Quentin Tarantinio's new film Django Unchained is brazen even by Tarantino standards, and plunges the director back into racially sensitive territory.
Tarantino unchained unleashes Django
More than almost any other director working today, Quentin Tarantino's movies are propelled by a ceaseless urge to entertain, both the audience and himself. In richly comic dialogue, gleefully splattered violence and vibrant bombastic colour, they 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 surreal 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 Tarantino. "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 doesn't simply plunge Tarantino back into the racially sensitive territory that has brought him criticism in the past, it essentially explodes it. It's a revenge fantasy that either honestly presents the ugliness of slavery, or 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," says Tarantino. "But this movie wants to be a little more than just that."
It's ironic that Tarantino is boasting about historical realism after his last film, Inglourious Basterds (the box office hit of his career, with 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," says Tarantino. "Part of the humour is stemming out of: 'We were afraid of these idiots?'"
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," says Tarantino. "There are a whole lot of white filmmakers that might wish to venture into this area but they're afraid of being criticised."
Django Unchained has made an effort to reach out to the black community. Three of the film's stars - Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio (as a villainous Mississippi plantation owner) and Kerry Washington (Django's wife in need of rescue) - graced 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."
Samuel L Jackson, who describes his conniving house-servant character as the future "most hated black person in the history of cinema", 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,'" says Foxx. "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 won two Golden Globes: Best Supporting Actor for Waltz and Best Screenplay. It's also nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
"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, 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."