Acting’s a funny thing. Some people are good at it, some are not. And while practically everyone can agree on what Bad Acting is, what does and what does not constitute Good Acting invites far more, often fiery, debate.
There are flavours to both ends of the spectrum, of course. Bad Acting offers up a bountiful buffet that stretches from the off-the-wall gonzo madness of Tommy Wiseau to whatever bland, concrete pillar-style ‘emoting’ Scott Eastwood is attempting at the moment. Good Acting, too, comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. You’ve got your old-school intense method kings (Brando, De Niro, Day-Lewis); your complete, inside-out inhabitation of character (Streep, Blanchett, Davis); your livewire energetics (Nicholson, Bassett, Cage) - the list goes on. But while Bad is quite uniformly seen as and agreed to be Bad—ain’t nobody praising Mr. Wiseau’s craft for example—Good is often far more open to argument. One glance towards a certain Mr. DiCaprio is enough to prove that. I’ve lost count of the amount of heated back-and-forths I’ve had with folks about Leo’s onscreen performances. I won’t repeat myself here as I think my stance is relatively well known, but suffice it to say that some people are genuinely and sincerely baffled when I put this opinion across. They simply do not see what I see. Quality in the arts is subjective. Twas ever thus.
Quality may well subjective, but Samuel L. Jackson is not, and it is time to acknowledge that he may well be the finest American actor of his generation, perhaps of all time.
Now I know what you’re thinking: This needs to be reaffirmed? Like, who in seven Welsh hells doesn’t like Sam Jackson? I’m sure there’re members of the goddamn KKK who get a kick out of watching Sam Jackson do his thing fer chrissakes.
Aye. But there’s a difference between being liked, and being respected. And I’m not just talking, ‘Hey, Sam Jackson is pretty damn good eh?’ respect. I mean The Best.
Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t need me to get in his corner—he’s Samuel L. fucking Jackson—but I’m gonna do it anyway.
The movie industry works much like most others do in our white supremacist, patriarchal world order—via a conformist funnel system. In other words: If you are to be accorded a certain amount of respect or prestige, and you happen to find yourself to be of a human form that does not conform to the One True White Male One, then you had better toe the line. Whether it is in the world of movies, music, sports, literature, politics, or a multitude of others, the amount of leeway given to straight, able-bodied, cis-gendered white men is several factors higher than that given to anyone else. Put simply: If you find yourself outside of this prestigious demographic, you are forever teetering on the precipice of disavowal.
In the movie industry, when it comes to respect—to being seen as a Great Artist—if you are one of the hallowed, then Greatness is allowed to come in all shapes and sizes: The Wacky Eccentric (Brando), the Serious Scholar (Day-Lewis), the Mercurial Rogue (Jack Nicholson). The list goes on. But cast your eyes towards any other demographic, and you’ll find those that have been venerated and held up more often than not conform to one mould: The Serious Artist. Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Morgan Freeman. There are exceptions, of course, but by and large if you wish to be elevated to a certain level in this world and its current power structures, you have to play the game. You should be Serious, Austere, and Respectful—and maybe then, if you’re lucky, the system will reward you and tell you that you’re great.
Now here’s where Samuel L. Jackson comes in.
Sam Jackson does not, and has never, given a fuck.
He has worked hard, he has honed his art, and he has always done it on his own terms. But, over time, the world has come to give a fuck about him. The injustice, however, is in how it does so. Because to many people, Samuel L. Jackson is still just the wild-eyed, fire-breathing ‘Volume Up’ button you press if you want to make your movie more…motherfucker-y. To unimaginative casting agents or directors he is still a token, recognisable black face that they may cast in order to dilute the Whiteness of their movie—a relic of an older, not-fading-quickly-enough world. As Jackson himself said in 1993:
Casting black actors is still strange for Hollywood. Denzel gets the offer first. Then it’s Danny Glover, Forest Whitaker and Wesley Snipes. Right now, I’m the next one on the list.
He may have leapfrogged up that list in the decades since, but the underlying system remains largely the same.
Well fuck all of that. Fuck the racist system that needs its black actors to be Serious before it calls them Great and fuck any critics or members of the public who still consider him to be just a walking catchphrase. Samuel L. Jackson is a Great Artist. A master craftsman. A consummate entertainer who creates works of high cultural value and who makes deep, resonant statements about humanity, and who does so with a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous, knowing grin on his face, without a hint of pretension. We are blessed to be alive at the same time as he and we should be showering him with awards.
There is a golden, luminescent line that runs through Jackson’s life and career that is key to understanding him. A heritage of defiance that defines him as well as his work. He was one of the ushers at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, and, involving himself with the Black Power movement, he was once quoted after the tragedy as as saying:
I was angry about the assassination, but I wasn’t shocked by it. I knew that change was going to take something different - not sit-ins, not peaceful coexistence.
The year after the assassination, Jackson and a few fellow activists held members of their Atlanta college board of trustees hostage, demanding reforms in governance and curriculum. His involvement with the movement gradually increasing, his mother feared for his safety after a warning from the FBI and so sent him to Los Angeles, where he channeled his energies into acting, starting on the stage and making his way to bit parts on the small and then big screen.
Sam Jackson has appeared in over one hundred movies, and he is the highest grossing actor of all time (no, Stan Lee doesn’t count). We take him for granted now. We take his presence as a given. He’s Nick Fury for God’s sake. But in such a world, it is easy to forget the depth of the man’s skill.
Jackson’s Fury is a, along with his twin star Tony Stark, the centre of gravity around which the behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe rotates. That kind of responsibility requires a force of presence and a charisma that is as rare as unicorn tears. Jackson has it in spades. By minutes of screen time he is one of the minimal players on this giant chessboard, and yet his monocular command casts a shadow over everything, even in the vast stretches that he is off screen. It might seem like an easy task, a natural consequence of the screenplay perhaps and nothing else, but turn back time, cast anyone else in that role, and watch the house of cards tumble. In superhero movies, there needs to be a natural, delicate blend of camp and sincerity; of pop and menace. Jackson perfected this cocktail on his first go around.
Part of the reason why Jackson’s Fury works so perfectly is that the actor infuses just enough of himself into the role so as to bolster an already badass character with some of his own natural, oceanic reserves of power—but not enough that it overwhelms the role and he simply plays himself. This, perhaps more than anything else, speaks to the levels of craft that Jackson commands at this stage in his career.
Naturally, Jackson’s career in Hollywood cannot rightfully be talked about without mentioning Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino was, of course, the director who gave Jackson the role that exploded him like a firework into the world’s imagination. Pulp Fiction’s Jules Winnfield is, like many of Tarantino’s creations, part-cartoon. He may have matured over the years, but the writer-director started out creating characters that could be accused of existing as delivery devices for his (nevertheless wonderfully written) scripts first, and actual characters second. Jules is one of these. Instantly iconic in a loud, menacing, quotable way, there are intimations of humanity and progression in him that Jackson took, amplified, and finessed. Without him, Jules Winnfield would be half the creation that we know. Thanks to him, the character echoes in eternity.
Winnfield aside, evoking the Tarantino/Jackson partnership leads one through an embarrassment of riches. Jackie Brown is one of Tarantino’s absolute best for example, and Jackson’s Ordell Robbie is a charismatic, terrifying presence. But it’s in two of the director’s latter works that the genius of the actor becomes truly apparent. To anyone who was paying attention, the one-two punch of Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight should have been the final nails in the coffin of any misconceptions around Jackson’s skill. What’s fantastic to see is that it did it in two wildly different ways. In Django Jackson plays Stephen, the plantation owner’s favored slave, in what must surely count as one of the actor’s most challenging roles to date. Stephen is the archetypal Uncle Tom. He sees the brutality of an unpardonable system laid out clearly before him, but instead of seeking to overthrow it he yearns to elevate himself slightly above his worse-suffering peers. Jackson absolutely disappears into the role, communicating with sharp, angry movements and baleful, suspicious looks, burying resentment and a tainted conscience deep inside himself. It’s a role that is tucked into the folds of the movie, but which dominates it in many ways nevertheless.
The Hateful Eight, by contrast, put Jackson front, left, and 70mm centre. It is a movie that is built around him. I remain convinced that it is a work that will grow in acclaim as the years go by, and Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren will be one of the main reasons for this. In a film filled with engrossing deceits, reveals, and rug-pulls, the most resonant element by far is its central protagonist. Great actors crowd the frame, and all are reduced to the status of children play-acting before nap time in the face of Sam Jackson’s tour de force performance. In the nearly three hours in between opening and closing credits the nearly seventy-year-old actor radiates charm, crackles with menace, and wrestles with suspicion and explodes with anger. Watching it I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit. The depth and range of this performance. Of the man’s whole career. The sheer bloody breadth. The commitment, the craft, the entertainment. Is there anything this man cannot do?’
If you still think the answer is, ‘Yes’, then I am afraid that you really have not been paying attention.