The Lifetime Achievement Award handed to Samuel L Jackson during the opening ceremony of this year’s Dubai International Film Festival on Wednesday honours an improbably prolific 40-year career during which the actor has become as ubiquitous as popcorn.
Above all else, moviemaking is a business, and on Jackson’s website, you can find a startling fact to explain the true meaning of the citation: “In recognition of his distinguished service to the film industry.”
Jackson is “one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood”, and with a catalogue of more than 100 films, has “grossed more money in box-office sales than any other actor in the history of filmmaking”.
By January this year, Jackson’s films had raked in US$4.63 billion (Dh17.01bn) at the American box office alone. With five films due next year and two more already lined up for 2018, the 67-year-old, who continues to average four films a year, is unlikely to be dislodged from the top slot any time soon.
But how he got there is an inspirational story of a man who overcame barriers placed in his way by fate, prejudice and biology.
Samuel Leroy Jackson, the son of Elizabeth and Roy Henry, was born in Washington on December 21, 1948. An only child with an absent, alcoholic father, he was raised by his mother and her family in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Listening to his powerful delivery of lines in films such as Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, it’s hard to believe that until the fourth grade, he had such a bad childhood stutter that he stopped speaking in public for an entire year.
In 2013, he told the American Institute for Stuttering that when the other children made fun of him, he decided to take revenge by studying hard and becoming smarter than them. He also learnt to “pretend to be other people who didn’t stutter”, though he has never quite shaken it. “I was the other day on the set of Captain America,” he said, “and they said ‘Action!” and I said, ‘G-g-g-et …’ It was a G day … I have P days, I have B days and I’m still stuttering.”
Jackson grew up in the American south at a time when to be black meant being treated as second-class – he attended segregated schools and his first experience of film, as he told The New York Times in 1997, was as a young boy in a black-only cinema in Chattanooga.
In 1969, he joined Morehouse, Atlanta’s historic black liberal arts college. He intended to study marine biology, but switched to drama after auditioning for a musical and falling for acting – and one of his co-stars. LaTanya Richardson, majoring in drama at another college, would later become his wife and the mother of their only child, Zoe. The young Jackson was “very fine”, she would later recall, “with this huge Afro, little bitty round sunglasses and long sideburns.’’
It was a look he would revisit as Bible-quoting hitman Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction, the 1994 Quentin Tarantino film that gave Jackson his big break.
Inevitably, perhaps, Jackson’s early career was shaped by politics. He was active in the civil-rights movement, serving as an usher at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. In 1969, he was suspended from college after a sit-in descended into a hostage-taking situation that left him with a criminal record for unlawful confinement.
He and Richardson founded a theatre company with an earnest agenda, staging political plays with the general theme, as he told The New York Times with a smile in 1997, “die, whitey, die – so black folk can take over”.
After graduating in 1972, the couple moved to New York, where they paid their dues – Jackson once spent six months working as a security guard. But after they joined the groundbreaking Negro Ensemble Company, Jackson began to find his voice, in the company of other big-names-in-waiting, including Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne and Danny Glover.
In 1981, he won acclaim as part of the cast of A Soldier’s Play, the story of the murder of a black soldier. The play won a Pulitzer and in 1984 was made into a film. Some of the cast, including Washington, transitioned to the big screen, but Jackson didn’t make the cut.
But Hollywood was already sniffing around. Though yet to be crowned the go-to guy for the role of darkly humorous yet psychopathically intimidating black man with a penchant for slickly delivered streetwise dialogue, Jackson was slowly laying the groundwork, with a series of cameos.
In 1988, he played a stick-up guy in the Eddie Murphy comedy Coming to America. Spike Lee gave his career a major leg-up, first in the 1988 film School Daze and again the following year in Do the Right Thing.
And then it nearly all went wrong. In 1990, while frustrated as an understudy in a Broadway play, Jackson’s long-running battle with drugs and alcohol finally came to a head. He was admitted to rehab, and then Lee came to the rescue.
With the tailor-made role in 1991 film Jungle Fever as Gator Purify, Wesley Snipes’ crack-addicted brother who ends up on the wrong end of a gun, Jackson turned a corner. “Don’t recast me,” he’s reputed to have pleaded with Lee. “I’ve done all the research.”
He never drank or did drugs again. “I turned myself around,” he once said.
Then finally he was in the mainstream. Tarantino came calling, and the rest is cinema history. Pulp Fiction was Jackson’s 30th film; it had taken him until he was 46 to make the big time.
Work, he once said when asked why he makes so many films, is now his drug of choice – well, work and golf, which has also long been a passion. Reportedly his contracts allow him to play twice a week during filming. The golf course, he once quipped, was the only place he could “dress like a pimp and fit in perfectly”.
Not all of Jackson’s film choices feel like wise ones. There have been some turkeys – who can forget Snakes on a Plane? – and only a few awards: the high-watermark was his Bafta win and Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for Pulp Fiction.
But Jackson is a fan’s actor, with a simple and enchanting philosophy when it comes to picking scripts. “When I was a kid, I was going to the movies because I wanted to be taken away from my normal everyday existence for an hour and a half,” he said in 2006. “I never wanted to do anything else except give people that feeling of satisfaction I felt as a kid when I watched a great actor in a great picture.”
Samuel L Jackson will be in conversation at 4.30pm today in the Madinat Theatre at Madinat Jumeirah, as part of the 13th Dubai International Film Festival.
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