During his long and storied career, Samuel L. Jackson has worked with a lot of strong, distinctive directors: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Paul Thomas Anderson, M. Night Shyamalan, Joss Whedon, Brad Bird, William Friedkin, Adam McKay, John Singleton, and John McTiernan, among others. Of course, he’s also worked with David R. Ellis, Renny Harlin (repeatedly), Joel Schumacher, Rob Cohen, comics-writer-turned-filmmaker Frank Miller, producer-turned-filmmaker Joe Roth, Barry Levinson (but on Sphere), and the director of Flubber.
This isn’t a knock on any of those filmmakers in particular (well, maybe the Flubber guy), but rather a method of pointing out the obvious: Samuel L. Jackson works a hell of a lot. Combined with his status as half movie star, half character actor, as well as the lamentable paucity of great roles for black actors in Hollywood, this means his greatest and/or best-known performances haven’t always coincided with his most notable directors. His work for Scorsese was a bit part; his movie for Friedkin was second-tier; as mentioned, he was in Sphere. Even his franchise duties for Lucas and Whedon have iconography on their side but won’t go down as his absolute best work. Whenever an actor works as much as Jackson, there’s an inevitable combing through of his filmography to select the projects where he’s able to rise to his highest level as a performer, versus the projects that coast on his authority, charisma, or familiarity.
The constant in any Jackson best-of reel would be Quentin Tarantino—the one great director he’s returned to again and again. After Jackson’s unsuccessful audition for Reservoir Dogs, they first worked together on Pulp Fiction. After their 1997 follow-up Jackie Brown, they took something of a break, during which Tarantino made relatively few movies and employed Jackson mainly as a good-luck-charm in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (where he plays a mostly unseen piano player) and Inglourious Basterds (where he serves as a single-scene narrator). But Jackson has returned with a vengeance (and, in some scenes, a furious anger) for Tarantino’s recent Western phase, with key roles in both Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. He has, in Tarantino, a writer-director who consistently gives him challenging, well-written roles to play. Tarantino, meanwhile, has a chance to mold his own movie star.
This is no small thing, because Tarantino became known circa Pulp Fiction for bringing stars back, thanks to his noble feat of resurrecting John Travolta’s career as an A-lister. (Never forget the Travolta movie that directly preceded Pulp Fiction was Look Who’s Talking Now, a threequel that replaced the inner monologues of babies with the inner monologues of dogs.) But Travolta is only the most dramatic Tarantino-led boost of many. Harvey Keitel wasn’t exactly doing talking-animal pictures before Reservoir Dogs, but it’s fair to say that he enjoyed a late-career surge as a result of his role as Mr. White; Pam Grier and Robert Forster did great work meditating on aging in Jackie Brown; David Carradine, Kurt Russell, and Daryl Hannah also got some mini-comeback action from their Tarantino appearances.
Jackson, though, was still on the cusp of stardom when he played Bible-remixing hit man Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction, paired with Travolta’s Vincent Vega. And as iconic as Travolta is in Pulp, Jackson arguably shows greater depth. Jules is both scarier than Vincent, taking aim with his pistol as he recites his intense (and not quite accurate) scripture, and more thoughtful, taking their miraculous survival of an attempted shooting as a sign that he needs to get out of the killer-for-hire game. This includes a powerful scene where he revisits his “Ezekiel 25:17” speech and admits that while it used to be just some “cold-blooded shit” he’d say before a killing, he’s now rethinking its meaning, and recasting his own role within that biblical passage. “I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd,” he says, practically whispering, with no less conviction or authority than his barking of the passage earlier, even with the camera capturing him from a more level and less dramatic vantage. It remains one of Jackson’s best moments on screen.
It was Travolta who received a Best Actor nomination that year, versus Jackson’s Supporting Actor nod (remarkably and shamefully, his only nomination to date), probably owing the former’s solo storyline in the movie, during which Tarantino gave him one of his best-ever dance scenes. But if Travolta got the most immediate Tarantino bounce, Jackson’s now feels more permanent. Pre-Pulp, Jackson had received some attention for his performances in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and especially Jungle Fever, played lead roles in comedies like Loaded Weapon 1 and Amos & Andrew, and even had a part in one of the biggest movies ever, Jurassic Park. Afterwards, though, he was co-starring in a Die Hard sequel, taking juicy supporting roles in movies like A Time To Kill, robing up for Star Wars, and playing Shaft. Over two decades later, Jackson is still hanging out with the Avengers while Travolta does a lot of nontheatrical releases with titles like I Am Wrath (a movie whose shameless tagline can’t even steal from Travolta’s storied past, instead going straight to Jackson with “I lay my vengeance upon them”).
Jules Winnfield looms so large, in fact, that certain inflections and phrases from Pulp Fiction recur throughout Jackson’s career. Perhaps most indelibly, Jules’ assessment of being on “brain detail” after his partner Vincent accidentally blows the head off their buddy Marvin in the backseat of their car—“this is some fucked-up repugnant shit”—is reprised in both Jackie Brown and in Jackson’s version of Shaft, minus the F-bomb. It’s a perfect match of actor and filmmaker voices; Tarantino complements Jackson’s delivery so well that it’s hard to separate the actor and the line. The “repugnant” line sounds so natural coming from Jackson that it would be easy to believe as an improvisation, but the double adjective—“fucked-up” serving as an adjective and then backed up by “repugnant”—has Tarantino’s signature casual verbosity. There’s a kind of poetry in marrying the plainspoken, potentially vague “fucked up” and “shit” with the specificity of “repugnant.” As memorable as “Ezekiel 25:17” is, it’s the phrase “fucked up repugnant shit” that is especially hard to imagine coming from another actor with such musical perfection.
If Pulp fast-tracked Jackson’s icon status, Tarantino wasted no time in undermining that instant familiarity. Just as some Tarantino converts must have been stymied by the lower-key, more contemplative, and absolutely fantastic follow-up Jackie Brown, surely some newly minted Jackson fans were taken aback at the sight of the badass from Pulp Fiction playing a low-level gun dealer whose sorta-girlfriend (Bridget Fonda) grouses about his lack of savvy, claiming that he’s not nearly as smart, scary, or important as he thinks he is. But while Jackson’s Ordell Robbie isn’t as grandiose as the villains he plays in bigger studio pictures like, say, Kingsman, Jackson makes him a chilling figure nonetheless, while forming a strong contrast with his most famous role. When Jules is about to kill, he presides over his victim with great authority, climaxing with his Ezekiel pronouncement. Ordell, though, tries to glad-hand his way through intimidation and even murder. In one of the film’s more famous scenes, he bails out an “associate” (Chris Tucker) who he fears will sell him out to the cops, slowly but surely convinces him to do him a favor that involves locking him in the trunk of his car, then drives a block or two away, opens the trunk, and shoots the man in the head.
Tarantino covers this final action in a single take, the camera dollying up to observe with remove what happens when Ordell Robbie wheedles you into doing him a favor. Ordell makes more subtle use of this technique in his scenes opposite bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster). In their best scene together, Ordell comes into Max’s office to ask for a transfer of a bond from one prisoner to another, while Max explains the logistics of this action, and sizes up Ordell out loud in the process. Tarantino shoots the exchange simply, pretty much just shot/reverse shot across Max’s desk, teasing out the menace in Ordell’s imitation of good-natured confidence, which makes Max’s plainspoken deflation of his methods even more thrilling. Tarantino’s direction and Jackson’s performance perfectly reflect both Jackie Brown’s modulated tone and its relationship to Pulp. Jackson’s big executioner scene in Pulp uses a combination of low angles and close-ups to make him look fearsome, while Jackson plays Ordell as the kind of guy who probably watched Pulp Fiction and decided he could be that fearsome, but is too nice and savvy to let it go that far.
As it turns out, Jules Winnfield might be the most moral character Jackson has played for Tarantino—at least by the end of Pulp Fiction, where he resolves to give up his hit man gig and “walk the Earth—you know, like Caine on Kung Fu.” In both Jackie Brown and Django Unchained, Jackson is playing a villain. Django’s Stephen doesn’t appear until the final stretch of the film; he’s a house slave at Candyland, the plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the film’s chief antagonist. But Stephen, an elderly slave desperate to preserve a status quo that has awarded him a moderate amount of power, is the character who picks up on the deception of Django (Jamie Foxx) and Schultz (Christoph Waltz). He also makes it his business to punish Django after Candie is dead.
Portraying a villainous slave in a Quentin Tarantino movie is playing with fire, so it makes sense that Tarantino cast his most frequent collaborator as Stephen. (This also means that Jackson played a white-haired, conniving house slave the same year that he appeared as the badass superhero boss Nick Fury in The Avengers—and, true to Jackson’s omnivorous career, the same year as The Samaritan and Meeting Evil, two movies that may or may not have received a theatrical release.) Django has been compared to 12 Years A Slave, a more traditionally serious-minded take on slavery that won the Best Picture Oscar for 2013, the year after Django’s release. Usually these comparisons have to do with tone, pitting Tarantino’s pulp revisionism against Steve McQueen’s stark, intense portrait of slavery as hell. But in a way, the films are complementary for an entirely separate reason involving Jackson’s Stephen.
In the McQueen film, a free black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is illegally sold into slavery, which places extra emphasis on what an unnatural, disgusting institution it is. In the Tarantino film, Stephen’s complicity, even activity, in the attempted preservation of Candyland reflects one reason such an unnatural institution was perpetuated by whites in this country. Stephen doesn’t own a plantation, but like the powerful white men he aligns himself with, he has settled into a situation that works for him, and he’ll be goddamned if he’s going to let Django take that away from him. If Stephen feels this way about his comparably modest house-slave status, imagine how intractable the fabulously wealthy plantation owners must be. There are times when Django too easily recalls the bloody revenge of Kill Bill and the historical tweaking of Inglourious Basterds. Entertaining and audacious as it is, it may be Tarantino’s weakest movie overall. If anything, this makes Jackson’s work in it all the more vital, as it stands opposite the movie’s pulpiest recycling. Jackson can summon great charisma, but he doesn’t give Stephen moments of humanity to balance out his evil, because what’s most human and most evil about him are arguably one and the same.
That goes for just about everyone in the second Tarantino-Jackson Western, The Hateful Eight. Jackson’s bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren, is the closest character the movie has to an entry point, in that he’s the most immediately suspicious of the other folks staying at Minnie’s Haberdashery in the midst of a blizzard, and leads an investigation once people start to die. Though Hateful is very much an ensemble picture—Jackson features in the long stagecoach-set opening sequence, but heads off screen for a long stretch once everyone is at Minnie’s—it also represents a turning point for Tarantino and Jackson. For perhaps the first time, Jackson is the most famous actor in the movie, at least at time of filming, and probably overall.
Accordingly, Tarantino sets his star apart, often framing him alone, or with plenty of negative space separating him from his costars. At first, this aids Warren’s status as the movie’s nominal good guy, especially when he shares a stagecoach with fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), Ruth’s prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and eventually ex-Confederate Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). Domergue spits out the N-word with abandon and Ruth punches her repeatedly, while Warren (seen at one point framed by the stagecoach window, separated from Ruth and Domergue inside) produces his prized letter from President Lincoln. Compared to the other interactions in the coach, the letter counts as a beacon of civility.
It turns out that Warren has fabricated the Lincoln letter, something that’s revealed around the time that Warren uses a less eloquent form of potential deception. When he encounters Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) at Minnie’s, Warren eventually tells a long and explicit story about his role in the humiliation and death of Smithers’ missing son. In light of the Lincoln letter—something he wrote himself to make white people more at ease—it follows that Warren’s story about abusing and killing the younger Smithers is also probably a lie, here told to make a white person supremely uncomfortable, and draw his pistol, so that Warren may kill Smithers in self-defense. Smithers is a racist old coot, but Warren is still exploiting the pain of his presumed-dead son and stoking the fires of homophobia, all to goad Smithers into getting himself killed. Tarantino, too, indulges in exploitation, of the natural music in Jackson’s voice (much of the scene is conveyed in voice-over) and the insinuating charisma of his face with a few shots where Jackson faces the camera directly.
Like Jules Winnfield, Warren revisits one of his rhetorical flourishes late in the movie. Following some of the ugliest negotiations of violence, where a bleeding-out Warren and Mannix cackle over violent punishment of Domergue, Mannix asks to read over Warren’s made-up Lincoln letter again. Earlier, Warren’s deceptions, while understandable, were very much in the interest of calculated self-defense (or in the case of his Smithers story, calculated to engineer the need for self-defense). In the film’s final moments, the deception brings Mannix and Warren together with a quiet appreciation of the letter’s craft, even if it isn’t true (of course, they’re also bonded by working together to hang a woman, so it might be a stretch to call the movie hopeful). As with Django Unchained, Jackson is, beneath some amount of bluster, revealing something about an aspect of the American character. And as with Pulp, Jackson summons a lot of power by going quiet and more vulnerable after the movie has shown him bigger, flashier, and more menacing.
Jackson’s voice plays a major part in his work, both in general and for Tarantino: the aforementioned line readings in Pulp Fiction (and so many more, like “I’m a mushroom cloud-laying motherfucker, motherfucker”); the gleefully baiting narration in The Hateful Eight; the playful wheedling that appears minutes away from turning into a violent confrontation in Jackie Brown. Tarantino is a word-obsessed director who loves to write for black characters, and there are a few stray moments in the otherwise excellent Jackie Brown where it does feel like Tarantino is using Jackson as an excuse to throw around the N-word as often as possible. It’s used plenty in his most recent films, too, but the period setting makes it feel both less stylistically expressive and more intentionally, well, hateful. Moreover, that early discomfort has dissipated as Jackson, who is certainly years if not a decade-plus past needing Tarantino for his livelihood, has continued to trust Tarantino, who continues in turn to provide him with some of his richest and best-written roles.
Beyond his writing, Tarantino also traffics in striking visuals, right down to how his characters are dressed and styled, and Jackson’s particular physicality is one of the ways he merges the star and character actor sensibilities. Sometimes both sensibilities are visible within a single close-up: Jackson’s face, anchored by his big, rich eyes, is immediately recognizable, while his hair often unpredictable in its outlandishness. Beyond the performances themselves, Jackson’s work for Tarantino has a florid variety in simple appearances: the Jheri curl of Pulp Fiction’s Jules; the long, ponytailed locks of Jackie Brown’s Ordell; the snowy patches of Stephen from Django; and the furry gray beard sported by Marquis Warren of The Hateful Eight. Tarantino finds iconography for his other stars (Uma Thurman has her Pulp Fiction bob and Bruce Lee tracksuit; Travolta has his greasy Vincent Vega hair and suit), but they don’t always carry it with them elsewhere. Jackson is commanding enough that the boldness follows him out of Tarantino’s films, turning up in his weird hair for Unbreakable or even Jumper.
Jackson’s persona combines such outsize showmanship with such well-observed details of human behavior that it only makes sense for it to be informed by Tarantino, who makes some of the most emotionally believable film-brat genre pastiches around. Maybe this is why Jackson, not any of Tarantino’s more abject charity cases or more directly glamorous subjects, has become his go-to star. As much as he knowingly recycles, repurposes, and remixes movies he’s already seen, most of the time Tarantino can’t help but make something original, and Samuel L. Jackson is often the most original performer in his films. If Jackson should ever require a comeback vehicle, Tarantino should be able to provide it. But if they keep making movies together, he probably won’t need one.
Next time: A writer-director’s mid-career muse refocuses his work to follow female characters.