Samuel L. Jackson is huge. An actor with one of the highest total box office grosses ever, with numerous credits spread out over film, television, stage. He’s Samuel L. Jackson, the intimidator, the screamer, the enforcer. He’s such an iconic persona, that we often forget that the man really, truly, can act. Here are my favorite examples of Jackson’s talent, of which there are certainly more than five. So do feel free to list your favorites after you check out mine!
5. Unbreakable (2000)
The smartest thing M. Night Shyamalan has ever done was make his masterful film, Unbreakable, a two-hander. Instead of just focusing on the main hero (played by Bruce Willis), Shyamalan gives equal time to the hero’s physical antithesis, Elijah Price. This is a wise move on Shyamalan’s part, as Price is the far more interesting character, and played to utter perfection by Jackson. When I think of Samuel L. Jackson, my mind immediately paints an image of a strong, ferocious, determined, screaming man. The beauty of Price is the understatement Jackson brings to the role. Sure, Price is decked out in flashy threads and sports a unique hairstyle, but the man’s charm is in the conviction of his whisper. We never know if we can trust Elijah Price, but we, like the Willis character, have no choice but to follow him.
4. A Time to Kill (1996)
The single best scene of Samuel L. Jackson’s career is the moment he surrenders himself to the law in A Time to Kill. After murdering the two men who raped and nearly beat his daughter to death, Jackson’s Carl Lee Hailey doesn’t go on the run. He doesn’t hide out and seek refuge. Instead, he simply goes home. He goes home, sits with his family, and waits. The town Sheriff soon arrives and finds Carl Lee waiting passively on his front porch. Carl Lee calmly says goodbye to his family, walks down his steps, and slowly approaches the Sheriff. Watch Jackson do this walk. I mean, really fucking watch him. There’s so much going on in his face – guilt, shame, pride, determination, justice – it’s really quite a startling achievement.
3. Jungle Fever (1991)
A few months after Jackson got clean from alcohol and crack, his good friend Spike Lee offered him the role that would change his life: as an alcoholic crackhead willing to do anything for his next fix. Given Jackson’s current (and one might guess, delicate) state at the time of Jungle Fever was filmed, it would’ve be easy for him to hold back on his character, Gator. Instead, Jackson delivers one of the most haunting and realistic depictions of drug addiction that I’ve ever seen. Gator’s final confrontation with his naïve mother (Rudy Dee) and vengeful father (Ossie Davis) is one of the finest, most intense scenes of all three actors’ careers.
2. Pulp Fiction (1994)
If there was an actor born to speak the words of Quentin Tarantino, then Samuel L. Jackson certainly is it. In fact, long after we’re all gone, Jules Winnfield could very well be remembered as Jackson’s most iconic role. The fire and brimstone, the flawed morality, the discreet humor – everything that comes out of Jackson’s mouth is pure gold. There are many things that set Jules apart in the world of Pulp Fiction, but one of the most striking is the lack of physicality demanded for the role. Most every other character in the film is required to do something shocking with their body. Jackson’s job is to stand (or sit) in the middle of a room and let the words fly. Job damn well done.
1. Jackie Brown (1997)
Every last detail about Ordell Robbie feels wildly authentic. The rat tail goatee, the relaxed wardrobe, the confident stride, the screwdrivers – every external factor blends perfectly to create one of Tarantino’s most vivid characters. But, of course, there’s just as much going on inside as out. Whether Ordell is dishing out a lavish story in order to get a poor bastard in the trunk of his car, or gracefully placing his hands around the throat of his friend, or taking a moment to stare off and figure out how he’s been deceived so exquisitely, every choice Jackson made as Ordell worked seamlessly to bring this scumbag to life. I can watch and listen to Jackson inhabit Ordell repeatedly, knowing all well that no one could do what he did with the character. Except no substitutes.