Samuel L. Jackson, known for indelible performances in films ranging from “Pulp Fiction” — for which he received a supporting-actor Oscar nomination, but did not win — to the even pulpier “Snakes on a Plane,” received belated recognition Friday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Governors Awards. He was presented with an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement by an obviously overjoyed Denzel Washington. The award is the 73-year-old actor’s first Oscar.
Jackson’s award was handed out in a low-key, untelevised ceremony that also honored actress, writer and director Elaine May, actress and director Liv Ullmann and actor Danny Glover, who was given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. The Governors Awards are seen as a chance for the Academy to revisit the careers of beloved actors and directors, ahead of the big event Sunday. Recipients each receive a statuette and are announced in advance.
Washington introduced Jackson, taking note of the actor’s prolific career in both film and philanthropy, with a dizzyingly long list of the charities with which Jackson has worked, and warmly welcoming his longtime friend onstage.
Over a career spanning half a century, Jackson has appeared in more than 150 films, including such hits as “Jurassic Park,” the Star Wars prequel trilogy and various Marvel movies, in which he played Nick Fury. Most recently, he starred in the miniseries “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” on Apple TV Plus. His movies, in total, have generated $27 billion at the box office.
In an emotional acceptance speech, Jackson looked back on his career, noting his early, nameless roles, including what he described as “Gang Member No. 2” and “Black Guy.” He thanked his wife of 42 years, Latanya Richardson Jackson; director Quentin Tarantino, with whom he has made six films; “every person who has ever bought a ticket to any movie I was in”; and notably his wigmaker.
“I tried to entertain audiences the way Hollywood entertained me,” said Jackson, who grew up watching films in segregated theaters in Tennessee. “Make them forget their lives for a few hours, be thrilled, awed or excited.”
“When I got this call last year, it was unexpected,” he said, “but I guarantee you, this thing is going to be cherished.”
Earlier this year, Jackson told the Times of London that he should have won an Oscar for “Pulp Fiction.” (The award went to Martin Landau for his role in Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood.”) Jackson also said there should be a category for “Most Popular Movie,” pointing to the box-office success of “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”
But Jackson was most frustrated by the Academy snubbing his supporting role in Spike Lee’s 1991 film “Jungle Fever,” which didn’t even earn a nomination. He added that Black actors usually win for doing “despicable” things on screen, like Denzel Washington’s “horrible cop” in “Training Day,” a role for which Washington received the best actor Oscar in 2002. Jackson expressed dismay that Washington hadn’t received as much acclaim for “all the great stuff [he] did in uplifting roles like ‘Malcolm X.’ ”
For years, the Oscars ceremony has faced criticism for its lack of diversity. In 1988, Eddie Murphy initially turned down a request to present at the ceremony, telling his manager that they hadn’t recognized Black actors.
2019′s Best Picture winner, “Green Book,” was criticized for presenting a sanitized view of race relations in America. And outrage at the Academy escalated in 2020, when Cynthia Erivo, who was nominated for best actress for “Harriet,” was the only Black actor to receive a nomination.
In the years since, the Academy has diversified its membership and introduced new rules meant to increase inclusion. Set to go into effect in 2024, the rules have been met with mixed reviews. Last year was considered a “landmark year” for diversity at the Oscars, with Black actors represented in nearly all the top categories
For Samuel L. Jackson, the Oscar he now owns is one he feels he should have had long before. “Oscars don’t move the comma on your check,” he told the Times, adding that it’s all about getting butts in seats. “I’ve done a good job of doing that.”