of Quentin Tarantino’s latest film rebellion, Django Unchained isn’t a blaxploitation slavery flick. Jamie Foxx, who plays a gun-slinging slave on the warpath, reunites with Kerry Washington for the epic tale, while Leonardo DiCaprio finally puts on his black hat and goes dark. Gathered at a Manhattan studio, the big three explain how they mastered the art of telling this historically hot-button story. —Erik Parker
JAMIE FOXX knows what you’re thinking when you see him as a shivering slave in the trailer for his latest film, Django Unchained. This is no Roots. It’s not like he didn’t know his role in Quentin Tarantino’s latest backslap to Hollywood conventions would confuse some and infuriate others. He’s smirking atop a horse in a powder blue costume while going all badass on white folks like some Dolomite slave fantasy for goodness sake. But according to Foxx, 45, and key members of the all-star cast–Leonardo DiCaprio and Kerry Washington–they half-expected the verbal lynching.
With Django Unchained, Tarantino adapts his familiar revenge themes (Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds) to the story of a slave gone rogue in the name of love. In this flick, the genre-splicing director tracks Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who is recruited by a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) who happens to be hunting the men who sold Django’s wife (Kerry Washington, 35) to the most wicked of all plantation owners, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
While Tarantino was awarded Screenwriter of the Year for Django by the Hollywood Film Awards in October, black Hollywood had a different take. Nate Parker (Red Tails, Red Hook Summer), who was also considered for the role of Django, called the script ‘‘upsetting.” Tyler Perry, who wrote the Madea series, raised questions about Tarantino’s screenplay (more on this later). But the actors in the film, which also include Samuel L. Jackson, stuck to their guns.
‘‘I wanted to go in there and try to embody somebody and an attitude that is so foreign to me and go the distance,” says DiCaprio, 38, who had his own reservations about the language and imagery. While at the photo shoot for VIBE, the most revered actor of our time puffs neat circles of smoke from his electronic cigarette. Not look-at-me plumes. More an absentminded exercise to pass the time and focus his thoughts. ‘‘I think it took me to places I didn’t even imagine,” he continued. ‘‘It really took on a life of its own.
When Foxx, DiCaprio and Washington finally sit for a chat about the film, the conversation also takes on a life of its own. Here is the story behind the story.
VIBE: Before Django was even completed, the screenplay and the trailer received criticism from black people who objected to the treatment of slavery, suggesting it is not serious. It is a spaghetti western not a heavy drama like, say, Roots or The Color Purple. Were you prepared for this type of scrutiny?
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: We knew there was going to be controversy. The question is: What is not a realistic depiction? I would argue that it is. It is Quentin’s re-creation; this character doesn’t exist. There’s nobody that is documented to do what Jamie’s character has done at the time. But the documentaries I saw went even further.
JAMIE FOXX: Put it this way: I completely understand what you’re saying. ‘Cause as black folks we’re always sensitive. As a black person it’s always racial. I come into this place to do a photo shoot and they got Ritz crackers and cheese. I’ll be like, ain’t this a bitch. Y’all didn’t know black people was coming. What’s with all this white shit? By the same token, if there is fried chicken and watermelon I’ll say ain’t this a bitch? So, no matter what we do as black people it’s always gonna be that. Every single thing in my life is built around race. I don’t necessarily speak it because you can’t. But the minute I leave my house, I gotta put my other jacket on and say, ‘‘Hey, Thomas, Julian and Greg.” And I gotta be a certain person.
DICAPRIO: Thomas, Julian and Greg?
VIBE: Those are white people.
FOXX: No some of those people are black. But when I get home my other homies are like how was your day? Well, I only had to be white for at least eight hours today, [or] I only had to be white for four hours. Everything we do is that. When you’re talking about the script, of course it’s going to be controversy. I remember talking to Tyler Perry about it. [In Perry’s very serious voice] ‘‘Ah man, the script, man. Have you read it?” When I finally read it, I called Tyler and we had a conversation. I said, ‘‘I got a different take on it than you did.” And we shared. And I called Tyler while we were shooting it. I said, ‘‘Do you know that Quentin Tarantino knows all of your shit on TV. I don’t even watch all of your shit.” He said, ‘‘Really?” The difference is the Quentin Tarantino Effect. I ran into Spike Lee at the BET Awards. You know Spike, he’ll let you have it whether it’s good, bad or ugly. And he said, ‘‘I’m not going to say anything bad about this film. It looks like y’all are getting it
KERRY WASHINGTON: This is not a doc. This is a Quentin Tarantino film. But I remember there was this one moment in the script where Jamie’s character was put in an awful crazy medieval metal mask. I said, ‘‘That’s some sick thing Quentin thought up.” And when I went to the production office to meet about my wardrobe, I saw into the research office. Twenty photos of real masks like that. It made me sad. I realized as much as my degrees and everything I’ve read on slave narratives [should have informed me], I didn’t even know that they wore masks like that, that people did that to us. It took a Tarantino movie for me to know that that’s not some crazy thing out of his imagination. That’s how it went down.