"It’s a bitter dish served up with a good bit of honey."
So Walton Goggins tells us.
Tarantino takes on what is, perhaps, the most shameful and in many ways significant chapter of U.S. history with ‘Django Unchained’. But he does so with the quintessential Tarantino cinematic remixing that allows the audience the distance to take in the depths of the violence that he is, yes, serving up.
‘What Quentin was able to do, is what many other directors can’t do or aren’t given an opportunity to do, which is thread the line between violence and the absurd,’ Goggins explains. ‘So, with these atrocities going on, you’re still kind of able to laugh. If you’re laughing too much, you’re reminded that that’s a human being hanging from a rope. That happened. When you’re in the depths of the violence, then you’re also, in an Elmore Lenard kind of way, through the Quentin Tarantino line, finding yourself f**king laughing. It’s weird, but it’s important and I think that Quentin Tarantino is the person to tell this story for this next generation.’
'It's a Quentin Tarantino film,’ Washington agrees. ‘It mixes humor and brutality. It does all of that. It is a truly Quentin-esque film. But it also goes places that we have been unwilling to go.’
Indeed the atrocities of slavery are often, at least to some degree, swept under the rug both in academia and pop-culture at large. So it is somehow paradoxically ironic and fitting that the man who is known to be a master of the unflinching cinematic gaze as well as of integrated pop-culture references is the one who will bring this story to light.
‘I think that when we don't face the things that make us uncomfortable we run the risk of repeating those ills,’ Washington says of the opportunity a film like this represents to examine what we have been, previously, so afraid to.
There were a series of casting changes mid-way through production of ‘Django’ that caused a fair amount of online chatter. So there have been certain alterations in the film that have been openly reported. But when Washington was asked about the controversy surrounding the treatment her character experiences, she eluded to some story shifts that we are not yet aware of.
‘I will say that there have been a lot of changes that I think will surprise people,’ the actress says. Though she did emphasize that capturing the reality of the perverse nature of slavery was essential.
'Django' May Be a 'Divine Comedy' for the Deep South
Although he wrote one of my favorite (albeit unusual) love stories of the 1990’s, “True Romance,” one does not necessarily associate Tarantino with epic tales of star crossed lovers. And yet both Foxx and Washington emphasize that the heart of the film is the passion that Django feels for his stolen wife, Broomhilda. It is the inciting incident for him and the force that drives his to succeed in his quest.
‘You have a story about two people who in our own constitution at the time are considered only three fifths of a human being,’ Washington says. ‘And they believe so much in their own humanity and in their love for each other that he journeys across the United States and into the depths of hell to rescue her from the brutality of slavery.’
Into the very depths of hell, as Dante was willing to do for his Beatrice.
When asked what he hopes people take away from the film, Foxx replied simply: "The love story."
"Here's the thing," he elaborated. "Quentin Tarantino was smart in that he was like, 'I'm going to drop all of this, show you all of this great stuff,' but the fact that Django is not allowed to love his woman, that's the catalyst that allows him to go forward. Django doesn't want to cure slavery. He just wants to love his woman. 'Everybody just get out my way and let me love my woman.'’
Leonardo DiCaprio is a Man Possessed
When asked about costar Leonardo DiCaprio, Foxx relayed the following story to illustrate the depths of DiCaprio’s commitment:
‘He came in there with all the good looks,’ Foxx recalls. ‘He's on the tabloids with the models and everyone is thinking, 'Is he going to be that guy?' But he comes in and he is absolutely this character. It makes you go back to your hotel room and really get yourself together because you know you'll have to be tight. There is one scene that I think I can let out of the bag, where he finds us (Foxx and Waltz) out, he finds our who we are. He's angry with us. He slams his hand on the table in every take. Every take he gets harder. I'm like, 'Wow.' At one point, somehow this shot glass slid over to where his hand is supposed to be. He slams his hand on the table, breaks the shot glass, it goes through his hand. Blood. He's still going. I'm like a little girl. I'm looking like this, like, 'He's so courageous. He's an Avenger.'
When Tarantino called ‘cut’ DiCaprio continued to pace and huff in character with blood dripping down his hand. The crew gave him a standing ovation.
‘So, if that's any indication of what it is,’ Foxx concludes. ‘He was amazing.'
The Film is Historically Accurate
Raised in Europe, actor Christoph Waltz was familiar only with the broad strokes of the American Civil War and the depths of the impact that slavery has had on this nation. As such, he views the opportunity to find a perspective on what he sees in the world today as one of the greatest gifts of making this film.
‘It is not just what I thought in terms of the market economy and the, you know, destructive forces of market economy. It actually has a historical foundation, and by looking into more details of American history, (I can) make more sense of what’s happening today,’ the actor says.
But what is more interesting, and alarming, is the ignorance that many of us have about this most tragic portion of our history. As gruesome as we imagine it to be, it is even more so. And ‘Django Unchained’ will not restrain the truth of the heinous nature of those times and the crimes against humanity that were committed.
‘There’s a portion of the script in which Django is being put in this horrific metal mask to silence him and to keep him in place,’ Washington recalls. ‘I thought, 'That's just some crazy Tarantino absurdity. Where did he come up with that? That's wild.' And then in doing research and I was in the production designer's office, and seeing photographs of those masks that were used on a regular basis. I as an African American had never been taught that part, the brutality of this history.’
Even everyday expressions that arose from the conditions of slavery have since lost their connection to the harsh reality of their origins.
‘In order to keep black people in slavery there was the breakdown of the black family. So, black people were not allowed to be married. Your child could be taken from you and sold down the river. That's where we get the expression from, sold down the river,’ Washington relays.
No Tarantino is not making a documentary, of course, but he is, as perhaps only he can, opening the door to a public discourse that is long, long overdue.
Bonus: Quentin Tarantino Knows His S---
Now everyone knows that Tarantino is a walking encyclopedia of cinematic knowledge and that if one wants to keep up in a dialogue with him one best, as Goggins did, be prepared to Google some business. However, two of the stories that were relayed during the interviews seemed to perfectly illustrate the particulars of the director’s film history knowledge as well as his business acumen.
‘We actually had this cast dinner before we started shooting where he (Tarantino) was talking about, I think, a TV show or a movie that Don Johnson had done,’ Washington recalls. ‘Don was like, 'No. I wasn't in that.' He was like, 'Yeah, you were. This was the cinematographer. This was the producer and this guy was the production designer.' Don was like, 'Oh, yeah, I was in that.' That's how good he is. Its like, 'You don't even remember.'
‘I think he's a hip-hop star because hip-hop guys, they're smart,’ Foxx says. ‘Look, he's doing the hip-hop thing to you. He just leaked a trailer right here (at Comic-con), just like leaking a song. He's like, 'I'm going to leak this and watch what happens.' Now everybody is buzzing because he knows that what he's doing is dope. That's the one thing that he promised me. He said, 'I guarantee you, I'm good at this shit. I'm not being arrogant.'’