By Samuels, Allison
Newsweek , Vol. 160, No. 25
Byline: Allison Samuels
How he's shattering a genre with Django Unchained.
Good friends can talk about anything, and for director Quentin Tarantino and producer/director Reginald Hudlin, anything usually included long, good-natured chats about the mechanics of the African-American slave trade.
The lack of a respectable film detailing the impact of slavery on this country fascinated both die-hard film buffs. Eventually both men--who met on the set of Jackie Brown in 1997--became obsessed with the idea of crafting a no-nonsense, somewhat entertaining film detailing the lesser known aspects of slavery. After one conversation with Hudlin stuck in his mind, Tarantino went to work on an all-or-nothing script. Six months later, Django Unchained was born.
Set in the South just two years before the Civil War, Django Unchained (in theaters Dec. 25) somehow masterfully manages to present the haunting brutality of slavery while also infusing an outlandish humor only Tarantino could bring to the big screen. Moviegoers will be treated to the often controversial director's deep love for the spaghetti western genre along with a blazing narrative of one man's desire for vengeance and love. After being freed by a German bounty hunter, Django (Jamie Foxx) helps him track down a few bad guys for profit and then goes on a mission to find and free his enslaved wife (Kerry Washington).
"I was always amazed so many Western films could get away with not dealing with slavery at all," says Tarantino, sitting in Todd-AO studios in Los Angeles where he was attempting to whittle the film to under three hours just after Thanksgiving. "Hollywood didn't want to deal with it because it was too ugly and too messy. But how can you ignore such a huge part of American history when telling a story in that time period? It made no sense."
It didn't make much sense to Hudlin either. The director of the popular '90s films House Party and Boomerang says he was baffled by the sugarcoated and abbreviated tales. "I hated all those films about slavery over the years. Any time Hollywood did deem it OK to talk about slavery, they were not worth watching," says Hudlin, who is Django Unchained's executive producer. "My idea of a great slave movie was Spartacus. Until African-American slavery was treated in that same manner, I had no interest in hearing what Hollywood had to say about the issue."
With only two years of age separating Tarantino and Hudlin, they watched the same slavery-themed films as young kids--and then grew to hate them as adults. Titles such as Mandingo and Uncle Tom's Cabin roll off their tongues with joint eye rolls and audible sighs. The not able period film Glory, starring Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman as freed slaves serving in the U.S. Army, gets an honorable mention nod from Hudlin.
"I liked the black characters in Glory," says Hudlin, whose great-grandfather was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. "Didn't see the point of the white ones. The true story was the slaves in the film. They should have been the main focal point of the entire plot. But somehow no one figured that out."
The faults of Glory aside, not much compares to the anger both men harbor toward the landmark television miniseries Roots. Written by Alex Haley and hailed in 1977 for telling the "complete" story of slavery, Roots remains the third most-watched miniseries of all time. It is also still considered the definitive mainstream portrait of slavery in the U.S.
"When you look at Roots, nothing about it rings true in the storytelling, and none of the performances ring true for me either," says Tarantino. "I didn't see it when it first came on, but when I did I couldn't get over how oversimplified they made everything about that time. It didn't move me because it claimed to be something it wasn't. …