“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.
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! Oh, who’s that nigga?’”
Perhaps that is why Jackson speaks his mind so freely and could give an ish what you think. Like many Black males conditioned by the harshness of American racism and poverty, there was nothing, except for his vivid imagination, that told Jackson who he has become was remotely possible. Or that a Barack Obama could be president.
Yes, like much of Hollywood’s A-list, Jackson supported Obama for president in 2008, but don’t expect any over-intellectualized rationale about his decision:
“I voted for Barack because he was Black. ’Cuz that’s why other folks vote for other people—because they look like them. That’s American politics, pure and simple. His message didn’t mean shit to me. In the end, he’s a politician. I just hoped he would do some of what he said he was gonna do. I know politicians say shit; they lie. ’Cuz they want to get elected.”
But what does Samuel L. Jackson think about the president now? Jackson blinks off into space, to the photos on his dressing room wall of different periods of his acting journey. Yup, he is just getting warmed up—and very clear about what he wants to say on the record:
“When it comes down to it, they wouldn’t have elected a nigga. Because, what’s a nigga? A nigga is scary. Obama ain’t scary at all. Niggas don’t have beers at the White House. Niggas don’t let some White dude, while you in the middle of a speech, call [him] a liar. A nigga would have stopped the meeting right there and said, ‘Who the f*#! said that?’ I hope Obama gets scary in the next four years, ’cuz he ain’t gotta worry about getting re-elected.”
*Although EBONY does not condone use of the “N-word,” we’ve left the word intact in the interest of maintaining the integrity of the story. … That, and the fact that it’s m$&*#!f%@+ing Sam Jackson!
In many ways, Samuel L. Jackson is in Hollywood but not of Hollywood. He is really of the older Black men who sit on milk crates on America’s street corners, unfiltered observers and commentators of their world, their anger muted by a natural-born comedic timing that frames a history of pain and suffering.
“I’ve said to White Hollywood folks, ‘First thing you need to understand is, I am a nigga. I’m a nice guy, but there are certain things that go ‘click,’ and I become that guy y’all really worry about at night. ’Cuz that’s really who I am.’ I learned how to live in two worlds. That’s my whole life. That’s why y’all hire me. I am genuine. I bring something genuine about that type of guy who scares White people they can safely watch on-screen.”
Those two worlds, for Jackson, mean we know him as a bad dude, but he acknowledges he was a bookworm as a kid, one who played trumpet and flute in his high school band, was an A student and, by his college years, equally digested the sounds of Motown and the rock ’n’ roll rumblings of Cream and Jimi Hendrix. Jackson has been everything from a nerd to a hippie to a radical to a beloved pop-culture icon who everyone wants to get next to.
It was that kind of cultural diversity and real Black man poise that won him the role of Jules Winnfield in Quentin Tarantino’s now-classic 1994 film Pulp Fiction. It is Sam’s signature role on-screen, and it redefined what a bad Black man was in the tradition of Stagger Lee and Bad Leroy Brown. In the Jules character, Jackson was swashbuckler, hero, villain and all the personas he pretended to be as that only child in love with motion pictures in Tennessee. And he hasn’t slowed since.
But I do need him to slow enough to explain his excessive use of the word “nigga”:
“Nigga became a part of my vocabulary when I was born. How so? Because it was used on me in my house, often, ‘Nigga, you crazy?’ My mom, my grandmom, my granddad, my relatives, my neighbors. I know the word nigga as an admonishment, an endearment, a criticism and an invective. So I use it; I don’t run from it. I don’t have an issue with it or who says it. I always put it in the context of how it was used on me.”
An aside: I was hesitant to bring up his father because, when mentioned at the beginning of the interview, Jackson looked a bit uncomfortable. Like far too many Black boys, Sam had no real relationship with his dad. Saw him once, briefly, as a child, then not again until he was a grown man and a father himself while with his little girl, Zoe, in the early 1980s. He was on the road doing a theater piece and happened to be in the Kansas-Missouri area where his dad was living.
“And there was my father, back home living with his mother. Told me about all these brothers and sisters I had in different places. Had a baby introduced to me [who] was younger than my daughter, and my girl was only, like, 3 months old. My father was still doing the same thing. That trip was the last time I saw my dad. He died a few years later. He was an alcoholic. Died of cirrhosis.”
So even when Sam hit his lowest life point with the crack addiction, he never allowed it to defeat him completely, as his father had been defeated. It probably has helped greatly that his self-admitted best friend is his wife, LaTanya Richardson, whom he met in Atlanta when he returned to college from that two-year suspension. He had changed his major from oceanography to theater and found himself taking drama courses at Spelman College, Morehouse’s sister school. Married since 1980, they’ve been together more than 40 years.
There is no telling what the next acts have in store for Jackson. He mentions his desire to win an Academy Award a few times. He is still very much an activist, but quietly now, in America, in Africa, building schools, wells and working for AIDS prevention, along with his wife. He will team with Tarantino once more for Django Unchained, a sort of a Western about which Jackson says, “I’m actually playing a loyal house nigga [who will,] hopefully, become the most despised Negro in the history of cinema, ’cuz it’s a despicable role.”
He is a producer, too, often looking to help an actor or director who deserves a break. And he makes sure his mom, who now has Alzheimer’s, is properly cared for at a facility in the South. When I ask Jackson what the superstar would say to that little boy who was a bookworm, his face brokers that wide grin once more.
“I would tell that kid who’s sitting on the porch reading a book while other little niggas are running down the street, giving [him] shit because [he] did not want to play, that he’s doing the right thing. Continue to believe in who you are.”