5 Favorites Redux #79: Films of Samuel L. Jackson

Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.

Although Spiral will be good for a poll of the best Saw films, it won’t work terribly well for a 5 Favorites list since I love fewer than 5 of the films in the series. Chris Rock doesn’t have a lot of truly great films on his filmography, and since I don’t tend to highlight voicework, which leaves out the Secret Life of Pets films. That said, Spiral does co-star Samuel L. Jackson who is one of the most prolific modern actors with over 133 film credits since his debut in 1972 and his rock star emergence in the late 1980s and most notably post-Pulp Fiction in 1994. There are plenty of films in his filmography to make this selection process a little difficult.

Among the films I considered, but didn’t pick were: Goodfellas (1990), Jurassic Park (1993), Eve’s Bayou (1997), The Red Violin (1998), Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016).

A lot of these that I chose to highlight but not detail were because his role in the film was minimal or wasn’t particularly key to its success. He was also a welcome vocal presence in The Incredibles and its sequel.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Although it was his third film, Do the Right Thing was the first Spike Lee film nominated for an Academy Award, with one for Original Screenplay and one for Supporting Actor Danny Aiello. The film looks at racial tension in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of New York City. Showcasing police violence, intimidation, and murder three decades prior to the George Floyd murder trial, Lee’s seminal picture explores racism from a Black perspective, one that was seldom given its due by Hollywood in the 1980s. It launched a national conversation about police brutality, rioting, and the needs of the Black community to be a part of the conversation rather than just the subjects of it.

Do the Right Thing sparked a number of controversies at the time, including the notion that Lee’s film promoted rioting and property destruction while they simultaneously ignored the ramifications of the police’s actions in the film, which were always antagonistic to the majority Black community in which the film is set. The film also tackles issues of racism from outside and from within the Black community and posits that everyone harbors some form of racism, whether intentional or otherwise. It’s a fascinating film that successfully answers questions that continue to be posed thirty years later in the wake of mass protests at the continued oppression and killings of Black Americans by police officers across the nation.

As a note, while I did toss some titles where Jackson was an inconsequential part of the film in question, there’s little doubt that this film falls into that category. Jackson had a bit part in the film as a local DJ named Mister Señor Love Daddy. Whether or not Jackson has a crucial role in the film, there’s no getting away from the notion that this is one of the most important films he’s ever been a part of, even if only in an incredibly minor way.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Before Pulp Fiction, Jackson had a successful career, but Quentin Tarantino’s second feature was a breakout success for the director and launched Jackson’s foul-mouthed personality into the stratosphere. From there on, he became a household name, a name further solidified by his appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tarantino’s film is a disjointed narrative that follows several stories that eventually intertwine. The storyline at the center of the film involves John Travolta and Jackson as two hitmen who enact crime boss Ving Rhames’ retribution against his enemies.

Travolta, Jackson, and Uma Thurman, as Rhames’ wife, scored Oscar nominations for their work and the film secured four other citations including Best Picture, Directing, and Original Screenplay for Tarantino, who picked up the writing prize alongside co-writer Roger Avary. Pulp Fiction was such a huge success that it bolstered both Jackson’s and Tarantino’s careers and revived Travolta’s. It’s an ultra violent homage to pulp crime novels of the mid-20th century and bears more than a little resemblance to the Film Noir pictures made in the same period. His neo-noir black comedy is one of the greatest cinematic achievements of the late 20th century and everyone involved, most especially Jackson, is key to the film’s ultimate success.

Jackie Brown (1997)

Tarantino’s 1997 follow-up to Pulp Fiction reunited the director with Jackson, who would be a regular in his films, and picked up legendary talents Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Michael Keaton, and Robert De Niro. The film’s plot is that of a gun runner in Los Angeles (Jackson) who has intermediaries smuggling drugs and money into the United States. One of his employees is the titular Jackie Brown (Grier), who’s pinched for possession of cocaine while re-entering the country. After posting bail, she and the hitman (Forster) hired to take her out to prevent her from squealing embark on a complex plot to steal Jackson’s drug money and escape unscathed.

Although Jackson’s Ordell Robbie isn’t terribly divergent from other characters he’s played, Jackson blends effortlessly in with the amazing ensemble cast with Grier, Forster, De Niro, and Bridget Fonda delivering career-high performances. Forster was the only person associated with the film nominated for an Oscar, which he lost, but the film has been criminally underrated by Tarantino’s fans. As many of his films are, this one is an homage to blaxploitation films of the 1970s, including Coffy and Foxy Brown, both of which starred Grier. While the film should have been nominated for a few Oscars, Grier’s failure to secure a Best Actress nomination remains one of the most questionable outcomes in modern Oscar history.

Django Unchained (2012)

Almost twenty years after the fruitful partnership between Tarantino and Jackson began, one of Tarantino’s best films saw release with Jackson in the film in a minor, but pivotal role. Django Unchained stars Jamie Foxx as Django, an escaped slave sold to a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) who hopes to use Foxx to track down and secure the bounties on the criminal Brittle brothers, who just so happen to work at Django’s former plantation.

Tarantino’s penchant for violence is put to service in this revisionist look at the Old West and Antebellum South where a Black man seeks vengeance on those who enslaved him and rescuing the love of his life, all while earning money for his efforts as a bounty hunter in training. Jackson’s character plays the loyal head house slave who realizes Django’s plan and alerts his master to the plot. Each character in Tarantino’s films is an outlandish version of the kinds of characters we’re used to seeing depicted in this period of American history. By doing so, he keeps the audience engaged with the sometimes uncharacteristic motives and actions of the characters to enact the level of mayhem Tarantino relishes. This revenge drama is an homage of spaghetti westerns, particularly Django by Italian director Sergio Corbucci.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017)

This last film on my list today might not be one you could put onto a list of great films. The prior films can all lay claim to that potential. Rather, The Hitman’s Bodyguard is just a great time at the movies. This comedy played enormously well into Jackson’s comedic abilities with his foul-mouthed persona getting terrific use opposite Ryan Reynolds, also playing to his strengths. The film follows Reynolds as a former prominent bodyguard whose career comes crashing down when one of his clients is assassinated.

Left to taking whatever he can get, Reynolds agrees to protect Jackson, who has agreed to testify against his former boss (Gary Oldman) in exchange for the release of his wife (Selma Hayek) from prison. What follows is a raucous action comedy that twists and turns in expected and unexpected directions until its violent conclusion. Jackson and Reynolds have never been funnier with Hayek showing up for some hilarious moments of her own. The film is set for a sequel later this year and, after the success of this film, I’m more than ready to rejoin these characters for whatever shenanigans follows.

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