The film critic David Thomson once wrote that “no one survives more bad material with humor and dignity” than Samuel L. Jackson, which is another way of saying: No movie with Samuel L. Jackson can ever be entirely boring. Jackson has been in comedies, dramas, actioners, horror films, and some truly inspired kitsch, and he always brings his distinctive oomph to each role.
As people trying to rank every one of his movies can now attest, Jackson is also famously busy, working constantly, like a guy who didn’t catch his big break until his late 40s and is trying to make every second count. This can sometimes lead to a similarity in his performances, so in the interest of economy and our sanity, we bunched a few of his films together under one category: “Samuel L. Jackson doing a Samuel L. Jackson impersonation.” They’re all essentially the same movie, and he’s the same in all of them.
Other than that, we ranked any performance that was a little bit different — and ones that were at least minimally significant in his canon. But this meant drawing the line somewhere. For instance, we bypassed 1989’s Sea of Love, where he’s billed as “Black Guy,” or 1981’s Ragtime, in which he’s “Gang Member No. 2.” We decided nobody needed to revisit 1994’s Hail Caesar, which is not the Coen Brothers’ movie but is Anthony Michael Hall’s directorial debut and features the first onscreen pairing of Jackson and Robert Downey Jr., long before their Marvel movies. But even with the performances we chose to exclude from these rankings, it’s remarkable what a vast and varied career the 68-year-old actor has had: Jackson has certainly made up for lost time.
Samuel L. Jackson as … well, Samuel L. Jackson (No. 79–65):
Barely Lethal (2015)
Formula 51 (2001)
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
The Legend of Tarzan (2016)
The Man (2005)
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)
Reasonable Doubt (2014)
In 2011, the Guinness Book of World Records declared that Samuel L. Jackson was the highest-grossing star of all time, which would seem like an extraordinary feat considering that he’s not thought of in the same A-list superstar company as Tom Cruise or Will Smith. (In 2016, Harrison Ford took the title from Jackson.) But the explanation — which will become obvious once you start scrolling — is that Jackson makes a lot of films. And as his celebrity has grown over this century, he’s been known to take parts where he can just do his Sam Jackson thing without straining too hard. Consequently, he can play, say, a talk-show host in the RoboCop remake, a gung-ho army colonel in Kong: Skull Island, and an American ambassador in The Legend of Tarzan and, really, it’s all the same character. (And that’s not even mentioning the straight-up genre stuff he’s toplined, like Formula 51 and Barely Lethal).
Jackson has always credited his prolific pace to lessons he learned as a boy. “I grew up in a working-class family,” he once said. “When I was a kid, all the adults in my house got up and went to work every day. I assumed that’s what grown people do. That’s what I do. I just happen to have a very interesting job that’s kind of cool!” While that’s true, sometimes his oversaturation can turn Jackson’s onscreen attributes into shtick. You don’t see a performance in these tossed-off vehicles — you just see Jackson playing Jackson. Eyes bugging out. Voice rising to his trademark barking scream. Sharp-elbowed dialogue spewed rat-a-tat-tat. And, if the movie has an R rating, you got an obligatory “motherfucker!,” the Samuel L. Jackson equivalent of Keith Richards trotting out that “Satisfaction” riff every night. For some viewers, apparently that’s enough. But we’ll confess: We found it nearly impossible to rank these lesser performances. All of these roles should have just been credited to “Samuel L. Jackson, as Himself.”
64. Amos & Andrew (1993)
It might have been possible to make a sharp comedy about a wealthy writer (Jackson) who’s mistaken for a criminal because he is black. (Maybe.) But having the film share a title with the notoriously racist ’50s television show — and having its title reflect directly back to that show — was a mistake no movie could overcome, or should. One shame: A buddy comedy with Jackson and Nicolas Cage is not the worst idea in the world, and certainly wasn’t in 1993. But not like this.
63. The Spirit (2008)
Frank Miller’s comic-book noir was famously panned when it was released — Roger Ebert said, “to call the characters cardboard is to insult a useful packing material.” It’s still pretty terrible today. Jackson is a ridiculous villain, and, honestly, the world has never been the same since Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson pretended to be Hitler under a massive swastika. That really happened. We can prove it.
62. Def by Temptation (1990)
Jackson, perhaps inevitably, ends up playing a lot of ministers, even early in his career. (Jackson has never seemed young, even when he was.) This is a silly indie-horror film with Kadeem Hardison that only livens up when Jackson is onscreen.
61. Freedomland (2006)
A sloppy, largely annoying studio thriller about a mother (Julianne Moore) enlisting the help of a police detective (Jackson) to find out who stole her car with her child in the backseat, near a notorious housing project. This movie has nothing to say, and says it in an ugly fashion.
60. Johnny Suede (1991)
Jackson is barely in this movie: He plays the bassist in the titular Johnny Suede’s band and doesn’t have any dialogue. To be honest, we only this movie on the list to have an excuse to show you Brad Pitt’s hair.
59. In My Country (2004)
Nelson Mandela liked it — seriously, he actually gave the movie a blurb — but this romance between an American reporter (Jackson) and a South African poet (Juliette Binoche) makes The Last Face mistake of foregrounding the romance and backgrounding the suffering. Seriously, though, Nelson Mandela blurbs don’t come around every day.
58. Home of the Brave (2006)
The idea behind this story of four soldiers (Jackson as the lieutenant, and the fascinating actor stew of Jessica Biel, Brian Presley, and 50 Cent) returning from Iraq was surely based in good intentions, but the execution is ham-handed and obvious. Jackson does his best, but he gives this movie more effort than it deserves.
57. The Samaritan (2012)
A tired crime thriller that Jackson himself executive produced, perhaps in hope of giving himself a Liam Neeson, Taken-esque late-career franchise. (This hope was not realized.)
56. Lakeview Terrace (2008)
Neil LaBute tries to force all sorts of complicated racial dynamics into this studio thriller, with Jackson as a cop who terrorizes an interracial couple (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) who live next door. The movie needs a lighter, more careful touch than LaBute is able to provide: He’s too busy trying to provoke to allow the movie to feature reasonable, relatable human beings.
55. Jumpin’ at the Boneyard (1991)
This drug drama, starring Tim Roth as a tough guy trying to get his drug-addict brother (Alexis Arquette) help, hasn’t aged well. It feels less gritty and more like an after-school special in which everyone needs to take a bath. But Jackson shines in a small role as a kindly counselor.
54. The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017)
Unfortunately, The Hitman’s Bodyguard is the Samuel L. Jackson we get far too often at the movies these days. Of course he’s charismatic and cool as Darius Kincaid, an expert assassin being shipped to the Hague to testify in a war-crimes trial, but there’s little novelty in his character’s pissed-off demeanor and foul-mouthed bluster. If you want to hear Jackson show off his pipes, however, he sings his own composition, the bluesy “Nobody Gets Out Alive,” over the end credits. That’s about the only fun wrinkle in this utterly throwaway action-thriller-comedy.
53. Kiss of Death (1995)
This remake of the angry noir from 1947 was most known for being David Caruso’s first big starring role after leaving NYPD Blue. But, if anyone remembers it now, it’s for a deeply weird Nicolas Cage performance as the villain, back before everyone was so used to deeply weird Nicolas Cage performances. Jackson can barely register here; Caruso glowers and sulks, Cage stomps and screams, and there really isn’t much room left for anyone else to so much as breathe.
52. Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
To play evil gazillionaire Richmond Valentine, Jackson took as inspiration hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, all the way down to the lisp. (“I used to speak that way but haven’t for years now,” Simmons later said, apparently not too annoyed by the impression.) Still, it’s indicative of the performance — and the movie as a whole — that Jackson stooped to a gimmick to bring this boring villain to life. Kingsman is the kind of anonymous action-thriller piffle the veteran star can do in his sleep. It might have been better if he had.
51. One Eight Seven (1997)
In a dark, gritty, “urban” crime thriller, directed by Waterworld’s Kevin Reynolds of all people, Jackson plays a schoolteacher who tries to teach his students, but is essentially beaten down by the system at every corner. Jackson gives the movie all he’s got, but the movie is too conventional, safe, and plotty to match him. It also has a strange, disturbing ending that is more jarring than it is affecting.
50. Patriot Games (1992)
Jackson got his first taste of summer-blockbuster moviemaking in this Tom Clancy adaptation, which saw Harrison Ford take the reins from Alec Baldwin after The Hunt for Red October. Jackson plays Ford’s buddy Robby Jackson, who’s mostly a sounding board and confidant. But Jackson gets to engage in a little gunplay and show off his action chops, which would become increasingly important in subsequent years.
49. White Sands (1992)
A by-the-numbers thriller from Roger Donaldson, White Sands predates Pulp Fiction by two years, but already shows Jackson totally wiping his better-known co-stars (in this case, Willem Dafoe and Mickey Rourke) right off the screen. They’re the stars. But he’s the guy you watch.
48. Goodfellas (1990)
“I was frankly the only person of color around there,” Jackson later recalled of his brief appearance in Martin Scorsese’s mobster epic. He plays Stacks, the clueless stoner in the gang, who gets whacked by Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito for forgetting to ditch the truck after the JFK airport heist. Frankly, this is a nothing part — although it was based on a real guy — but it no doubt helped elevate Jackson’s profile at the time.
47. The Great White Hype (1996)
Casting Jackson as a thinly veiled version of Don King is casting so obvious that you almost don’t want to blame the filmmakers for doing virtually nothing more with the premise. There are ideas here, but they remain ideas, unexecuted.
46. Trees Lounge (1996)
Jackson is only in a couple of scenes, like many of the actors in Steve Buscemi’s directorial debut, and while he’s funny and relaxed, we’re really just mentioning this minor role because Trees Lounge is a terrific movie that no one remembers. More people should.
45. True Romance (1993)
The first of three films in which Jackson appeared alongside Gary Oldman — the other two are RoboCop and The Hitman’s Bodyguard — True Romance also marks the first collaboration between the actor and Quentin Tarantino, who wrote the Bonnie and Clyde–ish action-thriller. Blink and you’ll miss Jackson as Big Don, who talks about how much he loves eating out his girlfriend before Oldman’s nutsy Drexl blows him away. He’d get better parts from QT soon enough.
44. Augustus Eugene Gibbons in the xXx movies (2002, 2005, 2017)
The best thing about Jackson’s character in the middling xXx franchise is his name. Agent Augustus Eugene Gibbons marked a crucial transition in the actor’s career where he started playing tough-as-nails authority figures who had to keep the movie’s young-punk hero in line. Basically, Gibbons is the trial run for Nick Fury, and as such it’s not all that memorable. He’s just there to make Vin Diesel — or, in 2005’s xXx: State of the Union, Ice Cube — look good. Thankfully, Gibbons never got his own series of spinoff films.
43. Resurrecting the Champ (2007)
Inspired by a fantastic Los Angeles Times article from 1997 by J.R. Moehringer, Resurrecting the Champ tells the story of a homeless man (Jackson) who claims he’s a former boxing champion, and the young journalist (Josh Hartnett) who tries to tell his story. The movie is ultimately more about journalism than it is about boxing, but Jackson is appropriately haunted as an old man who has lost more than he even knows.
42. Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995)
For the third Die Hard, the producers decided to shake up the formula, giving John McClane (Bruce Willis) a grouchy, unwilling partner. That would be Jackson’s Zeus, a Harlem pawn-shop owner, who helps the cop defeat the maniacal Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons), brother of Hans from the first film. There’s some superficial thrill to watching Willis and Jackson yell at each other while trying to solve Simon’s riddles that will lead them to bombs he planted around the city. But Jackson’s pissed-off demeanor can only take Vengeance so far. Put it this way: We much prefer Willis and Jackson’s other collaboration, which happened five years later.
41. Old Boy (2013)
This American remake of the Park Chan-wook thriller found Jackson reuniting with director Spike Lee for the first time since Jungle Fever. (They’d been at odds ever since Lee criticized Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, which didn’t please Jackson.) But although it was great to see them mend fences, the resulting movie wasn’t particularly good. Jackson plays Chaney, the owner of the establishment where Josh Brolin’s poor Joe Doucett is locked up for decades. A huge fan of Park’s film, Jackson has fun as the yellow-mohawked psychopath, but like the remake itself, it can’t carry quite the same shock as the original.
40. Losing Isaiah (1995)
A courtroom drama about a biological mother (Halle Berry) fighting a wealthy woman (Jessica Lange) for custody of a child she abandoned when it was born, Losing Isiah features a sharp, focused performance from Jackson as Berry’s lawyer. The movie ultimately goes soft, but Jackson gives a mean closing statement.
39. Rules of Engagement (2000)
This meat-and-potatoes courtroom drama draws on the strengths of its leads, including Tommy Lee Jones as a Marine lawyer defending his old friend (Jackson), a colonel accused of ordering his troops to fire on unarmed protesters in Yemen. Jackson is all square-jawed somber in Rules of Engagement, but when his character, predictably, needs to have his big blow-up shouting scene in court, he delivers it with wild-eyed fury.
38. The New Age (1994)
Still navigating his way through Hollywood in the early 1990s, Jackson landed a small but important role in writer-director Michael Tolkin’s satire about spiritual emptiness amid the glamour of Los Angeles. Peter Weller and Judy Davis play a miserable couple sleepwalking through their ennui, but Jackson brings a little fire to the proceedings as a telemarketer who sells Weller’s adrift character on the power of making a sale. In the process, the actor helped sell audiences on what a magnetic performer he was.
37. Soul Men (2008)
Released after Bernie Mac’s death, this comedy about old Motown stars reunited after the death of their third band member isn’t particularly original, but it’s lovingly directed by Malcolm D. Lee and showcases some odd-couple chemistry between Jackson and Mac. They could have been a fun team moving forward, one suspects.
36. Snakes on a Plane (2006)
You could argue that this was the moment Samuel L. Jackson fully, finally embraced his larger-than-life public persona, playing a parody of every one of his bad-motherfucker roles and rolling them all into one sick-of-this-shit FBI agent. Of course, Snakes on a Plane is utter junk, but it’s self-aware junk, which counts for something, and Jackson seems content to lean into the joke. But give the man this: He was too commanding a big-screen presence to be destroyed by this B-movie garbage. If anything, it only further burnished his reputation.
35. Black Snake Moan (2006)
This is a crazy-ass movie about a man named Lazarus (Jackson) who saves the life of a beaten woman (Christina Ricci) but then decides that only he can cure her of her nymphomania and thus chains her to a radiator. Yep! (Oh, and Justin Timberlake is in it.) The movie is insane for the first hour — sometimes intriguingly so, sometimes disturbingly so — but it settles into something more conventional by the end. Jackson is clearly having fun, likely a little bit more than you will.
34. Jurassic Park (1993)
This was still in that period of Jackson’s career where he would just randomly pop up in big movies to play thankless roles. Here, he’s playing Ray Arnold, but the character’s name might as well be Computer Dude Who Explains Stuff (and Gets Eaten by Dinosaurs). Does he exude effortless cool smoking cigarettes and acting totally blasé about everything? Yeah, of course. But a trillion other actors could do a part like this — and soon, Jackson would be big enough to let them all have a chance at it.
33. The Other Guys (2010)
Jackson has died in plenty of his films, but never as hilariously as he does in The Other Guys, where he plays one half of a hot-shot New York detective team alongside Dwayne Johnson. This Will Ferrell–Mark Wahlberg send-up of buddy-cop comedies allows Jackson to float on pure charisma, portraying an amped-up version of his swaggering onscreen persona. When he and Johnson go splat on the concrete after their bad-ass, slow-motion jump off the top of the building, we fully expect that they’ll survive. That doesn’t happen — a funny reminder that movies aren’t like real life at all.
32. Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
Another early-1990s role, back when Jackson was mostly just doing glorified cameos. Still, he’s crucial to Mo’ Better Blues, playing a loan shark who beats up Denzel Washington’s accomplished trumpeter Bleek Gilliam, pulverizing his precious lips in the process. The next time Jackson and Spike Lee would hook up, for Jungle Fever, the filmmaker would have a much more meaningful role for the actor.
31. Juice (1992)
Jackson has a small, funny, crucial role as Trip, the owner of the store where the four wayward teenagers hang out, goof around, and conspire. But this movie will forever belong to Tupac Shakur as the psychotic Bishop. People often forget just how old Samuel L. Jackson is, so here’s a good reminder: He was 23 years older than Tupac when this movie was made.
30. The Caveman’s Valentine (2001)
Jackson reunited with his Eve’s Bayou director Kasi Lemmons for this mystery about a schizophrenic homeless man who tries to solve a murder while slowly losing his mind. The movie itself is sweeping but muddled, an impressive swing that doesn’t entirely work, but Jackson grounds the movie in an aching sadness and fear.
29. Loaded Weapon 1 (1993)
Jackson tries his hand at Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker–style comedy, only without the ZAZ touch. He’s the Danny Glover to Emilio Estevez’s Mel Gibson in this Lethal Weapon parody, and while the movie is pretty shaggy, it’s undeniably fun to watch Jackson being this overtly hammy and goofy.
28. The Red Violin (1998)
Jackson portrays so many tough guys, but a movie like The Red Violin proves he can also play gentler notes on the scale. In this ambitious portrait of a violin that keeps changing hands over the centuries, he’s an appraiser who treats the instrument like a work of art. (Of course, because he’s Samuel L. Jackson, he still gets to blow up at one point in the movie.) It’s a fun change-of-pace role, but not a great one — he can’t quite translate the character’s intellect and sensitivity into anything particularly gripping.
27. Shaft (2000)
The idea of a Shaft remake (actually a sequel; Richard Roundtree shows up as the original Shaft, this Shaft’s uncle), by John Singleton, with Jackson as the titular private dick, was inevitable. The movie has some power — and has a strong performance by Christian Bale as the spoiled villain — but still can’t help but feel like stunt casting, a movie made mostly for the poster. The franchise this was supposed to be didn’t quite pan out.
26. Mace Windu in the Star Wars prequels (1999, 2002, 2005)
Of all the big names attached to George Lucas’s disastrous prequels, Samuel L. Jackson is the one who can probably feel the least queasy about how he came across in them. As Mace Windu, a noble Jedi who spends a lot of time hanging out with Yoda, Jackson seems relatively comfortable amid the movies’ horribly artificial environments, managing to generate something resembling a normal personality. (If that sounds like a low bar, think of how lost poor Natalie Portman looked.) Jackson has insisted that his character actually isn’t dead, perhaps angling to get himself involved in the much-better-received new sequels. It would be fun to see him mixing it up with Finn and the rest of the gang, but doesn’t Jackson have enough franchises to deal with?
25. Deep Blue Sea (1999)
This would probably fall in the category of “Samuel L. Jackson playing a Samuel L. Jackson impersonator,” except … well … you know.
24. Menace II Society (1993)
Jackson has one scene to convey the violent life that Menace II Society’s main character (Tyrin Turner) grew up in, and he’s ferocious as Tat, who’s shown in flashback turning his hair-trigger temper on a supposed friend who’s just gotten out of jail after five years. Jackson wasn’t a star yet, but he knew how to create an impression in just a few moments. Even in low light, the actor radiates danger.
23. A Time to Kill (1996)
The culture’s collective memory of Jackson’s performance in this John Grisham potboiler can be summed up in his character’s blistering, “Yes, they deserved to die, and I hope they burn in hell!” court scene. That’s typical of A Time to Kill, which is full of clattering, well-intentioned nods to justice and racial equality. Not surprisingly, Jackson’s Carl Lee Hailey, who has killed his daughter’s rapists in cold blood and is now on trial, tends to speak to his lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) in “this is the way racism works in America” exposition. Still, the actor somewhat redeems the heavy-handedness, fighting to find a person within the pungent symbolism.
22. School Daze (1988)
Jackson makes his Spike Lee debut in a short but powerful scene in which the college kids of Lee’s bright, exciting comedy come across some “townies” at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. The confrontation between Jackson and Laurence Fishburne is riveting, and important in the context of the film. Jackson never took an inauthentic step in a Lee film, and he doesn’t start here.
21. 1408 (2007)
This adaptation of a Stephen King story about a writer (John Cusack) who tries to stay in a haunted hotel room for an evening is sharper, scarier, and funnier than it might look on the surface. Jackson has a key role as a hotel manager who is both Cusack’s captor and, potentially, his savior. Rule of thumb: When Samuel L. Jackson tells you not to stay in a haunted hotel room, do not stay in the haunted hotel room.
20. No Good Deed (2002)
Jackson is skilled at playing cops who are a little smarter than they have to be, and he’s terrific in this mostly forgotten Bob Rafelson noir about a cop who, in trying to help an old lady with groceries, accidentally stumbles onto a bank robbery. Jackson has surprising chemistry with Milla Jovovich; there’s a scene in which the two of them play the cello that might be the most erotic scene Jackson’s ever been involved in.
19. The Incredibles (2004)
Working as both a send-up slash homage of the superhero movie and a portrait of modern family life, The Incredibles recruits Jackson to, essentially, be the comic-relief sidekick. He’s Frozone, who’s pals with the Parr clan and sneaks off with Bob (Craig T. Nelson) to stop criminals while their wives think they’re going bowling. Like everything about this movie, Frozone (who can freeze water) is funny, zippy, and charming, and Jackson’s velvety voice is always a delight. But because The Incredibles isn’t really about his character, there’s not a lot for him to do — there’s a reason why his character’s name isn’t in the title.
18. The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
This Shane Black–scripted action comedy isn’t as fun as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or even Iron Man 3, but it still has its moments, and it’s a good reminder that there was a time when Geena Davis could have worked as a legitimate action star. They’re a good team, and the movie is a little better than you might remember. Side note: The film survives today in YouTube clips because of a scene that “predicted” the 9/11 attacks.
17. Hard Eight (1996)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s first movie is raw but powerful, a first thunderclap of the giant he would soon become. Jackson has a small but critical role as one of the many sad, broken, dangerous souls haunting Anderson’s Las Vegas.
16. Chi-Raq (2015)
Twenty-six years after serving as the de facto narrator of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Jackson was an even more pronounced Greek chorus for the director’s Chi-Raq, a blunt, angry satire about the rising gun violence in Chicago. In keeping with the movie’s emergency-bulletin urgency, he plays Dolmedes as an outlandish, impassioned observer of a story about a group of local women who refuse to sleep with their gang-member boyfriends until they put down their weapons. Swinging an ornate walking stick and dressed to the nines, Dolmedes is Jackson at his most swaggering and fiery — it’s a one-note role that he plays to the hilt.
15. The Hateful Eight (2015)
Even in a so-so Tarantino vehicle, Jackson can provide sufficient pleasures. In The Hateful Eight, he’s Warren, a bounty hunter who meets up with a group of ornery individuals in a lodge in the middle of the winter, each despicable character sizing up the others. By this point, Jackson is, with the exception of Christoph Waltz, the most gifted performer of Tarantino’s blustery, hard-edged dialogue. And yet the character is just not that surprising after all the dynamic collaborations that the actor and director have done over the years. Still, Warren gets the film’s best monologue, and Jackson flaunts every syllable — it’s now impossible to hear the word “dingus” without thinking of him.
14. Mother and Child (2009)
The longer that Jackson’s career has gone on, the more he’s gravitated to big action movies. So it was a revelation to see him in writer-director Rodrigo García’s understated drama about a woman (Annette Bening) who gave up her child (Naomi Watts) for adoption right after she was born. Mother and Child follows both characters on parallel timelines, each of them subconsciously seeking the other, and Jackson plays Watts’s boss, with whom she’s having an affair. Watts is the steely one in the relationship, while Jackson is gentle, even a bit of a pushover. This was the first time in too long that he’d played an ordinary person — a vulnerable, melancholy romantic, to be exact — and Jackson takes to it gracefully. He’s quite touching, reminding us that he can still do nuance when the right film requires it.
13. Fresh (1994)
In this underrated ’90s crime thriller from Boaz Yakin, Jackson plays an alcoholic chess master who helps his son out of an entanglement with a crime lord (Giancarlo Esposito) through chess advice and wisdom. Jackson is right in his element here: smart, damaged, but ultimately soulful and wise. This is a much better movie than was appreciated by audiences at the time.
12. The Negotiator (1998)
Jackson plays a police negotiator who gets framed for a murder and, in a handy moment of irony, ends up taking hostages and dealing with a rival negotiator (Kevin Spacey), who begins to realize he’s innocent. The story is as hackneyed and stilted as it sounds, but the movie is still compelling, thanks largely to the two actors who clearly are both raising their game to match the other.
11. Nick Fury in the Marvel movies (2008–present)
“‘I am Iron Man.’ You think you’re the only superhero in the world?” With those words in the post-credits scene from 2008’s Iron Man, Jackson introduced the world to arguably the most popular character he’s ever played. A S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who helps assemble the Avengers, Nick Fury is the essence of Jackson’s stripped-down coolness, rocking an eye patch and a sarcastic sense of humor while keeping his band of misfit heroes together. In the various Marvel movies where he’s shown up, Jackson reliably serves as the straight man, understanding that his calm, stoic demeanor will play nicely against the series’s outsize personalities. In a sense, it was a part he was destined to play: Years before Jackson signed up for the role, Marvel Comics depicted the character to resemble Jackson, with the comic-book Fury even suggesting that the actor should play him in the movie version of his life. But for a guy mostly in the shadows, Jackson’s big-screen version of Fury has proved wildly popular. When his character seemingly dies in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it’s one of the most emotional moments in the entire MCU.
10. Changing Lanes (2002)
Sort of Jackson’s Falling Down, Changing Lanes chronicles the increasingly intense day between a privileged lawyer (Ben Affleck) and a recovering alcoholic (Jackson) after they get involved in a fender bender. Jackson harnesses all the man’s anxiety and anger — he’s going to lose custody of his kids because he was late to court, thanks to Affleck — and it comes out in slow, simmering monologues and enraged outbursts. Often, Jackson plays the badass; here, he’s keenly aware of how powerless he is, easily earning our empathy.
9. Coach Carter (2005)
One of Jackson’s bigger crowd-pleasers, this sports movie features Jackson as an inspirational high-school basketball coach who works to change his students’ lives both on and off the court. The movie is pretty straightforward sports-movie stuff — yes, there is a big game — but casting Jackson as a tough but kind basketball coach is an ingenious idea. Look quickly for Channing Tatum, in his first film role.
8. I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Around the release of this Oscar-nominated documentary about the life and work of James Baldwin, Jackson was busy appearing in Capital One ads that traded on his lively, Mr. Cool public persona. So it was a legitimate shock to see how mournful he is in I Am Not Your Negro, reading Baldwin’s words in voice-over and, in essence, “playing” the beloved writer. Many initial viewers didn’t even know they were listening to Jackson: The actor exudes a weary, bitter tone that makes Baldwin sound utterly defeated by the racism and violence he sees around him. This is one of the great documentary performances in recent times — and probably the least-appreciated of Jackson’s lengthy career.
7. Do the Right Thing (1989)
“Waaaaaaaaake up! Wake up, wake up, wake up!” Jackson is the first actor we hear from in Spike Lee’s masterpiece, and as the neighborhood DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy, he’s also something of a Greek chorus, first setting the scene for this incredibly hot day in Bed-Stuy, and later occasionally offering commentary. This was one of Jackson’s first opportunities to show off his charismatic, motor-mouthed electricity — he’s a constant pleasure in a movie that will eventually turn tragic.
6. Eve’s Bayou (1997)
Kasi Lemmons’s debut film wasn’t appreciated at the time – though Roger Ebert famously called it the best film of the year — but 20 years later, it looks not just deeply moving but downright revolutionary. Jackson plays Louis, a doctor and the patriarch of a Louisiana family who has the respect of the community, but he is a serial philander and might just have molested his daughter (Jurnee Smollett), the Eve of the title. The movie is mysterious and scary and sad, and at times even magical. It’s one of Jackson’s finest performances, and a film well worth revisiting.
5. Django Unchained (2012)
Tarantino’s epic tale of vengeance and slavery in the 1850s is unrepentant in its depiction of the savage cruelty shown to blacks in the South, but it’s equally harsh in exploding clichéd depictions of African-Americans that used to be commonplace in Hollywood period films. Jackson is awfully sly in his portrayal of Stephen, a house slave who serves the flamboyant Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). On the surface, Stephen is a stereotype — subservient and dim-witted — but quickly we realize he’s actually sharper than his master, sniffing out the ruse that Django (Jamie Foxx) and Schultz (Christoph Waltz) are trying to foist on Candie. Under the old-age makeup, Jackson is a coiled snake, ready to strike.
4. Unbreakable (2000)
Action movies are often only as good as their villains, and Unbreakable is emboldened and ennobled by Jackson’s superb, mournful performance as Elijah, a crippled comics obsessive whose reign of terror is actually a desperate attempt to find his superhero soul mate. As Vulture’s Abraham Riesman put it so well in his rundown of the best comic-book movies of the last 20 years, the so-called Mr. Glass is “a pensive and obsessive man whose dreams lead to disaster and whose origin story is intimately tied to the mid-century experiences of Philadelphia’s African-American middle class.” That’s a lot of thematic weight to put on a popcorn-flick character, but Jackson’s focused, slightly demented turn forces co-star Bruce Willis to match his emotional authenticity. Two decades later, people still debate Unbreakable’s final twist — but no one doubts the poignancy Jackson brought to the moment.
3. Jungle Fever (1991)
Before Jungle Fever, Jackson had been acting in films for a decade. (This was actually his fourth film with Spike Lee.) But here’s where he gave his first truly monumental performance as Gator, the drug-addicted brother of Wesley Snipes’s well-to-do architect. Jungle Fever is ostensibly about interracial relationships, as Snipes has an affair with his white underling (Annabella Sciorra), but the film’s powerful subplot about Gator’s private hell steals the show, guided by the desperate, lost energy Jackson brought to the role. Later in his career, Jackson would utilize his combustible intensity to play cocky characters, but here, that volcanic spark feels like it’s going to destroy Gator. He’s magnetic and tragic in the role.
2. Jackie Brown (1997)
Of all the villains Jackson has played, Ordell might be the most unsettling. The actor delivers a master class on how to flash crazy eyes in Jackie Brown, presenting us with a character who might not kill everyone in the room right now, but, y’know, irritate him and you never know what might happen. Such is the power of the character’s hair-trigger violence that, even when Ordell isn’t onscreen, we feel palpable anxiety wondering what he could be up to. Much of the credit goes to Jackson, who even conceived the criminal’s striking look: As Quentin Tarantino later said, “The whole thing with the long hair and the goatee, the whole kind of samurai, mad priest, mad kung fu priest on the mountain look he had — Sam came up with that. And it was just terrific. It just made it.”
1. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Even those who love Tarantino’s groundbreaking second feature acknowledge that it’s not exactly a deeply moving emotional experience. But Pulp Fiction’s soulful center is Jackson’s Jules, a witty, vicious hit man who, underneath the bluster, is genuinely seeking some sort of spiritual salvation. When the film came out, it was fashionable for fans to quote Jules’s infamous delivery of Ezekiel 25:17 (“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men …”). But Jackson (who received his only Oscar nomination for the part) brought not just furious anger, but also profound disillusionment to the verse, the character coming to realize that the Old Testament scripture he’d been reciting in order to seem like a badass might actually be trying to tell him something. Little wonder the movie ends with Jules’s focused declaration: “I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd.” For him, that’s as close to transcendence as he can hope to achieve.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.