When the trailer was released earlier this month for Django: Unchained, Black folks didn’t quite know what to make of it. It’s clear it’s a Quentin Tarantino film—the blood shed, the fast-moving dialogue and the James Brown soundtrack are the Tarantino-esque trimmings we’ve all come to love. But it’s wrapped around—and set in—pre-Civil War America.
But a movie set during slavery? Turns out, this isn’t just another slave movie. The film is still shooting right now, but the hero—played by Academy Award winning actor and comedian Jamie Foxx— is a slave who gets his get back.
Foxx plays who we imagined we’d all be should we have lived through such a horrific time. And that’s exactly the kind of film Reginald Hudlin—Tarantino’s producer on this project—has been longing to see. It doesn’t release until Christmas (they’re still filming in New Orleans right now), but six months out, it’s got the kind of buzz that makes Hollywood studio execs ridiculously happy.
Hudlin who along with actress Kerry Washington previewed an extended seven-minute clip of the film at the National Association of Black Journalists convention on Thursday evening in New Orleans—talks with EBONY.com about the movie, slavery and why Tarantino loves telling our stories.
EBONY: What made you want to be apart of Django: Unchained?
Reginald Hudin: Quentin and I have been friends for, I don’t know, easily 15 years now, and maybe longer. Whenever we see each other we debate movies, because we’re both super passionate about the cinema. So we got into this whole debate about movies on this topic of slavery, and I was very frank about how I hated 90 percent of them. I thought they were cod liver oil movies that were — and when I say cod liver oil, I mean movies that taste bad — but you’re supposed to swallow it anyways, because it’s supposed to be good for you. I don’t understand how that works because if it’s not entertaining, if it’s not something you want to go see, why bother, because no one’s going to see it. And I just felt like these movies should be exciting, they should be action-packed and most of all, I felt like they should have plenty of kicking ass because at the end of the day, the world needs black people who fought back. I mean, the famous slave revolts like Nat Turner and Denmark Veesey and for every one that we know about, God knows how many that we don’t know about because people wanted to suppress that information.
EBONY: And let’s be honest: a lot of black folks, when we see movies like Django we think, ‘that’s who I would’ve been. I would’ve been the guy raising hell …’
RH: Exactly! And that’s what I want to see. I was just really blunt. For me, I said, ‘Look, there’s only one great movie about slavery and it was called Spartacus, and until there’s a movie like that about the American experience, I’m not that interested. He came back 13 years later and said, ‘hey man, I’ve finished my new script.’ And usually if you’ve got a new script or a rough cut of a new movie I go by and I see the rough cut in the editing room and I flip at the script early. I just thought it was another one of those. And he handed me a script and said, ‘you planted the seed; this is the tree.’ And then I read it, and then he was very excited, he wanted to know what I thought and I said I loved it. He said, ‘do you have notes?’ And then I gave him a ton of notes, and he was like, ‘those are good notes … basically I really want to do this together with you.’ And when someone is trying to do the right thing and asks for some help, the only responsible thing to do is roll up your sleeves and get to work.
EBONY: When I first saw the trailer, my first thoughts were, ‘Oh wow. Tarantino and Hudlin are ballsy. What they’re effectively doing is giving the Inglorious Basterds treatment to pre-civil war.’ That’s what you’re doing, right?
RH: Yes! It’s like when he first started talking about Inglorious Basterds to me, years before the movie got made, Quentin said, ‘World War II was the war about racism, right?’ Because the Nazis said, ‘we’re the master race.’ So, you know, these are the things that he cares about and he thinks about … these are the things that he knows and are passionate about, and certainly the kind of movies that I always wanted to make, being a person who grew up on Blaxploitation, which was all about black folk kicking ass and taking names. I’m like, Yes, I’m down with that program. Let’s do that.
EBONY: All we have to go on right now is the trailer that’s out. And in the opening scene of it, we see the tree welts on black backs, but then it kicks into gear and kind of gives us what this film is about. Talk to me about selling this film to the black community. Is there any trepidation that you guys have? Because even though it seems to be a spaghetti Western, it’s still set in an ugly time period for us …
RH: I mean, look, the fact is whenever something historical happens with black folks, we get a little nervous, because the past has not been good to us. And so yeah, we’re good where we’re now, we’re doing better and better every year. I’ve always known those classic Western stories, those stories of good versus evil and standing up and fighting for your rights and fighting civilization, those really apply to us. Those really are perfect vehicles for our struggle. And at the end of the day in a Western, you know what you’re going to get, which is that the righteous will vanquish the evil and … I feel like as long as we deliver that to the audience, we’ll be alright. Because that’s what you want to see.
EBONY: There have been other great films set during that time period that failed at the box office because people – black and white — just don’t want to be reminded. What gives you the confidence that this one will be the one to break past it?
RH: I always start very simple with an audience of one. What do I want to see? And if I feel passionate about it, I feel that other people will be passionate about it, and that’s been pretty consistent for me. This is a movie where when I read the script, I wanted to see it. And just the response that I’ve been getting from the trailer is that a whole lot of people feel the same way.
EBONY: What’s the chatter like on set when you guys are filming this? In spite of the fun that is going to be had in an action film like this, there still are some dark moments — like that opening scene from the trailer — and you have to film those images.
It’s the full range. On the one hand, it’s great when you have people like Samuel Jackson, Kerry Washington, Jamie Foxx who are veterans in this business working together, because they enjoy each other. They don’t always get to work together. And then you have their white counterparts, you know, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, so you actually just have some of the best actors in Hollywood working together, regardless of race. And that doesn’t happen enough. And I think the actors really revel in that. And then you have all those wonderful, seasoned actors working with young actors and talk with them and giving them advice. Or the young actors, sometimes they won’t even be shooting on a day, but they’ll come to set just to watch the other actors work. I’ll turn around sometimes and I’ll see four young actors watching Sam Jackson like he was doing a stage play and it’s just like, ‘We just wanna watch and learn.’
EBONY: Right. He’s a fun guy too.
RH: Exactly! And that’s a mind-blowing, wonderful thing. And in terms of the content, there are really some days where people are like, ‘wow, we just really brought home what this movie was about, particularly when we’re shooting on an actual slave plantation.’ But then when we shoot the payback scenes people are stunned. They’re like, ‘Yeah, kill him! Get him!’ White people, they’re like, ‘Come on!’ And that’s the thing that’s so interesting, because, you know, we have not just a multi-ethnic cast, but a multi-ethnic crew, you know, white people and black people and Asian people and a lot of Native Americans. It was actually the biggest Native American crew of people I’ve ever worked on and just to have all those perspectives and all those spirits coming together it makes it a really fantastic experience.
EBONY: As much as we hate boxes, we kind of live in a world where we need boxes and categories. How are you going to classify this? Is it a black movie or is it something different?
RH: It’s a Quentin Tarantino movie.
EBONY: Touche. And every inch of it looks to be so.
RH: Right. And that’s the thing, when I say that people go, ‘Oh, I know what that is!’ What is Jackie Brown? Is that a black movie? Is that a white movie? What is that?
EBONY: You’re right. It’s hard to define. Which is a good thing.
RH: Yeah. I mean, there’s no category other than the category that it is.
EBONY: Tarantino has been telling our stories for years; he includes black people. Jackie Brown and even Pulp Fiction – I challenge you to find a black person who can’t quote Sam Jackson in that movie. Tell us something about Tarantino that maybe isn’t so obvious to us. Why do you think it’s so important that he includes us in his films?
RH:You know that white family who, when the neighborhood turns black, the white family can’t afford to move out? He was that family. He grew up around black people; he grew up immersed in black culture as well as white culture, and that was just part of his life. So when Quentin and I talk about movies, we saw the same movies. We both talked about our experiences watching Roots when we were a kid. You know the end of Roots where the white slave master’s tied to the post and the black man has the whip and then he goes, ‘Oh, I can’t beat you. That would lower me to your level’ …? I was a kid in East St. Louis, watching that screaming at the TV, ‘Oh, hell no!!!’ I have never seen John Wayne go, ‘Oh no, I can’t do that.’ John Wayne handles his business at the end of every movie. But somehow when the black man is at the end of the movie, the rules are different. And the fact is Quentin was in South Bay, California, screaming the same thing, having the same reaction! So for us, we have a black man beat a white slave master with his own whip, which, as far as I know, has never happened in the history of cinema. It’s like, Wow, we’re doing our jobs.
EBONY: Once this film is complete – are we supposed to have learned something? Or are we just supposed to walk away having seen some fun stuff happen on film?
RH: With House Party, when I originally made that movie I wanted to make a safe sex movie, but I wanted to hide the message so deeply within the entertainment that you would never perceive it as that. In my whole career I’ve been successful at entertaining people so thoroughly that they don’t feel a medicine-y aftertaste. Because the truth is every generation needs to hear the story of America’s original sin and that’s what slavery is. And I mean everyone, black and white. Our Jewish brothers and sisters do a great job telling the story of the Holocaust over and over again and that’s a painful story, but they know, for themselves and for all of humanity, we have to remind ourselves what we’re capable of as a people, and we have to tell this story and we have to tell it over and over. We have to find new ways and new perspectives on that story so that we never forget. Because if you don’t remember your past, you’re doomed to repeat it.