Critic's Picks: Samuel L. Jackson's 10 Best Performances

10:42 AM 8/17/2017

by Stephen Dalton

THR film critic Stephen Dalton ranks the 'Hitman's Bodyguard' star's most indelible work, from an Oscar-nominated turn in a Tarantino classic to a role in a sweaty, Southern guilty pleasure.

Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained and Blake Snake Moan -Split-H 2017
Miramax Films/Photofest; Courtesy of The Weinstein Company; Paramount Classics/Photofest
  1. 10

    Black Snake Moan

    Not many major screen stars would willingly stake their reputation on a borderline exploitation flick, but Jackson gives a convincingly gnarly, gritty, tangy performance in Craig Brewer’s Dirty South fever-dream as Lazarus Redd, an aging Tennessee blues singer who chains up Christina Ricci’s teenage nymphomaniac to save her from her own carnal urges. A sweaty, sultry, guilty pleasure.

  2. 9

    Do the Right Thing

    Jackson and Spike Lee have had a long, fruitful, occasionally prickly relationship, but the first of their collaborations is a stone-cold classic. Decked out in colorful gear, Jackson plays Mister Senor Love Daddy, a poetry-spouting Brooklyn radio DJ who acts as chorus and cool-headed commentator on the film’s combustible racial tensions. And that’s the truth, Ruth.

  3. 8

    Coach Carter

    Jackson was the natural choice to bellow and strut through Thomas Carter’s uplifting true-story biopic about a hard-ass school basketball coach who forces his motley players to raise their educational game. Of course, Jackson can play this sort of role in loudmouth autopilot, but he invests even corny feel-good material with chest-thumping moral authority.

  4. 7

    The Long Kiss Goodnight

    Jackson matches co-star Geena Davis in both the action and comedy stakes in Renny Harlin’s kick-ass comic-book thriller. He oozes laconic cool and self-deprecating humor as Mitch Hennessy, a blues-singing private eye investigating the murky past of a government assassin as she awakes from years of deep amnesia.

  5. 6

    Django Unchained

    Tackling the inflammatory topic of slavery in a lurid spaghetti western style, Tarantino’s most successful film to date is also a grand showcase for Jackson’s acting range. His supporting role as Stephen, the Machiavellian manservant to Leonardo DiCaprio’s brutish Deep South slave owner, is both a remarkable physical transformation and a chilling study in sleepy-eyed, soft-spoken evil.

  6. 5


    Reteaming with his frequent screen sparring partner Bruce Willis, Jackson brings depth and gravitas to a goofy paranormal premise in M. Night Shyamalan’s atmospheric sci-fi suspense thriller. He plays Elijah Glass, a dapper comic-book collector who is driven to commit mass murder in a bid to explain his brittle-boned, wheelchair-bound condition.

  7. 4

    Changing Lanes

    Jackson again becomes emblematic of social and racial inequality in Roger Michell’s Manhattan morality play. He plays Doyle Gipson, a downtrodden divorcee and recovering alcoholic whose family’s future is sabotaged by a fateful encounter with Ben Affleck’s arrogant, high-powered lawyer. Jackson paints this flawed everyman in muted tones, but seething with barely contained rage.

  8. 3

    Jackie Brown

    Tarantino often writes overblown caricature roles for Jackson, but he has never appeared more authentically diabolical than he does in this deluxe Elmore Leonard adaptation. Sporting a ponytail and plaited goatee, Jackson’s cold-blooded drug dealer Ordell Robbie is a remorseless killing machine, casually slaying friends and enemies alike.

  9. 2

    A Time to Kill

    In Joel Schumacher’s blockbuster John Grisham adaptation, Jackson stands out in a stellar ensemble cast as Carl Lee Hailey, a Mississippi father on trial for killing the white racists who raped and assaulted his young daughter before leaving her for dead. Jackson lends glowering, wounded conviction to the film’s controversial pro-vigilante message.

  10. 1

    Pulp Fiction

    Jackson had already notched up 30 screen credits over two decades before Quentin Tarantino’s sprawling art-house blockbuster propelled him into the Oscar-nominated superstar league. In the custom-written role of Jules Winnfield, a Bible-quoting hit-man who finally conquers his homicidal urges with religious faith, Jackson becomes a living lightning rod of fiery Old Testament vengeance.