Samuel L. Jackson works so hard — and so often — that it can be easy to forget the individual greatness of his iconic performances.
Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What is Samuel L. Jackson’s best performance?
Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film), The Wrap, Remezcla, MovieMaker Magazine
Decades of spirited portrayals in canonic films and big-budget extravaganzas turned Samuel L. Jackson into an American cinema staple. His high points are many, with Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, and within the MCU for sure, but few have taken on as much historical and philosophical importance as his part in Raoul Peck’s earth-shattering documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.” In this superb collage of African American life, Jackson gives voice to novelist and virtuoso thinker James Baldwin, a defining figure within the civil rights movement who spoke uncompromisingly and with piercing vigor about racism in this country. Jackson’s highly recognizable voice enlivens Baldwin’s writing, but never makes itself known in a way that overpowers the potency of the text he is interpreting. Never on screen but always present, Jackson’s role in the Academy Award-nominated piece of mesmerizing non-fiction storytelling is one his greatest contributions to the cinematic art form to date.
Ken Bakely (@kbake_99), Freelance for Film Pulse
I’d like to use this space to highlight Jackson’s largely under-appreciated performance in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” as it represents one of the first points in his career when audiences had the chance to really see how robust an actor and presence he is. As Mister Señor Love Daddy, a local radio DJ that acts as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on events throughout the film from his all-day post on the airwaves, Jackson is a constant presence from the get-go (he delivers the first lines of dialogue) and cements each major plot point. It’s a great opportunity to see how invaluable he is in a role of any size, be it the central lead or part of a large supporting ensemble. Here, he effortlessly props up an already stellar cast and contributes greatly to the structure of the film’s story.
The role serves as early proof of the talent that confirmed Jackson as a household name in the years to come: he both understands and works within the definitions of the role and the project, furthering the film’s overarching style, while making the character undeniably and unforgettably his own.
Marie-Célia Cannenpasse-Riffard, (@MCeliaCR), Staff Writer at Screen Queens and Freelance
There’s something compelling about art dealer Elijah Price in “Unbreakable” and the power he radiates, a flash of craziness and obsession in Samuel L. Jackson’s eyes, captured with precision by M. Night Shyamalan’s camera. And if this very grounded comic book movie and its storytelling make plenty of room for one of the most fascinating nemeses to develop on screen, the beating heart of the film relies heavily on Jackson’s Price himself (best known as Mr. Glass) as he exudes an aura of pure strength that strikes the viewer, although a genetic disorder turns the character’s bones and body into extremely vulnerable territory. One would expect their typical supervillain big, bad and scary, equal to the superhero they confront and yet, muscles and guns aside, Jackson’s natural bravado moulds Mr. Glass into a deadly counterpart to Bruce Willis’ David Dunn, one of those who make your blood curdle as you dread their next move. Here, I believe Samuel L. Jackson gives his most explosive performance, without having to explicitly light the fuse.
Robert Daniels (@812filmreviews), 812filmreviews, Freelance
Samuel L. Jackson’s performance in “A Time to Kill” is his best acting. Jackson plays Carl Lee Hailey, a Black man in the South who is on trial for shooting two White men who have brutally raped his 10-year old daughter.
Your typical make the story into a white male confronting racism rather than a black man and his fight for life and justice, Jackson barely receives screen time in the nearly two-and-a-half-hour film. Nevertheless, the actor still delivers a gripping, spontaneous, and cathartic performance.
Jackson’s acting begins and thrives with his eyes. The cliché of Jackson—a reputation he’s gleefully displayed from the time-to-time, is of the unhinged expletive-laced meme. But he can only sell those scenes with emotive eyes, without such, he’d faded long ago. In short, it takes real acting: Acting that translates to other emotions.
Not only do those eyes reward us with explosive scenes in “A Time to Kill:” like the cross examination—they offer authenticity and real dimension in moments of tenderness. When Jackson’s character finds his daughter beaten and raped, the pure overflow of emotion arrives in successive waves with each blink and well. And when Hailey explains to his lawyer Jake (Matthew MccConaughey) why they’re different, why the perceptions of Blacks and Whites diverge in the eyes of even the most understanding Whites, Jackson is calm and gathered. He expresses the marginalization of Blacks: by even the most well-meaning Whites, and he does so in nearly a whisper. “A Time to Kill” features a star-studded cast, but it’s Jackson who’s the poignant and sincere heart of the film.
Alonso Duralde (@aduralde), TheWrap, Linoleum Knife, Breakfast All Day
(Editor’s note: We couldn’t find a screenshot from “The New Age,” so we’ve defaulted to an image of Mace Windu)
It’s next to impossible to pick out a “best” among Jackson’s storied performances, so I’ll go with a Best That You Might Have Missed: in Michael Tolkin’s underseen and underappreciated “The New Age,” Jackson plays a telemarketing boss who bullies and cajoles his underlings into completing their sales and scamming their marks on the other side of the phone. (Phone salesman Peter Weller appears before florist Audra Lindley, decades before Boots Riley dropped cold-caller Lakeith Stanfield into people’s kitchens in “Sorry to Bother You.”) Jackson’s scummy corporate shark appears in only a few scenes, but it’s an indelible portrayal of capitalist browbeating.
Joey Keough (@JoeyLDG), Contributing Editor of Wicked Horror, freelance for Birth.Movies.Death, Vague Visages, The List
There’s no such thing as a bad Samuel L. Jackson performance, and that is a scientific fact. Even in otherwise throwaway fare such as “Big Game” or “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” his presence alone makes everything else seem infinitely worthier (hell, he makes Twitter worthier). I have a major soft spot for “Deep Blue Sea” a.k.a the greatest sharksploitation movie since “Jaws” and Jackson gets an amazing, meme-generating pre-death speech in that one, but generally speaking his work with Tarantino still stands out among everything else he’s done.
Tarantino’s failings as a filmmaker aside, he definitely knows how to spotlight character actors, give them the space to show off, and let them sing. Jackson wasn’t even really the focus of one of his movies until “The Hateful Eight,” when he rightly got pride of place and the last laugh amidst a rogue’s gallery of degenerates, but he’s become synonymous with Tarantino for good reason. “Jackie Brown” showcased his more villainous tendencies to brilliant effect. “Hateful Eight” finally made him the (anti)hero he deserved to be.
But, for me, the quintessential Samuel L. Jackson role is Jules in “Pulp Fiction.” It’s everything about it, from the way he’s styled to his line delivery to his comedic timing. Consider the foot rub discussion he has with John Travolta’s Vince, when his Jules confidently asserts he has his technique down and doesn’t tickle the receiver. It’s a comment that has no bearing on anything else in the movie but, in Jackson’s hands, it feels life-affirming. Everyone naturally points to his big “vengeance and anger” speech, for good reason, as the big Jackson showcase here but the role itself, as inhabited by the great man, is iconic, its power evident every second he’s onscreen. The very idea of somebody else playing that part is crazy. It fits Jackson perfectly, like a sharp suit.
Joanna Langfield (@Joannalangfield), The Movie Minute
Remember when Sam Jackson was in everything? Still, of course, a box office star, and at times, a terrific actor, I will never forget his key supporting turn in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever”. His ferocious, pathetic drug addict Gator stole the show and made Jackson an actor to be remembered.
Sarah Marrs (@Cinesnark), LaineyGossip.com, Freelance
Samuel L. Jackson’s best performance is as Russell Franklin in “Deep Blue Sea”. Is this a bad movie? Yes. Is his character most famous for being eaten by a shark? Undoubtedly. Has he had better roles in better movies? Of course. But Russell and “Deep Blue Sea” typify the type of performance that made Samuel L. Jackson a household name. The guy will be in ANYTHING, and his sheer ubiquity in Saturday-afternoon cable movies is a big part of what makes him one of the most recognizable stars in the world. “A Time to Kill”, “Trees Lounge”, “Eve’s Bayou”, “Unbreakable”, his work with Quentin Tarantino–these are the performances that remind you Jackson is GOOD, not just intense. But it’s his intensity that made him famous and endeared him to audiences. It’s B-movie schlock like “Deep Blue Sea” that made him beloved. And, I would argue, Jackson doesn’t cheat his roles. He gives the same level of intensity to everything he does, so yes, “Deep Blue Sea” is ridiculous and his Big Speech is totally undercut by the arrival of a giant smart shark, but Jackson’s commitment to the moment is as great as it is in any Tarantino movie. I choose this performance as Jackson’s best because it represents his work ethic. Schlock is not an excuse to slack off, and Samuel L. Jackson never slacks off. It’s why we love him. He can say the most ridiculous dialogue and make it believable, and in “Deep Blue Sea” Jackson says some really ridiculous dialogue and gets upstaged by a shark, but he does not take that as a reason to half-ass it. He delivers. He always delivers.
Joel Mayward (@joelmayward), Cinemayward, Think Christian
While I’m tempted to say Jackson’s greatest performance is his line reading of “Hold onto your butts” in “Jurassic Park,” I think his strongest on-screen performance is in the 2011 film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s play “The Sunset Limited,” directed by and co-starring Tommy Lee Jones. After Black (Jackson) saves White (Jones) from attempting suicide via jumping from a train platform, the two men converse in Black’s sparse apartment about existence, suffering, meaning, and God. The two men represent clashing ideologies and paradigms–White is an atheistic white professor, while Black is a working-class African-American ex-convict and evangelical Christian. McCarthy’s dialogue is searing and erudite, if not a bit bleak (as is his wont), while Jones’s direction is sound. Yet it’s Jackson’s performance which stands out; he is sympathetic and compassionate, both anguished and kind. While we see glimpses of this softness in Jules’s climactic speech in “Pulp Fiction,” this is Jackson at his most existentially and emotionally raw as he desperately tries to convince White that life is worth living. Even when he’s just listening to Jones decry God and meaning, Jackson communicates so much in his hunched posture and his ever-shifting eyes glistening with tears. The resigned look on his face as he unlocks his apartment door so White can exit both the room and existence itself is heartbreaking, the anguished prayer he screams at God paradoxically overflowing with faith and doubt. For an actor who consistently exudes confidence and coolness, this is Jackson at his least cool, crumpled on the floor and helpless. When he finally turns his gaze directly into the camera and faces the audience, it’s transcendent.
Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat, Screen Rant
NEW LINE PRODUCTIONS
This question is a little more complicated than it appears on the surface, because Samuel L. Jackson gives two types of performances. There are those where he disappears into character and those where he plays Samuel L. Jackson — or at least an exaggerated version of him.
In the former category, his best work is as Jules Winnfield in “Pulp Fiction,” for reasons I probably don’t have to go into. Everyone who has seen that movie knows his performance is iconic, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any cinema buff who hasn’t seen it. As far as the performances in which he plays his own persona, I’d have to go with “Snakes on a Plane.” I mean, he actually says, “I’ve had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!” You just don’t get any more Samuel L. Jackson-y than that.
Aaron Neuwirth (@AaronsPS4), We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, Out Now with Aaron and Abe
In addition to being one of the hardest-working people in show business, Samuel L. Jackson may be the best added-value element you could have, given his lack of treating any job with less than 100% commitment coupled with having so many high-profile film appearances. The best of those tend to be in his collaborations with Quentin Tarantino, and my pick for his best performance has to be as Ordell Robbie in “Jackie Brown.”
Between the sheer joy Jackson can bring to a character with his lit up smile accompanied by a colorful choice of words and the intense anger that also incorporates some pretty serious language, Ordell is a terrific character that is perfectly balanced between the gritty realism that comes from Elmore Leonard’s style and the heightened reality that makes a Tarantino film. Jackson wisely plays up the confidence in a manner that has his slightly dim, yet successful gun runner character to help him lure in other criminal associates. He also balances things out with the way he delivers low-key menace to his interactions with Pam Grier’s titular Jackie Brown.
Two scenes that stick out emphasize both areas that speak to the range Jackson brings to Ordell. One involves the persuading he must do to have Chris Tucker’s Beaumont Livingston get into the trunk of a car, knowing that he plans to execute him soon after. Describing a post-deal meal at Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles never seemed so sinister. The other scene is a quiet moment after Jackie has stolen the money and Ordell sits in a van with Robert De Niro’s Louis. The camera holds focus on a profile shot of Ordell’s face as he slowly realizes who has conned him. It’s all expression, and a terrific display of the power this prolific actor has brought to the screen for multiple decades.
On top of it all, Jackson even adds some signature lines fit for whatever montage reel would be needed to celebrate him, whether it involves his thoughts on AK-47s or my personal favorite, “I didn’t know you like The Delfonics.”
Don Shanahan (@casablancadon), Every Movie Has a Lesson and Medium.com
Samuel L. Jackson is the coolest of cool and his magnetism doesn’t get any better than playing Jules Winnfield in “Pulp Fiction.” Custom-written for him by Tarantino, Jackson’s hard-talking and hard-hitting hatchet man remains downright legendary from his first second on screen to his last. Every piece of his characterization is utterly exceptional at elevating the badass archetype. Jackson took the nondescript black suit-and-tie and fills it with a man who moves and permeates unequal swagger. He blasted the usual norm of toughness for the sake of toughness and brought an invigorating level of frank pragmatism that framed his intensity with a fascinating set of principles. Well-spoken one minute and cussing up a storm the next, his zingers, exclamations, and riffs never cease to be incredibly entertaining and memorable. No offense to veteran win for Martin Landau, but Sam Jackson was robbed of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year. His “Pulp Fiction” role was a benchmark performance that dozens of wannabe movie heavies have tried to emulate ever since. Even many of Jackson’s own castings in the past 25 years borrow (sometimes a little, sometimes a lot) from Jules Winnfield.
Andrea Thompson (@ areelofonesown), The Chicago Reader, Cultured Vultures, The Young Folks
I was thoroughly unimpressed by nearly everything about “Django Unchained.” Except of course for Samuel L. Jackson as the venomous Stephen. It’s one of the bravest, most terrifying performances I’ve seen, which uses Jackson’s past roles as various types of badasses to a very twisted end. The thing is, in “Django Unchained” Jackson is still playing a badass. It’s just all in service to a horrifying system that has so twisted Stephen, it has made him a devoted acolyte of the very people who dehumanize him. Stephen is the one who figures out Django’s plan, and very nearly ends Django. His secretive smirk as he deduces what Django and Schultz are really up to wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie. Right up until the end, Stephen believes this world will last forever, even as the plantation that has been the setting of so much horror is literally collapsing around him. I’m constantly in awe that Jackson not only took on this role, but was obviously able to get inside Stephen’s tragic mindset to such a degree.
Clint Worthington (@clintworthing), Consequence of Sound, Alcohollywood
It’s tough to pick a singular performance from Samuel L. Jackson’s illustrious career without going for the easy targets – there are his classics, of course, like Jules Winfield in “Pulp Fiction” to his searing, furious father in “A Time to Kill;” even his schlockier stuff like “Deep Blue Sea” and “Snakes on a Plane” are aided by his larger-than-life presence. However, one oft-unsung early role of Jackson’s is in 1998’s high-concept cop thriller “The Negotiator,” in which he plays Lieutenant Danny Roman, a top hostage negotiator for the Chicago PD, who finds himself becoming a hostage taker himself after being framed for illegal conduct by the very members of his precinct he hoped to expose. Taking his police captain and several people hostage, Jackson’s character engages in a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game with the police outside, any of which could be in on the frame game themselves.
Sam Jackson works best when he gets to play both extremes of his considerable range, and “The Negotiator” allows Smooth, Smiling Jackson and “Motherfucker” Jackson to come out in ample measure; his Danny Roman knows every trick his negotiators are going to use to get him to release hostages, which gives Jackson plenty of opportunity to command every frame he’s on screen. The fact that his Roman can so elegantly juggle the chaos both outside the building and inside with his hostages (which include Siobhan Fallon, Paul Giamatti, and J.T. Walsh in his final performance) is nothing short of electrifying. Roman is like Shaft mixed with Nick Fury – a calculating spymaster with the smart mouth and physicality of an action-movie cop – making The Negotiator feel like a case study for both of Jackson’s future iconic roles.
It’s a tough rewatch in a post-#MeToo world, given that it’s essentially a two-hander between Jackson and Kevin Spacey of all people, but it’s still a tremendous demonstration of Jackson’s particular brand of ferocity. For much of the film, Jackson has to carry a scene with a partner who’s on the other end of a phone line, and he still manages to keep you glued to the screen. It’s not the most sophisticated movie in his oeuvre, nor does it age well, but damn if it doesn’t make an awesome vehicle for Jackson at the height of its powers.