Why Jamie Foxx Was The Perfect Choice For Django Unchained

December 25, 2022 marks the 10th anniversary of "Django Unchained," and it's still a little difficult to gauge the cultural reputation of Quentin Tarantino's slave revenge picture. The film won Tarantino his second Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and took in a massive $426 million at the worldwide box office, making it the writer/director's biggest hit. And yet, the near decade since its release has seemed to silence the conversation tremendously around it. We even ranked it as Tarantino's second worst film a few years back. The 165-minute Western epic stretches itself in so many different directions that feed into many of Tarantino's best and worst impulses. It is not his longest film (both "The Hateful Eight" and "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood" run longer), but it feels the longest.

Where the movie does unequivocally shine is in its casting and characterization. "Django Unchained" won Christoph Waltz his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and three other characters cracked our top 20 of Tarantino's greatest characters of all time. While Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen was the highest ranking of those three, one spot below him was the titular Django, played by Jamie Foxx. Though Foxx was not the first choice to play Django, it is difficult to imagine anyone else in that part.

Will Smith Was the First Choice

Will Smith has been one of the biggest stars in Hollywood for nearly 30 years, so the actor being first on someone's casting wishlist is not particularly novel. Most famously, he was the first choice to play Neo in "The Matrix." There are probably dozens of iconic parts he has turned down. That's just the life of a mega movie star. Smith was, indeed, Quentin Tarantino's first choice to take up the role of Django. However, the actor turned down the part for a number of reasons. He didn't think Django was the lead of the film and was upset that he didn't get to kill the bad guy, as it is Christoph Waltz's Dr. Schultz who kills Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie. Smith also wanted to see love save the day instead of violence. The last sentiment certainly goes against Tarantino's whole cinematic oeuvre, so that partnership did not occur.

Of course, Will Smith is a talented actor who is currently the perceived front runner to Best Actor for his performance in "King Richard." However, I wonder how successful someone with that definitive of a movie star persona, someone that needy for people to like him, would be as a vengeful, raw killer. I don't know if Smith could have channeled the rage necessary to embody Django a decade ago. You needed someone with a similar ability to command the screen but a persona that is more malleable for the material. In steps Jamie Foxx.

He Was Tarantino's Cowboy

Jamie Foxx's abilities as an actor can sometimes be taken for granted. Sure, he is the host of the "Beat Shazam" television game show, and blue Electro is fun to mock. But Jamie Foxx's range of performances, from his Oscar-nominated turn as the ultra Joe Schmo in Michael Mann's "Collateral" to badass POTUS in "White House Down," are quite underrated. The man won an Academy Award for playing Ray Charles so well that Chris Rock joked in one of his Oscar host monologues, "Jamie Foxx was so good in 'Ray' that they went to the hospital and unplugged the real Ray Charles. It's like, 'We don't need two of these.'" So when it came time to talk with Quentin Tarantino about "Django Unchained," Foxx was able to show him how much he saw himself in the character. In an interview with That Shelf, Tarantino said:

"Jamie walked in – he came over to my house – he read the script, and he really liked the script. He liked what it said, he liked Django's journey, he liked the fact that this movie would exist and what that could do. It's going to be exciting! Now we're thinking of it as this brand new movie coming out, but in a few months that won't be the case anymore and we'll live in a world where 'Django Unchained' already exists. There are a whole lot of black kids yet to be born, and I think 'Django Unchained' might be a seminal movie for them as they grow up.

Jamie got all that. He was also my cowboy – there was this cowboy quality to him. He's from Texas, we're more or less around the same age, he knows what it's like to be a kid in the 70s and actually experience racism. He shared that. That was a big part of his whole thing with me, giving me a little hint into his life and what he's experienced. Yeah, now I frankly can't imagine anybody but Jamie being Django."

Jamie Foxx has a knack for playing observers who learn things. This is evident in "Collateral," where he spends so much of the film seeing how Tom Cruise's sociopathic Vincent operates as he is going around Los Angeles performing hit jobs. When it comes time for Vincent to use Foxx's Max as a stand-in, he can credibly put on Vincent's persona when meeting with Javier Bardem's drug lord character and stay alive. This sense of observation carries over to "Django Unchained," where he can absorb the confidence of Christoph Waltz's Dr. Schultz to become the biggest, badass, Black cowboy you can imagine.

While his performance is undeniable, I think it is the narrative that hinders him. Because Quentin Tarantino has all of these strong characters going off on their own threads, Django is not as firmly central as he needs to be. He is still unquestionably the lead of the film (I will certainly disagree with Will Smith on that front), but it takes awhile before we truly realize it. None of that can take away from Jamie Foxx's performance, who is dialed into Tarantino's unique tone from the first minute of the movie. I am a little surprised the two have not made a movie together since, as their ability to balance humor and edge mesh so well together. Here's hoping Quentin Tarantino's purported final film can change that.