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JACKSONIAN DEMOCRACY”S JACKSONEST SAMUEL L. JACKSON PERFORMANCES

A Look at Our Top Ten Jacksonest Performances by Actor Samuel L. Jackson

By the Members of the Jackson Democracy

Summer 2014

Samuel L. Jackson is one of the highest grossing actors of all time, so he must be doing something right, right? He”s claimed: “I actually think I have an audience member”s sensibility about going to the movies.” That sensibility leads to his approaching movies less as art and more as entertainment: “People go to movies on Saturday to get away from the war in Iraq and taxes and election news and pedophiles online and just go and have some fun. I like doing movies that are fun.”

If we”re being honest, that “pop” sensibility has probably both helped and hurt his craft artistically. If there”s anyone who has “watered down their beer” more than Nicolas Cage by appearing in numerous horrible films, it”s Samuel L. Jackson. But that”s just by sheer prolificacy, for he has also appeared in numerous great films as well. In one of those films on the better end of the spectrum, Kill Bill, Vol. 2, his character Rufus claims, “I was a Drell. I was a Drifter. I was a Coaster. I was part of the Gang. I was a Bar-Kay. If they come through Texas, I done played with them.” Likewise, if a filmmaker or actor or anyone in the entertainment business had a hand in making movies in the last 25 years—no matter whether they were talented or untalented or somewhere in between—it”s likely that Samuel L. Jackson “done played with them.”

He”s worked with directors as artistically diverse as Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Joel Schumacher, M. Night Shyamalan, Kenneth Branagh, Tony Scott, the Hughes Brothers, Barry Levinson, John Singleton, Doug Liman, Brad Bird, P. T. Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Adam McKay, F. Gary Gray, David R. Ellis, and John McTiernan. It”s easy to forget, through all the Reasonable Doubts and the Freedomlands, that he”s actually in a handful of the best films of the last two and half decades: Pulp FictionJurassic Park, Goodfellas, Out of Sight, Do the Right Thing, Hard Eight, Jackie Brown, etc. In fact, when you look at only what rises to the top in his oeuvre, you see what a talented actor Samuel L. Jackson truly is. Like Cage, used by a great director in service of a great film, Samuel L. Jackson, in spite of his claims to have an eye and ear towards entertaining, can approach true artistic genius.

Though that links him with the focus of this group”s first actor top ten, Nicolas Cage, he is also reminiscent of another actor we”ve recently top-tenned: Jeff Goldblum. When directors hire a Jeff Goldblum or a Samuel L. Jackson, it is often because they want them to play themselves, speak in their own idiosyncratic voice, and bring their own particular brand of cool to the character. That Jacksonesque cool that he brings to his characters often allows his on-screen rants—which are probably what he is most famous for—to be entertaining while off-putting, conforting while menacing. He has a particular cadence, rife with over-enunciation, spontaneous shouting, and quite often a healthy dose of expletives. Samuel L. Jackson, the very best there is. When you absolutely, positively need an actor to kill it with every single “motherfucker” line you”ve written into your script; accept no substitute. Those Samuel L. Jackson speeches, filled with lines that have become iconic and remain with us years, even decades, after the movies they come from were released, are as memorable as they are because the characters who utter them are memorable.

Talking about his characters, Jackson said: “I want the audience to engage with the character on some deeper level so that they leave the cinema still thinking about him.” Still thinking about Samuel L. Jackson and his characters long after we”ve left the cinema, the members of the Jacksonian Democracy have, like the members of any good democracy, voted. So hold on to your butts, because here is our list of Samuel L. Jackson”s Jacksonest performances…

10. Mister Señor Love Daddy in Spike Lee”s Do the Right Thing

“With so many major film roles under his belt, it seems odd that a character with so little on-screen time would even make it onto a list of the best or the Jacksonest Samuel L. Jackson performances. Even in looking at other Jackson performances in other Spike Lee movies, his award-winning and critically acclaimed role as crack addict Gator Purify in Jungle Fever may seem the more obvious choice. But Jackson”s presence and energy in Do the Right Thing create something that outstrips his brief interjections as radio DJ Mr. Señor Love Daddy. Jackson”s role in the film is special; he is literally walled off from the other characters inside his glass DJ booth. In this isolated space he is afforded the perspective to provide impartial commentary on the contentious events happening on his Bed-Stuy block. As the community”s voice of reason and understanding, he”s the narrator who creates a framework that contextualizes the tension, the anger, the frustration, and the heat that ends in violence. It”s this unique role, played with characteristically Jackonesque style and aplomb (the “extra s-s-s-sauce”), that makes Mr. Señor Love Daddy so memorable—and so essential when considering the actor”s best and Jacksonest performances.” – Ben Steinberg, Lifetime Jackson Enthusiast

9. Lieutenant Danny Roman in F. Gary Gray”s The Negotiator

“Listen, an actor doesn’t get a top ten list written about them without first making a movie like The Negotiator. Put another way, I don’t think you can truly call yourself a “movie star” until a studio throws a boatload of money at a flimsy script to simply let you do what you “do best.” In the case of Samuel L. Jackson that meant Hollywood funded a movie that gave him an opportunity to be furious and yell at people for two hours! In The Negotiator Jackson plays Danny Roman, a newlywed, elite hostage negotiator, framed by his own department for the murder of his partner. (You can already see Jackson doing that eye-bulging thing, right? So exciting!) It becomes clear to Danny that the only way to save his reputation is to take all the department heads hostage in a government office (Yup!) until he gets the proof he needs! How does he manage to do all of this without looking like a complete psycho? Great question! It’s explained very clearly that he is only going to these great lengths to prove his innocence because he can’t bare the thought of being separated from his wife. That’s right, ladies and gentleman, he does it all for love! Is this Samuel L. Jackson’s most complex work? No, absolutely not. But shut up! Sometimes we just need to be reminded that we love Samuel L. Jackson because he never gets mad at us, he gets mad for us. And man does Jackson strut his stuff in this one! He yells at everybody! He yells at the police chief! He yells at an entire SWAT team! He yells a Paul Giamatti! At one point, he even yells at a helicopter! As if there isn’t enough to be excited about in The Negotiator, it’s worth mentioning that Kevin Spacey shows up and does what he does best as well: he calmly talks his way out of a tight spot because he’s smarter than everyone. The Negotiator is sweet-and-salty, Hollywood junk food. A perfect watch when you are having a bad day, when you have the flu, or when you are profoundly hungover.” – Caitlin Cutt, Lifetime Jackson Enthusiast

8. Agent Neville Flynn in David R. Ellis” Snakes on a Plane

“In our ongoing discussion of actors encapsulating their most concentrated essences through individual dramatic performances, Samuel L. Jackson in Snakes on a Plane presents a causality dilemma of the highest order. The barefaced B-movie spirit of SoaP turned into an avalanche of internet kitch-hype after Jackson signed on for the lead (and reportedly threatened to walk if the ridiculous matter-of-fact title was changed). What followed was a bizarre outpouring of crowd-sourced content where an entire project was essentially constructed around the essence of one man’s on-screen persona. Ergo, the dilemma: How could this wink-wink meta-flick have existed in the first place, without a prolific career of Jacksonian performances that begged for the imitation? Whatever your reasoning, devoid of context, Samuel L. Jackson (as Samuel L. Jackson) as Agent Neville Flynn in Snakes on a Plane is the most intensely enjoyable caricature he’s ever played. Not only for the “badass black man with his back against the wall” moniker that is part-and-parcel of every Sam Jackson description, but for the preservation of the archetypal traits that keep his characters so robust. It’s never just shouting and shooting, as entertaining as that may be; behind every “Enough is enough!”-type utterance is an internal oscillation that makes this potentially cardboard protagonist just a bit more well-rounded and empathetic. Flynn is a competent man who takes his responsibilities very seriously, but Jackson’s unique talent here is to make us question why Flynn really wants to assume that duty. Few actors balance stoicism, humor, bombast, and integrity as well as Jackson does, and this role exemplifies that cocktail perfectly. Snakes on a Plane has its flaws for sure, but its penetrating combination of “Action Jackson” with “contemplative, put-upon hero Jackson”—35,000 feet in the air with snakes fucking everywhere—makes it one of Samuel L.’s most Jacksonian performances, or imitations, to date.” – Alex Bacha, Lifetime Jackson Enthusiast

7. Jimmy in Paul Thomas Anderson”s Hard Eight

Hard Eight, director Paul Thomas Anderson”s debut, involves Sydney, an old gambler (Philip Baker Hall), taking a young man (John C. Reilly) under his wing. Reilly”s Jack is down on his luck and in need of some money to pay for his mother”s funeral, so he starts the film sitting on the sidewalk outside a diner, diffident and dejected. Sydney buys John some coffee and cigarettes at the diner in that first scene, and ends up mentoring him in the ways of winning in Vegas. Much of the movie is about playing your cards right, literally and figuratively. Yet in gambling, as in life, even when you play your cards right, everything still hinges on luck, chance, happenstance. Samuel L. Jackson plays a small but crucial role in the film as Jimmy, a man who acts as though he knows how to play his cards, and certainly thinks he knows how to play them, but continually mishandles situations–gaining people”s dislike and distrust, and eventually contributing to his own downfall. Unlike Jimmy, Jackson himself seems to always know how to play the hand he was dealt, because he constantly plays to his strengths as an actor in this and other films. He uses his idiosyncratic way of speaking—with its pauses, eruptions of shouting, and bouts of unadulterated intensity—and his special brand of swagger, to instill his characters with both that effortless Jacksonesque coolness and equally Jacksonesque volatile ever-brewing danger. Almost any classic Jackson performance seems to blend those two elements: the cool-as-a-cucumber outer vibe with an about-to-break intensity always lurking just beneath the surface. Jimmy in Hard Eight may not be as famous as some of the other characters on this list, but he certainly fits the bill as a truly Jacksonian Sam Jackson role. And not only is Jimmy quintessentially Jacksonian, but even in the somewhat scant screentime given to the character, the role allows Jackson to give one of his best supporting performances—and Anderson”s phenomenal first film is all the better for it.” – Taylor Zahn, Lifetime Jackson Enthusiast

6. Carl Lee Hailey in Joel Schumacher”s A Time to Kill

“Joel Schumacher”s A Time to Kill is certainly not the greatest film in Samuel L. Jackson”s oeuvre. It can feel incoherent at times, and its vigilante apologism comes across as misguided at best and culturally myopic at worst. However, it remains an engaging yarn for two reasons: its deft handling of melodrama, and Samuel L. Jackson”s incendiary performance. (Ok, ok–McConaughey”s coming out party is pretty damned entertaining, too.) Jackson”s Carl Lee Hailey is a decent man who takes justice into his own hands when his daughter is raped by a pair of white degenerates. After Hailey guns them down on the county courthouse steps, we find ourselves in the middle of a gripping legal drama that takes full advantage of its juicy Southern setting. Polarizing racial tensions? Check. Loathsome Good Ol” Boy atmospherics? Check. Old guard Southern culture versus neo-liberal humanism? Oh heck yeah. Things come perilously close to entering caricatured Faulkner / Harper Lee mash up territory, but Jackson”s smoldering fury and human dignity keep the film anchored and relatable. He builds an almost Abrahamic force at the film”s center–the implacable father seeking a higher justice when man”s has failed him. We gladly enter the fog of moral compulsion with him. That we empathize with his choice speaks to Jackson”s ability to elevate material beyond its schmaltzy and melodramatic sources to create something messy, complicated, and human.” – Dustin Illingworth, Lifetime Jackson Enthusiast

5. Elijah Price in M. Night Shyamalan”s Unbreakable

“Samuel L. Jackson is undeniably, unabashedly cool. His cult of personality underlies some of the best and most entertaining roles of the past 30 years, and it is no surprise that his off-screen presence is just as dynamic—occupying that sweet spot between intimidating and inspiring. Having a strong, influential personality can be both a blessing (e.g. high demand, career longevity) and a curse (e.g. typecasting, audience fatigue). The patterning of “cool” roles in his filmography as an extension of Jackson”s cult of personality makes the truly, tangibly different roles he takes on from time to time all the more remarkable. In particular, M. Night Shyamalan”s Unbreakable represents one of these high-water marks in Jackson “anti-cool”—a role so deeply nuanced and resonant that it quickly and fascinatingly travels a parabola back to “cool” within moments of Jackson”s first lines. Jackson”s performance as Elijah Price stands as one of his best roles particularly because it presents a perfect counterpoint to Jackson”s well-deserved (and well-crafted) “badass” reputation/persona. So stark is this juxtaposition that we, as the audience, are forced to reckon with our own conceptions of a Jackson performance. Where the Jackson we expect is hip and sophisticated, Elijah Price is equal parts aloof and obsessively engaging. In place of the “bad motherfucker,” we see an obviously eccentric man whose inhuman determination to help David Dunn (Bruce Willis) realize his destiny as a super-powered hero belies the frailty of own body. In a movie where both of the leads are at the top of their game, Jackson”s performance stands out as the most entrancing and surprising element of the movie. That the film revels in (but also tweaks) the conventions of super-heroism and comic book structure only serves to strengthen the power of Jackson”s performance. One of the archetypal performers of late-20th century/early-21st century cool plays a variation of one of the fundamental archetypes of 20th century American storytelling (the comic book super-villain), but he does it with such quiet earnestness, sadness, and fury that his eventual revelation as the film”s true antagonist awes and devastates audiences (even those savvy viewers who saw the big “Shyamalan Twist” coming). Sam Jackson—the badass—will probably always be beloved as a cultural figure, but his performance in Unbreakable demands we respect him as a skilled, compelling performer…regardless of setting.” – Randall Winston, Lifetime Jackson Enthusiast

4. Zeus Carver in John McTiernan“s Die Hard: With a Vengeance

“Jackson is no stranger to spiritually aspiring characters. In Pulp Fiction, he plays Jules, a Bible-quoting hit-man who achieves a moment of clarity that results in him giving up “the life” in favor of a desire to “walk from place to place, meet people, get in adventures.” His role as Zeus Carver, then, represents the next phase in that journey toward enlightenment. Zeus wears white button-ups and horn-rimmed glasses a la Malcolm X, mentors his two nephews to avoid the help of white people, and seemingly ascribes to X’s hardline racial philosophies. So when he spots a shirtless white man on the sidewalk of a predominantly black neighborhood with a sandwich-board sign around his neck that reads, “I HATE NIGGERS,” it seems unlikely that Zeus will walk toward the man, meet him, and eventually get in adventures with him. But he does, albeit reluctantly at first. He claims to only have helped McClane because “one white cop gets killed today, tomorrow we got a thousand white cops, all of them with itchy trigger fingers,” but Zeus didn’t know McClane’s profession until after approaching him. He genuinely felt a need to aid his fellow man. Eventually, after McClane coaxes him, Zeus proves adept at answering Simon’s complex riddles, but what’s more is he transforms into some kind of guardian angel who watches over both McClane and all of NYC, even when he’s off screen. When McClane finds a subway bomb, Simon, of course, detonates it anyway. Yet no one is killed on the subway or in the terminal where the train derails. A fellow cop gives McClane a report of the injuries, then says, “It’s a miracle you’re still alive.” True, and Zeus is that miracle’s author. As it turns out, Zeus is a man of peace, more in line with MLK, Jr. than with Malcolm X. Not a Samaritan, as Simon refers to him, but a genuine institutor of harmony and humanity. The civilian death, considering this is an action film about bombs in a city, is perplexingly low; it might actually be zero. Zeus, then, is proof that miracles can exist in this world so long as there are wanderers out there looking to do good. In that sense, Zeus is Jackson’s most heavenly performance, and undoubtedly one of his best and typically Jacksonest.” – Matthew Cabe, Lifetime Jackson Enthusiast

3. Ordell Robbie in the Quentin Tarantino”s Jackie Brown

“”Ordell Robbie. O-R-D-E-L-L-R-O-B-B-I-E. 1436 Florence Boulevard, Compton 90222.” So says Samuel Jackson to bail bondsman Max Cherry (played beautifully by Robert Forster). It’s an electric moment, and all he’s doing is relaying his name and address. Maybe it’s because even as he sits, with a leonine grin, Robbie exudes a relentless and menacing charm. He looks like a shogun pimp, blood red ponytail down the back of his running suit, from under a pristine Kangol, plus a long, braided goatee that looks less like hair than the dribbling of a carnivore raising its head from gutted prey. Robbie is pretty fucking scary, but he’s also charming as hell—an odd but typically Jacksonian combination. He’s likable, and he wants you to like him. He’s a ham, a low-rent murderous dandy, who tells Jackie (Pam Grier), after lightly strangling her, until she pulls a gun: “Come on, girl, I thought we were friends!” And he means it. Of course, Robbie will kill anyone that gets in his way—first, Beaumont (Chris Tucker), shot dead, after sweet promises of Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, in the trunk of Robbie’s car. And those bullets sound out like warning shots to Jackie Brown—you’re next. But she’s not. And aside from the fact that she remains his best avenue toward the cash he’s hiding in Mexico, you get the sense she stays alive, and hence Robbie dies, all because he likes her. He really likes her, and so he gets sloppy. Not so for Louis (a criminally forgotten great performance by DeNiro), Robbie’s BFF (if he has one), recently released from jail. Louis gets gut-shot in his VW van by Robbie because, well, he fouled up the plan. “What the fuck happened to you, man?” Robbie says after firing. “Your ass used to be beautiful.” Two more shots to the chest. And who is the one I feel for? Robbie—which is a testament to the skill with which Jackson plays his character. In Robbie, he gives us a sociopath who wants to feel, and we want that, too, because otherwise evil is ugly. We would look away.” – Scott Cheshire, Lifetime Jackson Enthusiast

2. Ray Arnold in Steven Spielberg”s Jurassic Park

“In Jurassic Park, Samuel L. Jackson plays Ray Arnold—the dinosaur themepark”s chief engineer and resident hater of “hacker crap”—we all know this. What you may not know though is why our group is so enamored with this performance that Ray Arnold was able to reach the number two spot on our list of Samuel L. Jackson”s best and Jacksonest roles. First, you may ask: Is it deserved? Wholeheartedly, I say, yes. And here”s why: Jackson may only have at most 15-20 minutes of screentime and two of his most memorable lines may be the exact same (we all know said lines are “hold on to your butts”), but that”s exactly why this performance deserves the number two spot on this list. He creates an unforgettable character in the minimal amount of screentime required, turning what could have easily been a throwaway character into one of the best and most memorable parts of one of the great Summer blockbusters of all time. Frankly, whether it”s nostalgic rose-colored glasses or not, he steals the show. Well, maybe not from Jeff Goldblum, but from just about everyone else. And stealing the show from Goldblum is a feat that even life wouldn”t be able to find a way to do. More importantly he gives us a performance that by this point in his career we as an audience take for granted. This gruff turn as an engineer is the Jackson that we have all come to know and love. It”s with this portrayal and other early 90s roles like it that Jackson really began to play with the blurry line of self-awareness (which will become more prevalent in later films like Deep Blue Sea and Snakes on a Plane). He may not be literally winking at the audience, but he might as well be—so we know that we ought to heed his advice and indeed, hold on to our butts.” - Shea Formaneck, Lifetime Jackson Enthusiast

1. Jules Winnfield in Quentin Tarantino”s Pulp Fiction

“Immediately after Pulp Fiction“s opening credits, we”re thrown into a car with two gentlemen in suits who look like they”re the winner and first runner-up in the greasiest wig competition. John Travolta—whose comeback wouldn”t have been complete without his character Vincent Vega”s comb-back—has disgustingly shiny, slicked-back hair down to his shoulders as he sits in the passenger seat and rambles on about the little differences between Europe and America, including but not limited to the now-famous “Royale with Cheese.” The driver, Samuel L. Jackson”s Jules Winnfield, sports a crown of curls so perfect that they could get you chanting “Jheri” more feverishly than a Springer audience. Originally, Tarantino envisioned Winnfield with an afro. When a production assistant came with a Jheri curl wig instead, Tarantino insisted she return it. That”s when Jackson apparently said, “You know, N.W.A., Ice Cube, all those guys had Jheri curls. That was the look of the gangs and all those guys who were over there bangin.” Jackson claims he knew then and there: “This was Jules.” And he was right–that permed “do is as much a part of his iconic character as the Bible-quoting speeches and the foot massage knowledge. Too many people think that with most of his characters, Jackson just shows up and does the “Fonzie-like” cool Jackson schtick and then calls it a day. You can”t sustain a career of forty-plus years doing that. Sure, he has some phoned-in performances in his filmography, but Jules Winnfield is certainly not one of them. While Winnfield admittedly exhibits a number of typically Jacksonesque qualities—the speech patterns, the intense stares, the eruptions of anger—he”s unquestionably a fully-realized character rather than merely a catalogue of Jackson clichés. After a moment of what he claims is divine intervention, where he and Vega miraculously survive a spray of bullets, Winnfield decides to give up the life of crime to “walk the Earth” and “get into adventures.” Pulp Fiction was a miracle in Jackson”s career as well—though perhaps not on the level of a bullet-avoiding “freak occurrence”—and gave the actor the ability to get into a number of other on-screen adventures, rocketing him to new heights of popularity. But of all the roles since—from Nick Fury to Lazarus Woods, Ordell Robbie to Mace Windu, Elijah Price to Frozone—none have ever approached the brilliance, the beauty, and the sheer Jacksonness of foot fuckin” master, bad motherfucker, tyranny of evil men, wannabe shepherd, and future bum Jules Winnfield. He”s just Jules—no more, no less.” - Tyler Malone, Lifetime Jackson Enthusiast

The members of the Jacksonian Democracy are a group of film fans who love all that is Samuel L. Jackson. The group consists of Tyler Malone, Scott Cheshire, Dustin Illingworth, Alex Bacha, Randall Winston, Shea Formaneck, Ariana Lader, Kelsey Malone, Rachael Bacha, Shane Boyle, Caitlin Cutt, Artie Moreno, Conor Higgins, Taylor Zahn, Ben Steinberg, Matthew Cabe, Andy Neltare, Jeff Malone, and Liz Malone.

LINKS:

Samuel L. Jackson on IMDb

Everything is Samuel L. Jackson”s Fault

Every Time Samuel L. Jackson Said “Motherfucker” on Film

Written and Compiled by the Members of the Jacksonian Democracy

Photography Courtesy of Miramax Films

Design by Mina Darius

Captions:

Film Still from Pulp Fiction, Photography Courtesy of Miramax Films

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