From bit parts in classics like Goodfellas to numerous Spike Lee joints to becoming a staple fixture in the epic Marvel Cinematic Universe, Samuel L. Jackson is undeniably the epitome of the modern Hollywood movie star. Born in Washington D.C. and raised in segregated Tennessee, Jackson inadvertently found acting when he began imitating other people to get over a childhood stutter.
While honing his craft in the New York theater scene and dealing with drug addictions, Jackson befriended filmmaker Spike Lee. Fresh from rehab, Jackson’s noteworthy performance as crack-addicted "Gator" in Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever got him the attention of Hollywood. And after shouting out Ezekiel 25:17 in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson has been unstoppable.
With a chameleonic approach to his craft, Jackson is almost always the best part of any movie he’s in, whether he’s playing caring father figures or secret agents or evil billionaires. With a whopping 30 movie appearances before his star-making turn in Pulp Fiction, Jackson enjoys a lasting career spanning multiple decades. Here are 32 of the greatest Samuel L. Jackson movies.
32. The Caveman’s Valentine (2001)
The Caveman's Valentine is nobody’s favorite movie. But this largely forgotten 2001 drama about a homeless pianist investigating a murder features one of Samuel L. Jackson’s most engaging performances. As paranoid schizophrenic Romulus Ledbetter, Jackson perfectly and eerily plays the kind of folks you might see in Central Park screaming bloody murder while you hurry past them, ignoring their genuine cries for justice. Jackson brings pathos and grace to a character most people dismiss in their real, waking lives.
31. Kill Bill: Vol 2 (2004)
Making the most of a brief 45-second cameo where you don’t even see his face, Samuel L. Jackson plays a cigarette-smoking piano player who seems to know more about the Bride's (Uma Thurman) fateful day than he lets on. The Kill Bill duology is written and directed by frequent collaborator Quentin Tarantino, and primarily centers on Thurman’s character who embarks on a bloodsoaked quest for revenge. While Kill Bill Vol. 2 isn’t a movie for Jackson to shine, he still grabs your attention when you least expect him.
30. One Eight Seven (1997)
Shortly after the success of movies set in tough schools, like Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, and Dangerous Minds, a then-rising star Samuel L. Jackson played another hard-nosed teacher in a rough urban environment in Kevin Reynolds’ One Eight Seven. Jackson plays a Brooklyn science teacher who transfers to L.A. and deals with students caught up in gangs. Between its downer ending and cynical atmosphere, One Eight Seven is not an easy watch. But Sam Jackson proves he is movie star material in his first top-billing performance.
29. Jurassic Park (1993)
With just four minutes of screentime, Samuel L. Jackson makes a meal out of a few snappy lines of dialogue (“Hold onto your butts!”) in Steven Spielberg's dino-sized classic. Though Jackson plays a no-name IT guy whose survival isn't actually confirmed – he told The A.V. Club in 2018 he couldn’t shoot his death scene after a hurricane in Hawaii ruined the set – he is still the man Spielberg depends on to deliver necessary exposition without putting audiences to sleep. It’s incredible how Jackson can do all that without losing his cigarette.
28. Snakes on a Plane (2006)
Conceived as a straight-faced thriller before the internet gave it meme status, Samuel L. Jackson puts on his typical tough guy exterior in the role of an FBI agent trapped in an airborne plane – with snakes! It’s Jackson’s sincere, irony-free line delivery that made Snakes on a Plane a worldwide phenomenon, if only for one memorable summer. While the movie doesn’t slither up to the hype, it keeps a permanent place in the heights of Sam Jackson’s filmography.
27. Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea is sublime late ‘90s maximalist cheese, and another movie where Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t take the spotlight but steals every moment he can. While Jackson was first approached to star (playing a role ultimately given to musician LL Cool J), Harlin came up with a new character for Jackson, allowing him the opportunity to subvert audience expectations about the crew’s survival in the most shocking and funniest ways possible.
26. Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)
Jackson’s full-throated commitment to his choices as an actor are a sight to behold in Matthew Vaughn’s 2015 blockbuster Kingsman: The Secret Service, based on the graphic novels. Dripping with a tech guru’s streetwear wardrobe and brandishing a lisp, Jackson’s billionaire villain Richmond Valentine is a walking contradiction who defines “casually cruel.” Contained in Kingsman is a typical SLJ performance: Entertaining, enlightening, and enviably executed.
25. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Samuel L. Jackson made a galaxy far, far away so much cooler when he joined the Star Wars saga as Mace Windu, a high-ranking member of the Jedi Council in the prequel trilogy.
While his appearance in The Phantom Menace is mostly functional and Attack of the Clones is where he memorably beheads Jango Fett, Jackson really shines in Revenge of the Sith. From telling the soon-to-be Darth Vader to sit his butt down to marching up to Palpatine like he owes him money, Sam Jackson makes Mace Windu the last person in the Jedi Order you’d want to mess around with.
Fun fact: Did you know his lightsaber is purple just because he asked George Lucas? That’s how you know you’re the coolest guy in Hollywood.
24. Resurrecting the Champ (2007)
Another movie where Sam Jackson’s artistic choices can be more interesting than exquisite, Resurrecting the Champ stars Jackson as real-life boxing heavyweight Bob Satterfield – or at least, so everyone believes, including the young journalist doing a profile on him. Based on a real L.A. Times Magazine story, Resurrecting the Champ packs a stronger punch than its saccharine looks let on, and Jackson is again mesmerizing to watch even if his speaking voice can be on the grating side.
23. Fresh (1994)
In Boaz Yakin’s crime drama, a streetwise inner city kid embarks on a mission to lift himself and his sister out of poverty during the crack epidemic. Samuel L. Jackson stars in this critically-acclaimed film as an alcoholic chess master who teaches his son how to play everyone around him. While child actor Sean Nelson anchors the movie, Jackson still plays his part like a grandmaster and imparts infinite wisdom: If you want the king, you’ve got to come get the king.
22. Jackie Brown (1997)
Samuel L. Jackson has gone on record saying one of his favorite roles ever is Ordell, the sleazy gun runner with Fu Manchu hair in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. It’s not hard to see why. In Tarantino’s homage to Blaxpoitation movies, Jackson’s Ordell is a cold-blooded man who lets himself buy the delusion that he’s living in his own action movie. Even when sharing space with heavyweights like Robert De Niro, Michael Keaton, and Foxy Brown herself Pam Grier, Jackson proves he’s a star of his own caliber by dishing out the movie’s most quotable lines.
21. Coach Carter (2005)
Even in a formulaic sports melodrama like Coach Carter, the pull of Samuel L. Jackson’s gravity is impossible to dismiss. As real-life high school basketball coach Ken Carter, who in his tenure demanded excellence from his players in both the classroom and the court, Jackson’s performance is enough to inspire anybody to shoot their shot in life. Jackson is most famous for playing badasses, but he’s vastly underrated in playing paternal types. Coach Carter makes an excellent case that Jackson’s range has a caring side, too.
20. The Incredibles (2004)
Before he surfaced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Samuel L. Jackson occupied a different superhero universe as the cool-as-ice Frozone, best friend to Mr. Incredible. Even in a thankless supporting role, Jackson’s dependably stellar charisma makes him a scene-stealer in a close to perfect family blockbuster. Just where is his super suit, anyway?
19. Lakeview Terrace (2008)
In this crime thriller that can be best described as “Look Who’s Coming to Dinner by way of Alfred Hitchcock,” Samuel L. Jackson plays Abel Turner, an LAPD cop who resents his new neighbors: interracial newlyweds, played by Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington. In this sunny L.A. suburb haunted by Rodney King and feeling weary of Obama’s first campaign trail, director Neil LaBute captures Samuel L. Jackson at both his finest – and most terrifying.
18. Changing Lanes (2002)
Before Netflix’s Beef, there was Changing Lanes. Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck co-star as opposing men who collide on FDR Drive and embark on a destructive quest for retribution. While Changing Lanes maybe isn’t Jackson’s best movie of all time, it ranks higher than even some of his most memorable work due to Jackson’s predictably hypnotic performance as a recovering alcoholic whose new addiction is ruining the life of a self-absorbed Wall Street suit.
17. Chi-Raq (2015)
In Spike Lee’s reimagining of the Greek comedy Lysistrata (set in Chicago's South Side), Samuel L. Jackson wears the fine threads of debonair narrator Dolomedes – so named after a species of spider, perhaps Spike Lee referencing the African trickster god of Anansi – who breaks down the plot with equal parts mischief and panache. With a wardrobe of loud suits and boasting an even louder personality, Chi-Raq will leave you furious that Dolomedes doesn’t narrate every movie.
16. Black Snake Moan (2006)
Craig Brewer’s mystifying mid-aughts picture defies categorization: It’s a drama, a black comedy, an homage to exploitation B-movies, and an erotic thriller all at once. At the center of it is Samuel L. Jackson in some of the finest work of his career. Opposite an equally committed Christina Ricci, Jackson zigzags between judgemental religious fundamentalist and caring surrogate father figure. Profound underpinnings of BDSM and Jackson showing off impressive guitar skills gives Black Snake Moan strange, alluring energy.
15. A Time to Kill (1996)
Samuel L. Jackson himself is not a fan of Joel Schumacher’s A Time to Kill, at least the final product. In this stirring legal drama exploring Black and white tensions in Mississippi, Jackson gives a stirring performance as a father on trial for murdering his daughters’ white assailants. In a 2023 interview with Vulture, Jackson claims that his potentially Oscar-worthy performance was hampered in the editing room. Even still, no one can deny Jackson’s command of the screen in a movie that strives to seek out the difference between what is just and what is right.
14. Rules of Engagement (2000)
Another courtroom drama starring Samuel L. Jackson (with Tommy Lee Jones co-starring), Jackson plays a colonel in the U.S. Marines on court-martial after soldiers in his command kill civilians outside the United States embassy in Yemen. The movie, directed by William Friedkin, drew plenty of criticism for its unflattering depiction of Arabs. But Jackson is still the best part of the movie in yet another absorbing performance where his trademark use of strong language takes on a particularly harrowing tone.
13. Jungle Fever (1991)
One of Jackson’s earliest standout performances is in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, a romantic drama about an interracial affair between a Black architect (played by Wesley Snipes) and his hired temp secretary, a white woman (Anabella Sciorra) in contemporary New York City. Jackson plays a supporting role as Snipes’ crack-addicted brother named Gator in a performance that is simultaneously hilarious and tragic. Watch Jackson’s Gator beg his own mother for money and you’ll be trying hard not to laugh until there’s nothing to laugh about.
12. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
Even when he stands next to godlike superheroes, a steely Samuel L. Jackson can still feel like the most powerful person in the room. In the early 2000s, Marvel Comics reimagined its secret agent character Nick Fury after the actor. Jackson, himself an avid comics collector, arranged to play Nick Fury in a future movie in exchange for letting the publisher keep using his likeness. In 2008, Jackson finally wore the leather jacket and eyepatch of Nick Fury in a memorable cameo appearance in Iron Man. Four years later, he played a much bigger part in The Avengers, a billion-dollar hit that disrupted Hollywood overnight and made superhero movies the tentpole du jour for years to come. Through it all, Sam Jackson brings a grounded human soul to a movie full of inhuman beings.
11. Django Unchained (2012)
Reuniting with Quentin Tarantino, Samuel L. Jackson satirizes the hypocrisies of Black American conservatism as Stephen, an all-too-eager house slave to his white master (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). While the Academy recognized Jackson’s co-star Christoph Waltz for Best Supporting Actor, Jackson makes his own case for a trophy, especially in a haunting two-minute monologue where Jackson, while looking directly into the camera lens, doesn’t even blink.
10. Do the Right Thing (1989)
In Spike Lee’s enduring drama, a sweltering day in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood becomes a pressure cooker for racial tensions. Sam Jackson takes a backseat, so to speak, in his role as charismatic FM radio deejay Mister Senor Love Daddy. With his opening words of “Wake up” sounding like Spike Lee’s own instructions for the audience, Love Daddy is the movie’s de facto narrator, bringing a welcome light touch to an otherwise heavy experience.
9. Shaft (2000)
Never mind that Richard Roundtree played Shaft in the 1970s, because Shaft is truly a character that Samuel L. Jackson was born to play. In 2000, director John Singleton saw a dream project realized in his remake/sequel to the 1971 original, with none other than Sam Jackson bringing the Blaxploitation icon into the 21st century. Shaft is no way the absolute best movie Jackson has made. But when you think of Samuel L. Jackson, and the kinds of characters he portrays, chances are you’re thinking of someone like Shaft.
8. Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995)
Only a year after his revelatory performance in Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson cemented his place in Hollywood in one of the biggest action movies of the decade: Die Hard with a Vengeance, the third in the Die Hard series. Co-starring with franchise mainstay Bruce Willis, Jackson plays an electronics shop owner who helps John McClane – reluctantly, at first – catch a terrorist who has planted bombs across New York City.
Time has been kind to Die Hard with a Vengeance, with retroactive praise given to the movie as one of the best in the series and one of the best action movies of the 1990s. So much of the movie’s entertainment value rests in Sam Jackson, whose onscreen chemistry with Bruce Willis is palpable and irresistible – and a harbinger of what was soon to come from the both of them.
7. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
In his fourth cinematic appearance in the Marvel franchise, Jackson finds surprising new depths to Nick Fury when his character is forcibly removed as head of S.H.I.E.L.D. after it’s revealed to be a puppet organization of the evil HYDRA. While the movie – the first Marvel picture directed by the Russo Brothers – mostly depends on Captain America (Chris Evans) to save the day, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury stays ice cool and razor-sharp, even when all of S.H.I.E.L.D. is out to get him. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the most compulsively watchable movies in the entire Marvel canon, and Jackson is a big reason why.
6. The Hateful Eight (2015)
Quentin Tarantino really knows how to get a monologue out of Samuel L. Jackson, doesn’t he? In this frigid Western masterpiece by Tarantino, Jackson brings the heat as Union Army veteran Marquis Warren whose prowess at telling stories keeps everyone – especially the unfortunate souls trapped with him in Minnie’s Haberdashery – on their toes. The Hateful Eight is packed full of nefarious rogues played by superstar character actors, but everyone present seems to revolve around the orbit of Jackson as Major Warren.
5. The Negotiator (1998)
F. Gary Gray’s late ‘90s action thriller sees Samuel L. Jackson headline as a Chicago P.D. hostage negotiator framed for the murder of his partner. Between Gray’s expert direction and Jackson’s formidable performance as a man trying to ensure justice against all odds, The Negotiator is simply top-notch classic Hollywood moviemaking. Through it all, Sam Jackson proves his movie star might as a character that represents him best: someone who can talk his way out of anything.
4. The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
Renny Harlin’s delectable action-thriller, written by Shane Black, stars Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson as an unlikely pair – an amnesiac CIA agent and a private detective respectively – who rip it up on the screen with killer comic timing. Ignored at the box office when it opened in 1996, The Long Kiss Goodnight is now a celebrated cult classic that illustrates so much of what makes Samuel L. Jackson a revered movie star. He doesn’t have to be the center of attention for him to still command so much of it.
3. I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
In Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary about author James Baldwin, Samuel L. Jackson does more than just dramatically read text. Inhabiting the voice of Baldwin without imitating him, Jackson verbally holds the audience by the hand all throughout Peck’s exploration of the civil rights movement – and racism in America as a whole – as it was seen from Baldwin’s perspective. Peck’s documentary has a dreamlike quality to it largely because of Jackson’s speaking voice, which is tranquil and meditative but never sleepy. It’s easily one of Jackson’s most absorbing performances ever. Watch it with headphones.
2. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Ezekiel 25:17. We can just end this right there, but because we must go a little longer: Samuel L. Jackson’s invincible performance as L.A. mob hitman Jules Winnfield, in Quentin Tarantino’s defining Pulp Fiction, is more than just incredible quotes and piercing stares into cinematographer Andrzej Sekula’s lenses. In his role as a stone-cold killer with a penchant for the dramatic, Jackson seizes the movie’s last few minutes by revealing a more thoughtful and self-examining man troubled by his history of bloodshed, including the events of that morning. His wallet says one thing, but by the end of the movie, we know something else: That Jules is just doing his best to walk the path of the righteous man. And aren’t we all?
1. Unbreakable (2000)
As Samuel L. Jackson himself puts it in the movie: “This is a work of art.”
Before the meteoric rise of superhero movies, director M. Night Shyalaman – in the midst of a hot streak started by his seismic hit The Sixth Sense – deconstructed superhero conventions with his cerebral thriller Unbreakable. Shyamalan reunites Bruce Willis with Samuel L. Jackson, with the two standing on opposing sides in all sorts of ways – physically, psychologically, and as the film reveals, morally.
While Willis exudes stone-like exterior as David Dunn (a family man in disbelief of his own gifts), Jackson is eerily enthralling as Elijah Price, a.k.a. “Mr. Glass,” a fanatical comic book collector with a dangerous obsession to live out his own story.
Expertly directed and wonderfully performed, Unbreakable is simultaneously a perfect example of a major Hollywood picture being both a crowd-pleaser and provocative cinema. While Willis is reluctant to do much of the talking, Jackson carries the movie’s full weight as a pseudo-supervillain who proves the brain is truly the strongest part of the human body. Mr. Glass is so unlike most other Jackson’s performances, but it’s transparently also one of his best.