Not a Mistake: Samuel L. Jackson's 5 Best Performances
Is there a single veteran actor easier to take for granted than Samuel L. Jackson? His casting in a major release can be seen more as an inevitability than an event—a far cry from more selective actors like the elusive Daniel Day-Lewis or his own Django Unchained co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, Jackson averages at least three roles annually for most years this decade. When flipping through cable channels, you can flip a coin on whether you’ll see him first in a Star Wars prequel or a Marvel movie—an uncharitable viewer might find his novelty to be wearing off.
Jackson might be an Oscar nominee with the unpredictably off-kilter energy of a character actor, but he’s perhaps most recognizable in the public eye as a movie star. He’s the highest-grossing actor of all time according to Box Office Mojo’s People Index, despite so often appearing in supporting roles or even cameos. Your eyes might gloss over seeing “And Samuel L. Jackson” on the poster for a blockbuster you’ve already forgotten watching, but make no mistake—Jackson’s filmography is one with some surprisingly bold choices, deceptively complex characters, and consistently compelling directors attached.
It’s a daunting task, but I’m here to break down my favorite performances in a body of work stacked with unforgettable ones.
5. Major Marquis Warren, The Hateful Eight
Jackson’s collaborations with Quentin Tarantino (another name you might grow tired of hearing in film-centric circles) are the elephant in the room, and for good reason. In a recent appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Jackson lumped several of his Tarantino performances together as a favorite of the characters he’s played. And the pulpy provocateur certainly gives him room to show how effectively flexible he is as a collaborator. Jackson shares the screen with an aloof but secretly sensitive John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, an uncharacteristically and hilariously restrained Robert De Niro in Jackie Brown, and even gives a career-best DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz a scenery-chewing run for their money in the aforementioned Django. In all three, Jackson turns Tarantino’s unapologetically profane, longwinded dialogue into its own art form — you can practically feel his co-stars breaking a sweat to keep up, and gratefully succeeding more often than not.
But I find Jackson’s most striking Tarantino performance to be his most recent one: his turn as Major Marquis Warren in the divisive, grimy and startlingly political The Hateful Eight. From the minute he enters the picture, sitting on the pile of bodies he’s transporting to the Wyoming town of Red Rock, Warren seems a perfect fit for Jackson’s darkly comedic sensibilities as a performer. He’s used to being on the brink of death and racial hatred from his time with the Union Army in the Civil War, but he’s quick-witted enough to find ways of fitting in with folks who’d usually want him dead. His early interactions with the abrasive “hangman” John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and more overtly racist Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are a captivating battle of wits—when they go low, Warren goes just high enough to get by. With his so-called Lincoln Letter in hand, he can even strike up a relationship of convenience with would-be Confederate sheriff Chris Mannix while never apologizing for the white men he’s killed.
For all his wits, Jackson’s performance is a relatively withdrawn ticking time bomb, until he explodes for his harrowing monologue to former Confederate General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern). Jackson explains how he dragged Smithers’ son through the cold, forced him into oral sex, and wouldn’t even offer him a blanket before killing him. Through it all, you can see the twisted sense of glee in his eyes, one that’s disturbingly cathartic for both character and viewer—this is the sort of thing Warren finds pleasure in after the racist horrors he’s been subjected to, and Jackson sells it with a near-religious conviction entirely his own. The scene is one of the finest examples of Jackson’s ability to command the screen while playing well with his fellow performers—he’s one of the key reasons this sometimes repulsive but consistently engrossing ensemble piece manages to land.
4) Señor Love Daddy, Do the Right Thing / Dolemedes, Chi-Raq
Jackson’s performances for Tarantino are undeniably strong work, but one would be remiss not to mention the actor’s collaborations with an essential voice long at odds with Tarantino: Spike Lee. While rarely being granted roles as prominent in the newly Oscar-nominated director’s filmography as Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes or Lee himself, Jackson is a reliable presence in six of his films. He’s essential to the knockout punch of Do The Right Thing as radio DJ Señor Love Daddy, setting the stage for Lee’s comedic tragedy with a surreal opening scene. With his cryptic, rapidfire catchphrases, Jackson’s DJ comes across as something of a modern Cheshire Cat, but the blunt force of his delivery is one to be reckoned with—you can practically feel the heat he describes on air. Señor Love Daddy even serves as an unexpected conscience for Spike Lee’s Mookie, helping him express love for his partner Tina (Rosie Perez) through music, and later telling him to go home to his son after the film’s harrowing, iconic riot scene. Jackson makes his limited presence felt throughout the film, in both the best and worst of times.
He briefly reprises the role for a scene in Mo’ Better Blues that’s equal parts comical and unapologetically political and pays tribute to it as the narrator of Chi-Raq. In the wildly underrated latter film, Jackson’s turn as Dolemedes feels like a distinctly modern reimagining of Señor Love Daddy, one acutely aware of the star power he’s built up in the years since Do the Right Thing. He’s not an active part of a community like he was in that film—rather, Dolemedes is something of an anachronism, one who can either pause the narrative or interact with characters like Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) depending on what the film needs to convey its messages in a given moment. Jackson’s presence is more wink-wink in the way his Marvel cameos and commercial appearances tend to be—but if it sounds contrived, know that it’s exactly what makes Lee’s musical satire work so well. The film is an ambitious juxtaposition of flashy music video energy and Ancient Greek drama, one that uses its most superficial touches to point out how powers that be go so far out of their way to ignore such thuddingly obvious political and racial injustices. Jackson breaks up the seemingly aimless sex and violence with cleverly rhymed interludes that drive home how much the city of Chicago is falling apart, despite the best effort of entertainers like Jackson to distract us. Though Dolmedes is one of Jackson’s more one-note characters in recent memory, that one note is Chi-Raq’s secret weapon.
3. Dr. Louis Batiste, Eve’s Bayou
Jackson’s work across Lee’s filmography, which also includes an unforgettably raw turn as the drug-addicted Gator in Jungle Fever, is that of a powerful, playful character actor—functionally different from his performances as Tarantino’s righthand man, but no less effective. But Jackson’s too-rarely flexed leading man muscles are put to perhaps their best use by one of his most unsung directorial collaborators: Kasi Lemmons. Her Southern Gothic coming-of-age masterpiece Eve’s Bayou gives Jackson one of his most overtly charming roles—but only at first glance. He plays Louis Batiste, deemed “the best colored doctor in all of Louisiana” early on and loved by women across his community—most notably his daughters Eve and Cisely, who are often at odds competing for his affection.
Of course, this is exposed more and more over time as a hollow facade. By Louis’ own admission to his sister Mozelle, “I need to be a hero sometimes. That’s my weakness.” And who would expect a so-called hero of cheating on his wife and drunkenly assaulting his oldest daughter Cisely? Lemmons’ film often splices in striking photographic images and monochromatic dream sequences to a more colorful “real world”—like the young Eve’s scattered recollection of familial trauma, it’s a work of controlled chaos, depicting all the frustrating contradictions of grief and memory. The stacked cast of actresses turning in nakedly emotional work is impeccable, but Jackson’s pitch-perfect work as a two-faced monster with understandably effective charm is the glue holding everything together.
2) Romulus Ledbetter, The Caveman’s Valentine
While he shines in Lemmons’ debut ensemble piece, Jackson is even more of a standout in her follow-up film: The Caveman’s Valentine. Where Bayou saw Jackson playing the memory of a father to a confused narrator, Valentine features him as the confused protagonist himself—this time, trying to make sense of wealth inequality and classism well before a murdered male model shows up in a tree by his home. As Romulus Ledbetter, a virtuoso piano player and Julliard alum who’s seen better days (per his own description, he’s not homeless—he lives in a cave), Jackson’s bulging eyes and manic energy are put to memorable effect, but it’s not quite as loud or showy a performance as you’d expect given the film’s more high-concept aspects.
His first scene says it all — as his head tilts toward the screen, Romulus shouts “Don’t you watch me!” Before Lemmons reveals he’s talking to passersby who expect his delusions to provide them some entertainment. This introduction, along with scenes where Romulus addresses the skyscraper he believes the elite Stuyvesant resides in, are the closest Jackson gets to his modern reputation as a larger than life performer. More often, he’s quick-witted and warmly sympathetic—whether he’s talking to his estranged cop daughter or suspicious party guests, Jackson plays Romulus as someone who’s aware of his mental obstacles without being apologetic for his unflinching dedication to justice and progressive politics. Jackson appears to be letting his emotional guard down under Lemmons’ direction—he’s startlingly intimate both with Moira, the sister of seedy artist David Leppenraub, and Matthew, the murder victim’s grieving lover. He’s a performer who never holds back, even when he’s underplaying—and in both his films with Lemmons, that talent is on full display.
1. Elijah Price, Unbreakable and Glass
There’s a reasonable argument to be made about Valentine being Jackson’s most emotionally gripping, fully realized performance. I’d certainly go to bat for it being his most under-appreciated, but ultimately, I must give the top honor to his unforgettable turn as Elijah Price — the tragic villain turned revolutionary icon of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Eastrail 177 Trilogy.” In Unbreakable, even before he embraces his identity as the criminal mastermind Mr. Glass, Jackson’s atypically softspoken tone is every bit as commanding as his loudest Tarantino or Lee line-reads—from his dismissal of a father buying vintage comic book art for a young child, to his unshakeable belief that David Dunn (Bruce Willis) possesses superheroic strength, Jackson is an intriguing force to be reckoned with, even before one realizes his place in the proceedings. How fitting that a similar confusion is what haunts Elijah every day of his life—and how tragic that his first film ends in a practically religious affirmation of his “purpose.” Jackson’s tearful smile as he accepts his orchestration of murders to reveal another superhuman has never left my mind.
If signs of the bolder, more overtly scene-stealing Jackson became clearer and clearer over the course of Unbreakable, they’re completely undeniable in this year’s long-awaited follow-up, Glass. It’s a film clearly in awe of Jackson’s legendary talents, the same way Elijah and Kevin Crumb/The Beast (James McAvoy) want people to be in awe of them. Shyamalan hides Jackson in plain sight early on—giving him more twitches and contemplative close-ups than actual lines. But by the time he’s discussing superpowers with Crumb, directing him to crush guards as they attempt to break out of a mental hospital, and grinning from ear to ear in awe of the comic book archetypes he’s living out, it’s clear that both character and performer are having the time of their life. But yet again, Elijah’s unexpected inspiration is rooted in tragedy—it takes his death at Crumb’s hand to realize how much of a difference his misguided plans have made. He’s made plenty of mistakes, but still insists on telling his mother he’s not a mistake on his deathbed. Even before his suicide mission proves the existence of superhumans to what could very well be the whole world Elijah realizes through his suffering and wrongdoing, he’s played an important part in the life he once thought meaningless.
Like Elijah Price, Romulus Ledbetter or any of his unforgettable roles, Samuel L. Jackson offers much more than meets the eye. Even after years of memes and Marvel cameos, it’s clear that Jackson’s a deservingly iconic household name. But the depth and range he can bring to the screen too often go undiscussed as his star power dominates the pop culture conversation. He’s one of our best living actors, and he’s brought life to some of our most unforgettable characters in multiple decades—his influence is not a mistake.