NEW YORK – Quentin Tarantino enters a West Village Italian restaurant through the back, a quiet arrival for a filmmaker who is anything but stealthy.
More than most any other director working today, Tarantino is propelled by a ceaseless urge to entertain, both the audience and himself. In richly comic dialogue, gleefully splattered violence and vibrant bombastic color, his films announce themselves brashly.
His latest, Django Unchained, a kind of Spaghetti Western set in the antebellum South, is brazen even by Tarantino standards.
Starring Jamie Foxx as a slave taken under the wing of a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz), the film’s strange mix of surrealist comedy, bloody action and brutal depictions of slavery make Django arguably Tarantino’s most audacious movie yet.
There is a committed showman aspect to my film that I relish in, says a sweatshirt-clad Tarantino as he settles in behind a table. I want the audience to have a wild experience at the movies and know that they left their house and did something with their night.
Django Unchained not only plunges Tarantino back into the racially sensitive territory that has brought him criticism in the past, it essentially explodes it. The n-word is used more than 100 times in the film. Two especially violent scenes of slavery – one a Mandingo brawl, the other involving a dog – even Tarantino calls traumatizing.
It’s a revenge fantasy that, depending on your perspective, makes this either the rare film to honestly present the ugliness of slavery, or one that treats atrocity as a backdrop for genre movie irreverence. It’s probably both.
If the only purpose of this movie was to make a shocking exposé about slavery ... that would be well and good. You could definitely do that, Tarantino says. But this movie wants to be a little more than just that.
It’s ironic that Tarantino is now unleashing a movie boasting of historical realism after his last film, Inglourious Basterds (the hit of his career, with global box office of $321.5 million and eight Oscar nominations), rewrote history by killing Hitler. Django similarly revels in the catharsis of seeing the evildoers of history get their comeuppance.
With black audiences, they laugh, they just get it, Tarantino says. Part of the humor is stemming out of: We were afraid of these idiots?’
Tarantino’s two-part Kill Bill and Death Proof were also revenge tales, only for women hunting patriarchal stereotypes. Yet from the banter of Pulp Fiction to the romance of Jackie Brown, race has clearly emerged as a dominant theme in Tarantino’s films.
It’s the most important subject in America, both from a historical perspective and in our day-to-day lives, Tarantino says. There are a whole lot of white filmmakers that might wish to venture into this area, but they’re afraid. They’re afraid of being criticized.
Tarantino was memorably chastised by Spike Lee after the n-word-laden Jackie Brown for being infatuated with the expression. Tarantino says he was done wrong by Lee and that, while he doesn’t care what Lee thinks of Django, his liking it would be a nice olive branch.
Django Unchained, which the Weinstein Co. released Tuesday, has made an effort to reach out to the black community. Three of the film’s stars – Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio (who plays a villainous Mississippi plantation owner) and Kerry Washington (Django’s wife in need of rescue) – grace the cover of a recent issue of Vibe magazine. Oprah Winfrey has endorsed it, though she also called it provocative and twisted.
Tarantino is prepared for any coming controversy.
Not to sound too full of myself, but I guess I have the shoulders to carry it, he says. You just have to be able to walk the walk and carry it. I’ll take the stones that come my way for it. There might be some controversy right now, but then that goes away. Frankly, it’s a very short amount of time in the course of a life of a movie.
For Tarantino, whose personal film school was his time as a video store clerk in Los Angeles, inspiration always starts with other films. Django Unchained was motivated by Spaghetti Westerns, particularly those of Italian director Sergio Corbucci, whose 1966 film Django is a godfather to Django Unchained.
Samuel L. Jackson, who describes his conniving house servant character as the future most hated black person in the history of cinema, has worked on nearly all of Tarantino’s films. He says Tarantino’s interest in race comes less from life than from the movies.
It’s not like Quentin grew up in the hood, says Jackson. He went to a lot of blaxploitation films, and his computer-like knowledge of cinema allows him to go to that space.
Still, actually re-enacting life on a pre-Civil War Mississippi plantation was jarring for some of the cast. Foxx says wallowing in that world was sometimes painful.
You stop and think, Wow, that’s what they did to us. They made us animals,’ Foxx says. So what am I? They’re giving me Evian water and heated tents. It’s like: OK, I’m tripping a little bit.
After the first screening of Django drew a positive reaction, Foxx breathed a sigh of relief. The film has since been nominated for five Golden Globe awards, including best dramatic picture.
It has also driven some black viewers to tears. Though producer Harvey Weinstein had suggested breaking the lengthy film into two parts like Kill Bill, Tarantino wanted to preserve it as one experience, to hopefully have the same stricken moviegoers cheering by the end.
What I tell people, I say: You’re not going to have the same reaction to this movie as a white person would, because they don’t have that struggle, Foxx says.
Tarantino, 49, has always been particularly aware of his filmmaking legacy, as if imagining his shelf in a video store. He says that he expects to stop making movies by the time he’s about 60, not wanting to dilute his filmography with lesser films of old age.
He takes the long view on Django, too, knowing it won’t seem contentious when, in a year, it’s on cable TV in the afternoon: It becomes less controversial by being made. It already exists.
History, in the end, has nothing on movie history.
I’m always aware I’m watching a movie when I’m watching a movie, Tarantino says. As great as the movie is, I’ve never forgotten I was watching a movie. It’s not the windshield of your car.