Samuel L. Jackson’s name is so often paired with the phrase “badass motherfucker” that they’re more or less synonymous with one another. Instead of describing someone as a real badass motherfucker, for example, just describe them as a real Samuel L. Jackson; you’ll end up saving yourself a couple characters in an off-the-cuff Tweet, and you won’t offend your audience with uncouth language. The larger point here is that no actor in Hollywood embodies casual, lived-in badassery either as thoroughly or as uniquely as Jackson: Like most big screen tough guys, your Schwarzeneggers, your Waynes, your Weathers, Jackson has a commanding, macho presence, but he marries that with immense gregariousness and a sly charisma all his own.
And he’s been cultivating that persona for forty-five years in films ranging from Pulp Fiction (plus about half of Quentin Tarantino’s total filmography, especially The Hateful Eight and even more especially Jackie Brown), to The Long Kiss Goodnight, to Die Hard with a Vengeance, to John Singleton’s Shaft remake, and quite frankly to many other titles to name without regurgitating his entire body of work. But this isn’t about the roles of Jackson’s past. It’s about Jackson’s present, where he’s as busy as ever less than three full months into 2017: It’s only March and the man already has three new films to his credit, and what’s more, each allows him to showcase his inimitable brand of badass in wholly different ways. Jackson’s badness isn’t just one of a kind. It’s surprisingly versatile, too.
In January, he appeared in the introductory scene ofxXx: Return of Xander Cage, only to perish in a gnarly explosion (along with Neymar, of all people), only to reappear alive and well at the end of the film (also along with Neymar, of all people); in February, he gave voice to social critic, essayist, poet, and activist James Baldwin in Raoul Peck’s excellent documentary, I Am Not Your Negro; and most recently he plays the Captain Ahab to Terry Notary’s motion captured portrayal of everyone’s favorite colossal, dino-wrestling ape in Kong: Skull Island, where he’s charged with spouting off brawny one-liners and making otherwise tensionless rides through ominous thunderstorms feel compelling by reciting the myth of Icarus in such fashion as only Jackson can: With an excess of cool that’d read as disinterest coming from any other actor.
One of these things is very obviously not like the other. xXx: Return of Xander Cage and Kong: Skull Island are movies cut from the same big, stupid cloth, where the goal is mayhem as entertainment: Locations are established for the sole purpose of being set aflame, while such antediluvian things as “character” are more or less left in the margins, in hopes that star power alone is enough to fill out all but the biggest parts in the cast. Concerning Jackson, this approach works in both films, though it’s worth noting that the screen time allotted him in xXx: Return of Xander Cage is minimal (and even “minimal” is generous phrasing); he doesn’t need more than a few minutes of dialogue to leave an impression, even when that dialogue is cut short by a timely and fiery satellite crash. Augustus Gibbons is barely a blip in the story, but Jackson makes him memorable whether he’s recruiting one of Brazil’s best footballers for espionage missions or surreptitiously crashing his own funeral. (Nothing says “badass” quite like faking one’s death just to spur the hero into action.)
By contrast, Kong: Skull Island gives Jackson much, much more to do as Colonel Packard. He’s in charge here, barking out orders, surviving the unsurvivable, shooting down prehistoric birds and towering, man-eating spiders without batting an eye, all the while plotting his revenge against Kong, the behemoth responsible for the deaths of most of his men. At the start of the film, two soldiers, one American, the other Japanese, both shot down on Skull Island during World War II, come face to face with Kong and can only gaze dumbfounded into the eyes of the beast. Later on, when Packard has his own run-in with Kong, he doesn’t stand agape: Rather, he stares Kong down, as determined to kill Kong as Kong is to protect his turf. It takes a certain kind of man to keep cool in combat conditions. It takes another kind of man entirely to react to a gargantuan monster decimating a squadron of seasoned troops by merely glaring at it.
Maybe Jackson isn’t the only actor in Hollywood who could pull that off. Maybe there are other authoritative tough guys who could play Packard with as much grit as Jackson. But Jackson has a very specific self-awareness that lets him play Packard as relaxed and deliberate without having to sacrifice primacy or willpower. At the same time, both xXx: Return of Xander Cage and Kong: Skull Island fall squarely within our expectations of Jackson roles: They invest heavily in his confidence, his un-fuck-with-able comportment. For Gibbons, being blown up isn’t just a hazard of the job; it’s part of the job description. For Packard, avenging his men is just another battle in the never-ending war that is his life; Skull Island is another Vietnam (a notion spelled out broadly through Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ use of classic war movie shot compositions throughout the film), and Kong is another, well, you get the idea. xXx: Return of Xander Cage and Kong: Skull Island rely, to varying degrees, on Jackson’s adamancy to function.
So does I Am Not Your Negro, but I Am Not Your Negro exists far outside the parameters of the typical Jackson role. You might think it’s gauche to even consider qualifying the film as “badass” (even on a site that once upon a time was known as Badass Digest); you might not be wrong, either. Peck’s film is one of startling ambition and profound relevance, a work that looks backwards in time and in so doing connects the dots between the America of the 1960s and the America of today; it isn’t a movie that demands, invites, or, let’s put it more bluntly, even needs an element of toughness, of no-nonsense implacability. “Badass” isn’t the first noun you’d think of for defining I Am Not Your Negro, in other words, and yet much of what makes Jackson Jackson is in play here; it’s simply channeled in another direction.
This may sound somewhat surprising, given that if you don’t know that Jackson is I Am Not Your Negro’s narrator, you might not figure it out until the credits roll at the film’s end. He’s in disguise here, and not just in a visual sense (because, as narrator, he naturally doesn’t appear in the frame), but in an aural sense. This is a Jackson restrained, a Jackson under the influence of Baldwin’s words, his poise, his grace and dignity; his delivery is goddamn near tranquil if you think about the amount of sauce he puts on most of his lines in most of his other roles. Subtract the ratcheting, mocking bombast you hear in the expressions of Marquis Warren, or Jules Winnfield, or Mace Windu, or hell, let’s go there and name-drop Neville Flynn, too, and what you have is a measured, rhythmic pace to his speech, a cadence that veils his identity from I Am Not Your Negro’s start until its finish.
But once you learn that you’ve been listening to Jackson talk this whole time, you feel like an idiot for not picking up on it sooner. (Full disclosure: I sure did. I watched I Am Not Your Negro via a DVD screener during the 2016 awards season rush, knowing little of the film except that it used an unfinished Baldwin manuscript as its basis. When all was said and done, I was left slack-jawed, as much out of surprise as respect for the captivating power of Jackson’s voiceover work.) The film asks Jackson to mute his majestic brio and anchor his every word with subtle and varied emotionalism: There is anger in his inflection, a righteous indignation fomented through the endurance of systemic abuse over the course of decades, but there’s sadness, too, grief at the losses chronicled in Baldwin’s writing and despair that the injustices ailing America might not ever be cured.
I Am Not Your Negro doesn’t task Jackson with safeguarding civilization from governmental tyranny or over-sized simians. Rather, it requires that he bear witness to the experiences recounted in Baldwin’s writing, which in many ways likely echo Jackson’s own experiences as a Civil Rights activist; it requires that he turn history into performance, and his role in I Am Not Your Negro is very much a performance. This is not a traditionally badass enterprise, but there is something distinctively badass about facing the past and interrogating it by invoking the spirit of arguably the most influential black author of his time. Baldwin is one of the greats. His works maintain their relevance and impact thirty years after his passing, which, in fairness, is as much a credit to his brilliance as a grim testament to just how far America has failed to progress since the 1980s (much less the 1960s). He is, in short, a man not to be taken lightly, and this I Am Not Your Negro is a film not to be taken lightly, either.
And Jackson, the guy we all know and love for hollering about motherfucking snakes on motherfucking planes, for warning us all to hold onto our butts (not only in Jurassic Park, but also in Kong: Skull Island!), for haranguing his wife about his super suit, for regaling with tales of his black dingus, treats his role in I Am Not Your Negro with sincerity and gravity while transforming himself in the process. He doesn’t relinquish his best-known traits as an actor. He just refocuses them into something a good deal more serious than a goofy spy flick or a creature feature, and this fully evinces his vitality as an actor: His larger than life personality belies a gift for chameleonic acting. 2017 gives us the Jackson we crave, the Jackson that dukes it out with monsters and dodges fireballs, while also displaying a side of himself that we haven’t had many opportunities to appreciate of late, advocating for social justice and forcing Americans to confront their country’s deep-rooted racism, and what could be more badass than that?