Django Unchained grossed $162.8 million and was nominated for five Academy Awards. But not everyone loved Quentin Tarantino’s antebellum Western about a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) who teams up with a bounty hunter to rescue his enslaved wife from a brutal Southern plantation owner. Spike Lee, who’s never approved of Tarantino’s cinematic spin on black culture — especially his liberal use of the N-word — tweeted, “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust.”
Slavery. Race. Violence.
In Django Unchained, Tarantino didn’t just touch all three cultural third rails — he danced on them. But if you think some of the finger-wagging reactions set him back, you’d be wrong. If anything, The Hateful Eight, his 19th-century Western that opens in theaters on Dec. 25, amplifies those five-alarm themes and doesn’t shrink from tying them to contemporary America.
Samuel L. Jackson plays a former Union officer turned bounty hunter who finds himself snowed-in at a mountain stopover with a rogue’s gallery of desperate men, many of whom haven’t yet accepted the terms of the Civil War. In one scene, a former Confederate opines that whites can only be safe when blacks are scared. Later, Jackson’s character explains the inverse collorary, that blacks are only safe when whites are disarmed. And “black” is not the default adjective Tarantino’s characters use to describe African-Americans. According to Gawker, the N-word is uttered approximately 65 times in the film.
“I felt that by throwing a black cavalry officer in the middle of this mix and knowing that I was going to have a Southern general and, like, the son of Quantrill in this mix, that I’d be kicking a can that deals with these issues. How much that can would be kicked and how much would spill out, that I didn’t know,” says Tarantino. “I think me dealing with race in America is one of the things I have to offer to cinema. That is one part of my interest in American society, and so the fact that it bleeds into my work makes perfect sense. In particular, it’s what I have to offer the Western genre, because it’s really not been dealt with [there] in any meaningful way.”
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One of the few Westerns to tackle race at all was Mel Brooks’ 1974 farce, Blazing Saddles, which played tense race relations — and even the N-word — for comic relief. The script was co-written by Richard Pryor and Brooks has said that he relied on Pryor’s judgment when to use and not to use the racial epithet. Does Tarantino have a similar sounding board, an African-American confidante who provides counsel — and some legitimacy — for the most volatile word in the English language? “I would never ever give anybody that kind of expertise on my work,” he says. “I am the expert on my work. Absa-bloody-lutely.”
With The Hateful Eight, Tarantino says that he didn’t set out to antagonize the people most offended by Django. “People can say that there’s a provocateur aspect going on in my work from the very, very beginning and that might very well be the case,” says the director. “But to put things in there just to stick a weed up the social critics’ ass ultimately is the exact same starting point as censoring yourself, to appease them and give them a break.”
And that’s not something that Tarantino is inclined to do. Mostly because… well, he doesn’t give a f—:
“Social critics don’t mean anything to me. It is my job to ignore them, because their critiques are about right now: 2015. My movie is not a carton of milk that has an expiration date. It’s going to be available 20 years, 30 years, hopefully 100 years from now. Those critics will come and go, but the movie will be the movie. My revenge is I’m going to win their kids and grandkids over. They’re going to be stuck, an old man at Thanksgiving, having their granddaughter talk about how she’s taking a Tarantino class in college, and it’s the most stimulating class that she’s taking. They’re going to fry an egg on their bald pate while their grandkids exalt my virtues.”