Samuel L Jackson: Tarantino, racism and the N-word
The star of Django Unchained has unrivalled box-office clout in Hollywood. But that doesn't stop him from speaking his mind
Wednesday 16 January 2013
Samuel L Jackson isn't too bothered about Oscar nominations. "No, not particularly," he says, bluntly. "I've had a pretty good career. I don't think it will validate my stature in Hollywood one way or another. I've done some pretty interesting things, and it's been a long and rich career. It's definitely not going to help my box-office record!"
This much is true. Aided largely by supporting appearances in the Star Wars prequels and assorted Marvel movies – including last year's The Avengers – Jackson's films have grossed $9bn, making him, technically, the biggest box-office star of all time. Who needs Oscars? Overlooked for Django Unchained, the only time Jackson was nominated for an Oscar – for his hitman in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction – he lost to Martin Landau for Ed Wood and mouthed "Aw, shit" on camera when he heard the result.
The 64-year-old Jackson is cactus-prickly at the best of times. Today, talking about his role in Tarantino's spaghetti western/slavery epic, Django Unchained, he's in no mood to play nice. The story sees Jamie Foxx's slave Django set out to rescue his wife from the plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and run by Jackson's head slave Stephen. "The movie is not about slavery," says Jackson, testily. "Slavery just happens to be a backdrop. Even Django is not trying to end slavery. He's just trying to get his girl back."
Suspicious, shrewd and utterly deferential to his white master, Jackson's character is utterly repellent – though the actor refuses to consider him "a bad guy". "No, I consider him a product of his environment. That's what he's been all his life. He essentially raised Calvin Candie. Slavery has been in effect, more or less, for 150 years before you meet him. And as far as he's concerned, it's going to be in effect for 150 more. He lives a comfortable life. Somebody has to run the plantation. Stephen does that. He writes the cheques, he makes sure people do their jobs… Stephen makes sure those things happen so that the plantation continues to run."
So Stephen doesn't believe he's a slave? Jackson rolls his eyes. "Does he look like he thinks he's a slave? You can see him physically. Does he treat himself like a slave? Is he obsequious? OK, well there you have it. He's living a pretty good life. And, no, I don't think he's a bad guy." Jackson is clearly getting tired of this line of questioning. "Like I said, there are certain people who are comfortable in the institution of slavery and there are certain people who are not. Stephen is comfortable in it. He's a collaborator. If it's black against white, Stephen's a collaborator."
Jackson relents a little when we move onto the subject of "Westerns. "I grew up watching Westerns," he tells me. "We had Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Lash LaRue and all that stuff. Then television had a bunch of Westerns on – Have Gun – Will Travel, Bonanza, The High Chaparral – three ranches that probably covered the whole US at one point! I played cowboys and did all that stuff. It wasn't Christmas unless we got guns and shot each other! I remember them." Was he a fan of the spaghetti Westerns that Tarantino holds so dear and clearly influenced Django Unchained? He nods. "I just remember the spaghetti Westerns being different Westerns; all of a sudden people were getting shot in the head and they really had bullet holes."
While the film has already won Tarantino a Golden Globe for Best Original Screenplay, it's also caused considerable controversy for its language. In the US, Jackson took one journalist to task for questioning Tarantino's excessive use of the word "nigger" in the script (110 times, according to one count). Except that the reporter referred to it as "the N-word". Jackson goaded him into saying it. "Say it! Try it! We're not going to have this conversation until you try it!" When I mention to Jackson that Tarantino's script has caused a lot of controversy for its excessive use of the word, I get a sarcastic "Really?" in reply.
So what's his opinion? Is he offended by it? Does Tarantino overuse it? "Did they have another name to call the [black] people they were talking about at the time?" he shoots back. "If you're going to deal with the language of the time, you deal with the language of the time. And that was the language of the time. I grew up in the South. I heard 'nigger' all my life. I'm not disturbed by it."
It's not the first time Jackson had been caught in such crossfire. Spike Lee criticised Tarantino, claiming he was "infatuated" with the word, in the wake of the Jackson-starring Jackie Brown. Lee and Jackson go way back, of course. Cast by Lee in bit-parts in School Daze, Do the Right Thing and Mo' Better Blues, when he was still largely an unknown, Jackson then played a junkie for him in 1991's Jungle Fever (shortly after going through his own spell in rehab). The Cannes jury that year were so impressed, they created Jackson a one-off Best Supporting Actor prize.
Curiously, Jackson has just completed his first film for Lee since Jungle Fever, a remake of the South Korean revenge thriller Oldboy. Lee has been vocal about Django Unchained, tweeting "American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust." He added in one interview that he had no intention of actually seeing Tarantino's film. "It'd be disrespectful to my ancestors." Has Jackson talked to Lee about the film? "No. I can't talk to him about something he hasn't seen… I probably won't have a conversation with him about it, unless he brings it up. I won't bring it up – 'Hey, why didn't you see my movie?' I don't care if he sees it or not."
Given he's rather caught in the middle between this long-running feud between the two directors who have arguably been the most influential on his career, does he have any idea why it's escalated? "I don't know what it's about! I don't particularly care," he says, his voice aggressive and animated. "I haven't had a conversation with Quentin about whether he likes Spike or doesn't like Spike. And I never had a conversation with Spike about whether he likes Quentin or doesn't like Quentin… I really don't know. I don't know if it's jealousy. Who would be jealous of whom?"
Jackson, who grew up an only child in Tennessee, where his mother was a factory worker, has been arming himself for debate and discourse since his early days. "I've been reading since I was four years old," he says. "I lived in a world of literature when I was a kid, before we even owned a television." He grew up politicised – from attending Martin Luther King's funeral to forging relations with the Black Power movement. He even was convicted of unlawful confinement, after he and several other students held hostage the board of trustees at Morehouse College, Atlanta, where he studied marine biology, demanding reform in the school's curriculum.
It was during his time at Morehouse that he met LaTanya Richardson, his wife since 1980 (they have one daughter, Zoe, now 30). An actress in her own right – she was even in Spike Lee's Malcolm X – she has some way to go before she could ever catch up with Jackson. Oldboy aside, he's about to shoot a small role in the upcoming Robocop remake, then he'll be on Marvel duties, playing that Avengers assembler Nick Fury in Captain America sequel, The Winter Soldier. Beyond that, he's unsure yet whether he'll appear in a stand-alone Nick Fury movie or the proposed sequel to Joss Whedon's The Avengers. "I think I've got four or five pictures left on my nine picture deal. I'll just keep showing up."
He'd also love to reprise his Jedi, Mace Windu, for the upcoming Star Wars sequels currently in the works (despite the fact his character is last seen, minus his hand, plunging from a window, presumably to his death). "Yeah, I'd love to be a part of that," he says. "I think it'd help people come back to the franchise, to have some familiar characters before they start introducing all the new ones." So you wouldn't mind being a ghost? "I don't know why I'd have to be a ghost. I'm a Jedi! I fell out of a window and they took my hand off. I could show up as a one-handed Jedi – alive!" Coming back from the dead – it's just the sort of thing Jackson can do.
'Django Unchained' opens on Friday
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