What Is The Deal With Samuel L. Jackson's Characters?

Photo: John Salangsang/BFA/REX/Shutterstock.
Samuel L. Jackson has been called the hardest working man in show business for many years. I can't refute that claim. He has enjoyed a long acting career that has spanned over several decades. In addition to xXx: Return of Xander Cage and Kong: Skull Island, Jackson is credited in no fewer than five films in the next year.
In more recent years, it appears that Jackson enjoys taking on fun roles in outrageous projects, like the insane billionaire on Kingsman: Secret Service, and a frustrated FBI agent in Snakes on a Plane. With more than 100 films under his belt, Jackson has earned the right to take on these silly roles. In Kong, he plays a belligerent general who refuses to leave the war, instead sending his team on impossible missions against a terrifying monkey that’s bigger than most apartment buildings.
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For many of these parts, Jackson’s Blackness shines as the main tenet of his character. He is often charged with cool commentary and witty remarks that work to lessen the severity of a situation. Some of his parts, like Stephen from Django Unchained, have literally made me cringe. He would probably argue that this is a sign of his good acting, that he can illicit such a response. But the feeling that Jackson often plays a caricature of Black people sometimes makes me uncomfortable.
Ironically, Jackson has a weighty background as a Black activist. He participated in the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an usher, advocated for education reform by literally holding members of Morehouse College’s board of trustees hostage, and fraternized with members of the Black Panther Party. Though we may be able to say this of some actors, Jackson has not been trapped in a Hollywood all of his life, despite his long career. He is very well aware of specificities of race in this country. He even critiqued Get Out for casting a Black British actor instead of an African-American one.
So what is his deal? How can viewers reconcile his personal views and the kind of person he plays in movies? I think it is because of his firsthand experiences with civil rights and other Black liberation movements that he does not prioritize acting as a site of resistance. If anything, some of his more extreme roles are likely a kind of escape; a way to explore humanity’s extremes without having so much at stake. So perhaps we don’t need to cancel Jackson just yet. I’ll just keep rolling my eyes when he gets particularly ridiculous.
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