Samuel L. Jackson is one of the biggest and most recognizable names in the film world. Most well known to audiences for his excellent and now iconic portrayal of Jules Winnfield in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Jackson has played a huge variety of roles and he seems to pop up in almost every other movie, albeit occasionally in films of dubious quality.
Nevertheless Jackson’s performances themselves have been remarkably consistent and there is always great substance to his portrayals regardless of the film. In this list and over these ten films I hope to illuminate filmgoers to Jackson’s oftentimes underrated acting chops.
10. The Sunset Limited (Tommy Lee Jones, 2011)
Based on Cormac McCarthy’s play and directed by Tommy Lee Jones, this TV movie features a terrific performance by Jackson opposite Lee who also stars and directs. Lee’s character is rescued by Jackson following an attempted suicide, both characters known simply as White and Black respectively.
The two men proceed to engage in a protracted discussion/argument at Black’s residence on the merits of religion. Similar to other filmed stage productions, all the action takes place in the one room and like Glengarry Glen Ross, it’s more or less constantly raining outside which adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere of isolation.
Both actors performances are great and Lee’s direction is sure-footed. Jackson has more heavy lifting to do, but he rises to the occasion and is not too showy about it. From the outset, we sense that White will undergo the greater story arc, but it’s ultimately Black that transforms.
It is to Jackson’s credit that he is able to convey such a change with enough nuance while still maintaining control over his characters flamboyant and often operatic monologues. A fine performance and a good place to start if you’re in doubt of Jackson’s abilities.
9. Jungle Fever (Spike Lee, 1991)
Blessed with the greatest character name this side of Furious Styles, Jackson plays Gator Purify in this Spike Lee joint. When Gator’s younger brother Flipper (Wesley Snipes) enters into an adulterous interracial affair with his Italian secretary Angie (Annabella Sciorra), it turns his world upside down and stirs up racial tension in the community.
While it lacks the lightness of touch and energy of Do The Right Thing and is far from Lee’s best work, it is nevertheless a solid picture. Unfortunately Snipes lead performance is incredibly wooden and lets the film down especially alongside Jackson and Turturro who shines as Angie’s spurned boyfriend.
Though it’s not a huge role, Jackson steals every scene he’s in as the doomed drug addled sibling. It’s a physical performance but he doesn’t overplay it. In terms of both, the acting and the script Gator’s subplot is far more engaging than the main storyline. The way Gator manipulates his mother so she’ll dole out cash for his habit is played just right and is terribly affecting.
Likewise when Flipper tracks his brother down to discover him ensconced in a bender at a local crack den and finally disowns him is heartbreaking.
8. 187 (Kevin Reynolds, 1997)
In this late 90’s thriller, Jackson stars as high school teacher Trevor Garfield who after surviving an attack by one of his students relocates from New York to L.A where he finds work as a substitute teacher. Garfield continues to teach but is still shaken from the attack and extremely wary of his students and begins to clash with some of the more troubled among them.
Though the film around him has somewhat dated and is in dire need of at least 20 minutes cut from it’s overwrought two hour running time, Jackson delivers an accomplished performance. It is a stoic and reserved portrayal of a man with rivers of anger and emotion bubbling below his calm exterior which society dictates he must keep in check. The joy of the film is the suspense of whether Garfield will be able to succeed in this task.
7. Changing Lanes (Roger Michell, 2002)
Changing Lanes pits Doyle Gipson (Jackson) against Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck). Both men are left at a loss following an automobile accident with Gipson arriving late to his custody hearing thus forfeiting access to his two sons while Banek loses a crucial document he was en route to deliver. When Banek engages in underhanded methods to prompt Gipson to return the document, a game of escalating cat and mouse ensues.
Starting out strong, the film does squander a healthy premise and the second half especially features a few too many unnecessary diversions into languid subplots. Nevertheless Jackson brings real pathos to the character of Gipson and we strongly root for him to succeed. The film also features a noteworthy supporting turn by the ever-reliable Sydney Pollack and despite its flaws, it is solidly entertaining fare due in no small part to Jackson’s performance.
6. The Negotiator (F. Gary Gray, 1998)
In this siege thriller, Jackson stars as Lt. Danny Roman a hot shot negotiator who after being framed for homicide takes a group of hostages in an attempt to uncover those responsible and prove his innocence. Featuring a stellar cast which includes David Morse, Paul Giamatti and Kevin Spacey playing Chris Sabian who is called in to be Jackson’s opposite and bargain with the man who knows all the tricks of the trade.
The film features some excellent set-pieces and although some of the plot twists are a tad clunky and predictable, the direction is impeccable and the siege itself is incredibly tense. The real joy of the Negotiator comes in the form of Spacey and Jackson facing off in a battle of wits. Jackson holds his own up against Spacey who some viewers might see as the more “serious” actor. Another great performance and a superb but underrated actioner.