“Say, man, my wife said you called her! What’s up with that?”
Samuel L. Jackson barks at me, sternly, his almond-colored, deep-set eyes weighted with history, mythology and Black folktales, scanning me quickly, methodically, as I respond, feebly, “Uh, my friend, the visual artist Radcliffe Bailey, said to call …”
Before I could finish, Jackson strips the tension with a devilish smile, shakes my hand and returns to posing for the photo shoot.
As Pandora spits a soul medley of James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, The Isley Brothers and Sly and The Family Stone, there is Sam, forever in his beloved Armani, firing up smoke, flames dancing from the cigar and the match thisclose to burning his finger. There is Sam tossing hats at the photographer’s lens, his bald head bobbing and weaving with each flick. There is Sam, much taller than I expected—about 6-feet-2—so at home in his 64-year-old lean and battle-tested body that he nonchalantly peels off one set of clothes, down to his white boxers, before changing into a new outfit. With no one batting an eye because this is Sam’s world.
And now there is Samuel L. Jackson playing golf, his passion of the past 12 years: suit jacket off, sleeves cuffed up to his elbows, masterfully engineering one little white ball after another off the wall just above the head of the photographer and others in the Midtown Manhattan studio.
Yes, it is mad corny, at this stage, to call Jackson ”cool.” He is way past cool. He is chill, like the chilled ice in sweet tea on that steamy Chattanooga, Tenn., porch where he inhaled the words and wisdom of his mama, his auntie, his grandmama, his granddaddy, his uncles, the men of his ’hood. So chill, in fact, that even Sam’s being proclaimed by The Guinness World Records the top-grossing movie actor of all time, with nearly $7.5 billion in ticket sales, leads to a yawning response: “Yeah, I’ve done a couple of popular movies.”
An understatement, clearly, and a box office total that will balloon with his and Robert Downey Jr.’s star turns this May in the Marvel Studios-produced The Avengers. But Samuel L. is not just in this game for money or fame, although he readily admits, “The coolest thing about being famous is the free shit.”
This is Samuel L. Jackson’s version of The American Dream, remixed to include everything from his current role as Martin Luther King Jr. on Broadway (with Angela Bassett) in Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop; to his (crack) smoking away his first shot at Broadway in August Wilson’s masterpiece The Piano Lesson (Charles S. Dutton got the part instead, and Jackson was relegated to understudy); to his boyhood Saturday morning trips to the movies and roles in the plays of his schoolteacher auntie; to his lifelong love affair with books that led him, initially, to oceanography, then to the revolutionary politics of the Black Power era, then to street theater and the power of the spoken word.
[WATCH!] Behind the Scenes: Sam Jackson
EBONY Behind the Scenes: Sam Jackson
No doubt Jackson is the kind of man, the kind of Black man, who is relishing all he has witnessed since the days of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. As a student at Atlanta’s famed Morehouse College, Sam was an usher at Dr. King’s funeral. Today he gets to freely portray King, very human faults and all, in a play at the same time a Black president is sitting in the White House, no less.
If there is one American actor who embodies the seismic changes in American politics and popular culture in the years between Dr. King’s death and Barack Obama’s election and has also been a full participant along the way in the best and worst of who we have been— and are— it is Samuel L. Jackson.
“Life is,” he says inside his tiny Mountaintop dressing room during a quieter moment, “longer than I thought it would be.”
Especially when, in one lifetime, you’ve survived a ghetto filled with alcohol, drugs, violence and houses of prostitution on both corners of your block; the Vietnam War and an extended Black militant period with friends named Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown; getting suspended from college for holding the White trustees of Morehouse College hostage (along with Black advisors including Dr. King’s father) a year after King’s assassination; and a massive addiction to crack cocaine that not only nearly killed you, but also became the source of your role as Gator in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (he remains the only performer ever given a special supporting actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for that portrayal).
Jackson smiles a mischievous grin as he reflects upon Jungle Fever and his sudden fame after years of watching peers such as Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Alfre Woodard and Wesley Snipes achieve success: “People in Hollywood were suddenly like, ‘Hmmm, whoa!