Django Unchained: Why Jamie Foxx & Kerry Washington Agreed to Play Slaves
Actors could face friction with new roles
Quentin Tarantino's latest film "Django Unchained" will hit theaters Christmas Day, but don't expect to see a family-friendly, humorous holiday movie. Instead, the director has decided to tackle the story of pre-Civil War slavery -- in the shape of a Spaghetti Western. If it sounds unusual, it is. And though the lead actors -- Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson -- all took note, the film's unusual approach didn't stop them from willingly allying themselves with the ever-controversial director, and agreeing to all play slaves in the film.
Foxx plays the title character, a slave who is recruited by German-born bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz under the condition that Django will be freed if he leads Schultz to the South's most-wanted criminals, murderous Klan members, the Brittle Brothers. The men then embark on a journey to find and rescue Django's wife, Broomhilda, played by Washington, who is still owned by cruel planation owner Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
At a press junket in New York Sunday morning, Foxx -- who acknowledged that initially he hadn't heard of the project, wasn't asked to play the role, and subsequently had a "management change" once he learned someone else was slated to do so -- recalled reading the script for the first time.
"I'm from Texas, so being from the South—and I love the South, there's no other place I'd rather be from—there are racial components there, [like] me being called 'n****r' as a kid," he said. "So when I read the script, I didn't knee-jerk to the word 'n****r' like someone from maybe New York or Los Angeles would because that was something I experienced."
Washington, too, wasn't put off by what could be perceived as a demeaning role.
"I think people in the past may have felt nervous about playing a slave because so many of the narratives are about powerlessness," she said. "This is not a film about that. This is a film about a Black man who finds his freedom and rescues his wife. He is an agent of his own power. He is a liberator. He is a hero. And there's nothing shameful about that. I said to Quentin in our first meeting, 'I want to do this movie for my father' because he grew up in a world where there were no Black superheroes and that's what this is."
Jackson, however—who gained his first and only Academy Award nomination for another Tarantino film, the cult classic "Pulp Fiction"—takes on the role of a different type of slave; one that, after reading the script, prompted him to call Tarantino and ask, "So you want me to be the most despicable Negro in cinematic history?"
After comically complaining that he was "about 15 years too old" to play the title character, Jackson spoke on fulfilling the role of Stephen, Candie's trusted and superior—if there is such a thing—house slave.
"This was a great artistic opportunity to take what people know as 'Uncle Tom' and turn it on its head in a powerful way," said Jackson. "To tell this story, you have to have that guy. Steven is the freest slave in the history of cinema. He has all the powers of the master. He makes the plantation run—everybody knows him and fears him, but he has a feeble persona that makes people disregard him; they think he's physically not able to keep up. I wanted to play him honestly. I wanted everybody to understand that when Django shows up, that's a Negro we've never seen before; not only is he on a horse, but he's got a gun and he speaks out and I have to let the plantation know that that's not something they can aspire to; 'This n***a is an anomaly so don't even think about trying to be that.'"
DiCaprio, however, had a notably more difficult time getting into character, one he described as a "walking contradiction," one "[who] was brought up by a Black man, [but] had to find a moral justification to regard him as not human."
"This was really my first attempt playing a character that I had this much disdain and hatred for," said DiCaprio. "There was absolutely nothing about this man that I can identify with. I hated him and it was one of the most narcissistic, self-indulgent, racist, horrible characters I've ever read in my entire life—and I had to do it. It was too good not to. He represented everything that was wrong with the South at the time. During this initial read-through, I said, 'Do we need to push it this far at times? Does it need to be this violent? Do I need to be this atrocious to other human beings?' I think it was Sam and Jamie that both said, 'Look man, if you sugarcoat this, people are gonna resent the hell out of you. You gotta push to the utter extreme. By holding the character back, you're gonna do an injustice to the film and people are gonna feel like you're not telling the truth.'"
"I was very moved," she said, "particularly [because it takes place] in a time in our American history when Black people were not allowed to fall in love and get married because that kind of connection got in the way of the selling of human beings, so to have this story was not only educational but hopeful. We've seen it a million times—about star-crossed lovers—it's just that Django and Broomhilda don't come from two different Italian families like Romeo and Juliet. The thing that stands in the way of them being with each other is the institution of slavery, so Django's out to get his woman and he's got to take down slavery to get her."