On screen and off, Kerry Washington is a strong woman with strong convictions. Not only does she play the tough political crisis manager Olivia Pope on ABC's highly rated show "Scandal," she also commanded the national stage on the final night of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. So it's a bit incongruous to see Washington taking on a role like Broomhilda von Shaft — a plantation slave desperately in need of being rescued by her man — in "Django Unchained."
Washington, though, describes herself not just as a feminist but also a womanist — a term coined by Alice Walker to define black feminism. And the actress sees the role of Broomhilda, written by Quentin Tarantino but derived from a German fairy tale, as a womanist role in that it allows the black woman to embrace a fantasy that historically wasn't available to her.
"I know it's not the most feminist idea to be a woman in a tower wanting to be rescued, but for a woman of color in this country, we've never been afforded that fairy tale because of how the black family was ripped apart [during slavery]," Washington said. "I really saw the value of having a story that empowers the African American man to do something chivalrous for the African American woman, because that hasn't been an idea that has held women back in the culture — it's something we've never been allowed to dream about."
A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of George Washington University, Washington studied anthropology, sociology and psychology. Though she believed taking on the role of a slave would be both an emotional and psychological challenge, she deemed it worthy both as a piece of art and as an empowerment tale for African Americans. In the film, she plays the wife of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who unexpectedly wins his freedom and returns to Mississippi on a mission of rescue and revenge.
"We've had a tradition of romanticizing slavery in film, and I thought this was a phenomenal opportunity to go into a creative exploration of this violent, awful, evil, sinful time period with a director who is not intimidated by violence and gore and exploring the evil side of the human spirit," said Washington, 35.
Washington studied slave narratives in college and was well-acquainted with the stories of rebellion leader Nat Turner and white abolitionist John Brown. To prepare for her role, though, she went back and re-read her highlighted academic texts.
She sought to bring authenticity to her performance in several ways. The actor playing her overseer used a fake whip, but Washington insisted the lashings really hit her back. And to dramatize her punishment inside an underground, coffin-size metal container, she and Tarantino agreed she would spend time barely clothed in the "hot box" before the filming began so the feeling of confinement would be as realistic as possible.
The movie was filmed in part on the Evergreen Plantation in Edgard, La., a 2,000-acre farm that once was home to scores of slaves and today serves as a historical landmark. Twenty-two slave cabins remain on the property and were used as sets by the production.
"When I got there, it felt that it would be disrespectful to fake it, she said. "I have to honor the truth of what happened here to the best of my ability."
For Tarantino, it was not just Washington's ability as an actress that benefited the production; it was her intellectual understanding of the story.
"When it comes to what this movie is trying to say and the racial implications inside of it, there is nobody better to talk to than Kerry," said Tarantino before the film's release, yet anticipating a polarized response to the sensitive material. "She gets it. In almost every ideological aspect of what this movie is about. She is my greatest soldier, my greatest politician."
Despite her intellectual connection to the film, the production still proved grueling. The lengthy, eight-month shoot wore Washington down to the point where she called for both her manager and her parents to visit her, something Washington said she never does when she's working.
"I felt like if it had gone on a week longer, I would have lost my mind," she said. "I never let my people come visit me on set. I think it's terribly distracting. I don't enjoy it but I asked [them] to come down because I was concerned for my sanity."
The historical setting added a particular psychological weight, she said. "A scene like the whipping scene — the fact that I was doing that in a place where the sound of a whip against human flesh had echoed from hundreds of years ago.… We would be out in the woods in Louisiana with the birds chirping and bees buzzing — and when the first sound of that whip was heard on set, everything stopped. It was like nature knew we were going back. It was silent."
Despite the long and arduous shoot, being a part of "Django" isn't something Washington will let go of anytime soon. The actress says she's particularly grateful for the connection the film gave her to her ancestral past.
"One of our background actors was a pastor, and he was saying on set that we are the answer to their prayers — to the very people who walked on this land," she said. "Who we are today — because we can read, own property, vote, marry, have our children and our freedom — that we are the answer to their prayers, and that's why we are here to tell their story."