You can count the major American movies that deal with the issue of slavery on one hand. When it hits theaters Christmas Day, Django Unchained will be one of those raised fingers — most likely the middle one. In it, Jamie Foxx plays Django, a slave freed by Christoph Waltz’s bounty hunter who is on a quest to save his wife from the lair of monstrous plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio.)

While the film itself is a rollicking spaghetti-western homage, it doesn’t shy away from portraying the systemic brutality of America’s original sin, and some wonder whether doing so will court controversy. Foxx is not one of those wondering. “You know it’s going to be controversial!” he exclaims. “That’s what’s been blowing my mind, people saying, ‘[sotto voce] Did you know this was going to be controversial?’ It’s like, come on man! Did you read the script? Why would Quentin Tarantino do anything that wasn’t controversial? What movie of his have you seen where you went, “Oh, this is a Hallmark Movie and rated G”? That’s not what you sign up for. You don’t sign up for that.”

Still, Foxx met with a number of prominent black entertainers to get their read on the project, including some who were at one point in contention for the role, like Will Smith and Idris Elba, and others who weren’t as gung-ho about the gunslinging as he, like Tyler Perry. But Foxx believes his experience growing up in small-town Texas — where he learned what it’s like to be treated as the “other” and endured the still-present reverberations of bigotry — helped temper his approach to the role and the script’s difficult, if era-appropriate, language. “An actor from New York or L.A., when they read the word “n—–” they go: ‘[Gasps]! This word!'” he says. “I’ve heard it. It was said to me several times to me as a kid. But I didn’t turn my back on the South. I still love the South, but I understood that it was part of the fabric.”

Shooting at the historic Evergreen Plantation in Louisiana, a place where actual slaves once toiled and suffered, also helped to put the entire endeavor into perspective. “It was tough shooting the movie,” he says. “It’s tough shooting when you’re in plantation row and that’s where your ancestors were persecuted and killed, and we were respectful of that.” He even brought his two young daughters to the location, although the plantation’s effect on them wasn’t as profound as the one it had on their father. “They looked at it like an amusement park,” Foxx says. “But they really understood, especially my older one, that this is where their ancestors came from, and my younger one, like any kid would do, just played around. She didn’t understand the significance then. But she will.”

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Django Unchained
  • Movie
  • 165 minutes