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Tell It on the Mountain

Samuel L. Jackson, action-hero badass and child of the segregated South, plays Martin Luther King Jr. on Broadway.

No one says motherfucker quite like Samuel Leroy Jackson. He deployed that expletive in tones Shakespearean and streetwise throughout Pulp Fiction. And today, there are at least half a dozen places on the web where Jackson’s voice will “motherfucker” you up with a click; in real life, he uses the term with impunity. Especially when it comes to politics. Here, for instance, are his thoughts on Obama 2012: “Being president is one of those fucked-up jobs. You hope you can figure some shit out and deal with all these hardheaded mother­fuckers and get reelected. Then you can go in and tell motherfuckers to kiss your ass and do what the fuck I say, or I will fuck you up. That’s how you get shit done. That’s the audacity of hope.”

Jackson has been in more than 100 movies. “I’ve stopped counting,” he says, grinning, settled into a green semi-­circular booth in the garden of the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, sipping lemonade from a straw. Among his African-American actor peers, he is unique. Able to play both virtuous and villainous with the badass swagger of seventies blaxploitation heroes, he brings reliable cool—Samuel L. Jackson–ness—to every role, in the way that Nicholson, Pacino, De Niro, and Walken have.

Having portrayed crackheads, cops, criminals, Shaft, a Jedi, and Marvel Comics’ Nick Fury onscreen and played God and the narrator of Go the Fuck to Sleep for audiobooks, Jackson is returning to the New York stage for the first time in two decades this fall, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, which won the 2010 Olivier Award (Britain’s Tony) for Best New Play.

The drama is set on April 3, 1968, the night before King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. “The King I am showing just came in from delivering the ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech,” says Jackson. The reverend is very tired, and the only other actor onstage is Jackson’s longtime friend Angela Bassett, who plays Camae, a hotel employee delivering room service who stays to talk. “He’s the guy alone in a hotel room talking to a woman. He’s the man as a man, not as a martyr or ideologue. He just happened to be the guy who wasn’t afraid to stand up for the right idea. But outside of that, he was as fragile and as flawed as anyone.”

Jackson, who turns 63 this year, grew up in segregated Chattanooga, Tennessee. “I understand the attitudes of the time because I was part of it,” he says matter-of-factly, crunching a flatbread from a basket the waiter brings over. “There were certain things we could not do and places we could not go. And it was life-threatening to engage certain members of society about what was going on.” There was an early lesson when he was 5 and wolf-­whistled at a white girl: “My mom, aunt, and grandmother beat me for reckless eyeballing.” He remembers going to neighbors’ houses in those days and seeing three pictures on the wall: Kennedy, King, and Jesus. He frequented the two blacks-only movie houses, always puzzled about why Sidney Poitier died even when he had the jump on someone.

His father wasn’t around, but as a child, he’d accompany his grandfather to do maintenance work in office buildings. “You shuffled to the side when a white person came by. I’d stand there and look them in the eye, and they might say I was a little uppity,” says the actor. (Which is why he named his production company Uppity Films.) “People know about the Klan and the overt racism, but the killing of one’s soul little by little, day after day, is a lot worse than someone coming in your house and lynching you.”

His family was determined for him to move ahead. “My job was going to school and having a better life. And I had to make good grades to have any peace.” For every four comic books he read, he had to read a classic like Moby-Dick. At school, Jackson played several instruments in the band and ran track. Today he plays a lot of golf.

He enrolled at King’s alma mater, Morehouse College in Atlanta, avoiding the Vietnam War. There he was “a hippie militant” who listened to Jimi Hendrix, dropped acid, and got booted out for holding the board of trustees—including King’s father—locked in a campus building. “He complained of chest pains, so we let him out of there so we wouldn’t be accused of murder,” Jackson says, chuckling at the memory.

After reinstatement and graduation, he and his future wife, LaTanya Richardson, did repertory and children’s theater and toured with a company called Black Image. Jackson leans forward for this story, his resonant voice punctuating all the right beats. “We did guerrilla street hate-whitey theater. We had drummers, and we’d yell, ‘Die, niggers, so black folk can take over,’ and then we’d run through the audience and scream in white people’s faces. And they’d say”—he flips a vocal switch and becomes an aging Valley girl—“ ‘Oh my God, this is so great!’ ”