Part of the controversy revolves around the villain, Calvin Candie, played with thrilling virtuosity and gusto by Leonardo DiCaprio. In Corbucci’s work, the heroes are rarely heroic and the central protagonists can be quite dark, but in all of Tarantino’s movies, nearly every character has a mix of contradictory traits—and tends to live by a kind of existential code that tolerates both goodness and extreme evil. It’s hard not to fall under the spell of Tarantino’s villains. Take Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. Yes, he hunts and kills Jews, but he is still a fascinating character to watch. With Candie, it’s the same story: He demands that his slaves be whipped, prostituted, humiliated, and killed—and yet you can’t take your eyes off him.
In Django, that complicated, topsy-turvy delight in the bad guy is particularly troubling—even for Tarantino. “There is a thing in my movies where you start rooting for the villains a little bit,” he said. “But with Candie, I had a moral judgment about one of my villains for the first time. Candie is a gargoyle, and I hated him. I had to ask myself the question: Can you blame a Borgia for being a Borgia? In other movies, I’ve been observational on that point. Here, I’m invested. Race in America hits me very hard. So, the answer is yes, you can blame someone for indulging in entitlement and hate.”
At the first screening of Django Unchained in New York, which was held at the Academy Theater at Lighthouse International for an invited audience, an older black woman stood up during the Q&A session and exclaimed, “I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack!” She was clearly very upset. Similarly, Kerry Washington, who plays Broomhilda, said she began to feel unhinged when she performed some of the more extreme scenes. “I knew how important the story was,” she explained. “I knew I would have to go places emotionally that were unimaginable to me. I don’t know how any of my ancestors were able to live through that time. On the day that we shot Broomhilda’s whipping scene, Quentin played gospel music on set. The music reminded us that we were telling a story that honored the people that had come before us, that Django was telling a hero’s story out of all the ugliness. That’s why I had to do the movie.”
In the past, Tarantino has been blithe about the response to his films, especially when critics decried his use of violence. When discussing Django, he seemed more sensitive. “When the woman stood up at the screening, I felt terrible for her.” Tarantino said. “She was shell-shocked by the film—she had put herself in the world of Django, and she was about to cry.” Tarantino paused. “That’s why the movie has a happy ending. Sometimes, film can right the wrongs.”