Django Unchained has been called a “slavery revenge tale.” A western. “Violent.” A film that “tackles the roots of American racial turbulence.” Shot on a Louisiana plantation, and starring Jamie Foxx as a slave turned bounty hunter, Kerry Washington as his wife, Samuel L. Jackson as the loyal house slave and Leonardo DiCaprio as a slave master, the film is bound to be seen—and bound to be loud.
After all, it’s written and directed by Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), a director known for raising a ruckus. Django Unchained (set for a Christmas Day release) has been kicking up noise since the controversial script was first leaked in 2011 and Will Smith reportedly turned down the title role. (Smith now calls Django a “genius screenplay.”) Controversy aside, while Civil War films abound, movies about enslaved Blacks in the United States are rare.
Here the Oscar-winning Foxx and Washington talk about the emotional experience of making Django and about why the film—in all its horrific details of American slavery—is necessary and vital.
ESSENCE: After reading the script, what made you decide to do the movie?
KERRY WASHINGTON: I knew this was going to be a creative adventure with talented people. I was also moved by the love story. I’d never seen a film about two people in a time when the Constitution says they’re not human beings, who commit to their own humanity and their love for each other. And I was drawn to this kind of hero, this kind of rebel against the institution of slavery.
JAMIE FOXX: Everybody knew it was a brilliant script, and it was like, we have an opportunity to do something great, to educate people. Everyone wants to be involved in something that’s going to change the game.
ESSENCE: Do you feel that our country is ready to have a serious conversation about slavery?
WASHINGTON: Some might surprise themselves by how ready they are. If we’re honest about what we’ve been through, then we can be even more proud of what we’ve achieved.
ESSENCE: How do you think it will go, Jamie, when everyone is talking about it?
FOXX: As far as being controversial, that’s a given. When DiCaprio had to say the word nigger a whole bunch of times, [he] was like, “I just can’t. This is tough for me.” Sam Jackson and I said, “Listen, man. We’re artists. They used the word like they used hello, good-bye.” So Leo came in the next day, and he didn’t speak to me after I spoke to him. He went right by me, into his character. That’s what’s going to be jarring.
ESSENCE: What part of yourself did you have to go to, Kerry, to portray this woman?
WASHINGTON: I had to go to places I didn’t even know existed in me. At one point we’re shooting this scene and hundreds of background actors are picking cotton in a field. And it’s hot. One of the actors was a preacher. He said to everyone, “You know, we have to do this— because we are the answers to the prayers of the people who did this. And so we need to honor their legacy. We can’t pretend this didn’t happen.”
ESSENCE: Jamie, were you emotional throughout the filming?
FOXX: There were nights when neither Kerry nor I could sleep—calling each other up, three and four in the morning, talking about what we were going through. When I had to watch Kerry get whipped, I asked, “Could we play Fred Hammond between each take?” Kerry, who I thought was amazing, asked to actually be hit with a whip. While that was happening, I saw a lady, who was an extra, I saw her hands go up in the air. I watched Tarantino’s eyepiece fill up with water, and he was like, “I had no idea.” He didn’t understand when he was writing that it was going to be so dynamic. For everybody.
Danyel Smith, a New York City writer, is the author of two novels. Follow her on Twitter.