“We have to be these very nice kinds of Negroes so that we feel safe walking around,” Hateful Eight star Samuel L. Jackson declared Saturday at a press conference in Los Angeles, where talk of Quentin Tarantino’s violent new Western touched frequently on America’s lingering race problems. “Because if you present yourself as any other thing, then people call people on you.”
Three days after U.S. citizen Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people and injured 21 others in a deadly terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Jackson expressed sympathy for those who will be subjected to heightened scrutiny and racial profiling over their religious beliefs or the color of their skin.
“I feel sorry for everybody who looks Middle Eastern right now because that’s going to happen,” said the Oscar-nominated actor, who also makes a stellar turn in Spike Lee’s incendiary new polemic, Chi-Raq. “And for a minute, it was us.”
The Hateful Eight marks Jackson’s sixth film for Tarantino, and on the heels of QT’s Oscar-winning Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, completes the filmmaker’s trilogy of historical pulp sagas that tap into harsh lessons from our collective past as much as they offer visceral doses of his signature cool factor.
In The Hateful Eight, a motley octet of cagey strangers, snowbound together during a blizzard in a Wyoming haberdashery, embody the fractured landscape of a post-Civil War America still raw from ugly racial and social wounds. Just about every one of the titular antagonists throws around the n-word during the 187-minute span of Tarantino’s R-rated Western, one of a few hot-button triggers Hateful Eight will certainly pull when it opens on Christmas Day.
The use of the n-word in his films has long earned Tarantino the scorn of his critics—including Chi-Raq director Lee, who counted 38 of them in Jackie Brown and brought his complaints to Harvey Weinstein. “What does he want? To be made an honorary black man? I want Quentin to know that all African Americans do not think that word is trendy or slick,” Lee told Variety at the time.
When Django Unchained (n-word count: 110) unspooled in theaters, Lee reignited his quarrel with Tarantino, writing, “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.” Asked this month if he’d ever work again with Lee, whose Girl 6 he appeared in, Tarantino reportedly kept the flames of their beef stoked. “I have two more films to direct and I will not spend any of them working with that son of a bitch,” Brazilian newspaper O Globo reported. “He [Spike] would be very happy the day I accept to work with him. But it will not happen.”
Saturday afternoon Jackson, flanked by his co-stars and director, volunteered a defense of Tarantino’s use of the word in Hateful Eight, in which it’s uttered so frequently it might mark a new record. Politer terms might be more palatable to politically correct ears, but “that’s not what people said—that’s just not how people talked,” said Jackson. “So whether [my character is] in the room or out of the room, when they say ‘the nigger,’ I don’t have to look around to see who they’re talking about.”
“We don’t need to have those conversations because we all understand society,” he continued, gesturing to his castmates. “As Tim [Roth] knows British society, Demian [Bechir] knows Mexican society. We all know that everybody has these different stratas of living, and everybody’s got somebody that they particularly put their foot on or walk around on.”
“There will be people who wish times were still like they used to be,” Jackson predicted. “We know we’re not just making a movie for Quentin’s fans, because people who hate Quentin and what his movie stands for are still going to watch this movie just because they like shoot ‘em ups. And they’re going to sit there and go, ‘Shit, that’s my thing right there! They’re right, all those niggers lie!’ That’s a segment of society. And there will be other people who go, ‘I can’t believe they talk like that.’ But that’s just what movies do, and that’s why we make these things—so that we can start conversations, or get people thinking, and hopefully that will make a change.”