"I didn't think it was happening when it was happening," Hudlin says, laughing.
The wide-ranging career of the 51-year-old filmmaker has included a three-year stint as President of Entertainment for BET, executive producing TV shows like "The Boondocks," writing the Marvel comic book "Black Panther" and directing episodes of "Modern Family" and "Everybody Hates Chris." So when Tarantino called up Hudlin to ask if he wanted to help produce "Django," he was stunned.
"Quite frankly, I just didn't believe him," Hudlin recalled in a recent phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. But Hudlin had long known Tarantino, who told him that a conversation they had had years earlier about Hollywood's depictions of slavery (or lack thereof) helped lead Tarantino to write "Django Unchained."
A week later, Hudlin was in Louisiana scouting locations for the film that would eventually land five Academy Awards nominations and gross more than $340 million worldwide. He shares the best picture nomination with producers Stacey Sher (who produced Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction") and Pilar Savone (who has risen in Tarantino's productions since being the director's assistant on "Kill Bill").
Hudlin is the most prominent African-American behind the scenes of the hit film, which courted the black community ahead of its release and mostly won its support. Spike Lee was one notable exception. (He refused to see it, saying "American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western. It was a holocaust.") And a limited-edition line of action figures of the film's characters — including slaves and slave-owners — drew protests and eventually the dolls' withdrawal from sale.
"We knew from the beginning that we were working with nitroglycerin," says Hudlin. "Was there a tremendous amount of discussion and conversation and analysis to make sure we were calibrating this thing exactly right? Absolutely. It was explosive material, but I always had confidence that as a team, we would deliver the right movie."
For Hudlin, "Django" represents the kind of film he'd like to see more of: original movies with multi-ethnic casts that don't reuse well-trod genre tropes.
"Django" goes against the conventional thinking that neither films starring black actors nor Westerns can find large audiences abroad. It's been a huge success internationally, taking in more than $187 million.
"If those historical models were always correct, we wouldn't be talking right now," says Hudlin. "Those films travel because the world is represented in those films. The audiences are voting with their dollar saying: We want more diversity."
The success of "Django" has already spawned much chatter about a possible sequel, which Hudlin grants he's had "extensive conversations" with Tarantino about. But for now, he's planning to just enjoy the Oscars, which he'll attend with his wife and mother. With Ben Affleck's "Argo" the generally accepted front-runner, Hudlin says he's not "polishing my acceptance speech," but proudly going as only the fourth black best picture nominee.
"Hopefully," he says, "there will be a day soon where we don't count anymore."