Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Samuel L. Jackson’s award-winning performance as Gator in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever.
Before 1991, the Cannes Film Festival gave out an award for Best Supporting Actor only three times, all between the years of 1979 and 1981. But after Ian Holm won for his work in Chariots of Fire, they retired the honor, which I find difficult to understand.
Sure, films are primarily driven by the relationship between the lead characters, but to overlook the work that’s done outside of the scope of the main plot is misguided at best and insulting at worst. Oftentimes the best acting — and the best roles — in a film are with the characters orbiting the central narrative. Because they aren’t the story’s focus, the supporting actors playing these parts have a modicum of freedom to really experiment in their performances.
That couldn’t be more true for Samuel L. Jackson’s exhilarating performance as Gator Purify in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991). In his dynamically frightening role as the older brother to Wesley Snipes’ lead character, Flipper, Jackson injected the sexual drama with a uniquely visceral intensity that cut through Lee’s story about tensions between Black and white communities in the immediate years following a racially motivated murder in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Jackson’s character exists on the outer edges — of the film, and society — popping in and out of the narrative only to beg for money from his family, including his put-upon mother (Ruby Dee) and uncompromising father (Ossie Davis).
Jackson’s performance was so effective that Cannes decided to rescind their moratorium on supporting acting awards to recognize his fearless work in Jungle Fever. Since then, no other actor has ever received the same honor. It’s a feat for any actor to be recognized on the Cannes world stage, but it’s even more impressive that it came from a character with under fifteen minutes of screentime.
As difficult as it is to watch Jackson’s Gator contend with his specter of addiction, we also can’t tear our eyes away because there is this veritable ease in Jackson’s performance. He slips naturally into Gator’s skin, fully embodying the complex psychology and manic-depressive emotions of someone suffering through addiction, all without being overwrought or melodramatic or playing at stereotypes of addicts. Even if he brings tremendous energy every time he appears on screen, Jackson is quietly devastating because behind each moment is an actor struggling through his own relationship with drugs.
During his early career, Jackson was best known for working in live theatre. He landed major roles in August Wilson plays, namely The Piano Lesson at Yale Rep, which then transferred to Broadway with Charles S. Dutton. Despite understanding that he would be replaced when the show moved, a mitigating factor for Dutton taking his place was that Jackson was deep in the throes of addiction. As he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2019, “I had to sit there every night on the steps behind the theater and listen to Charles Dutton do that part. I’d sit there and smoke crack while I listened to the play. It made me f—ing crazy.”
For many artists who struggle with addiction, there is a fear that by getting clean, they will lose that spark in them that makes their art engaging. It was no different for Jackson, who entered rehab after being found passed out in his kitchen by his wife and daughter. He told the New York Times, “I did the twelve steps, yada, yada, yada. I was tired of the way I felt on drugs. My worry was, ‘Would I still be fun?’” But so often what an artist will realize once they are sober is how much their addiction inhibited their work, rather than elevated it. And Jackson credits actress and wife LaTanya Richardson with helping him make that realization. From an interview that he gave to The Guardian in 2016:
“I’ve always had my wife LaTanya, who’s my harshest critic. She’d say: ‘You’re so intelligent that the first time you read something, you think you understand it intellectually and emotionally, then you find the vocal inflections and the facial expressions, and you can get there with that. But there’s no blood in it.’ And I’m like: ‘It’s all f—in’ make-believe, what in the hell you talking about?’ And it wasn’t until I got sober that I knew fully what she meant. Before, I used to do stuff on stage and kinda look for the reaction from the audience — ‘Aha! I got ’em good that time!’ And once I was able to ignore that, and focus on the relationships with the people I was onstage with, I was finally able to blossom into whatever I might think I am now.”
Practically a week after he exited rehab, Jackson was on set for Jungle Fever. His doctors and caseworkers warned him about taking a role that would be littered with triggers that could cause him to relapse, but with a clear mind he threw himself head first into the part of Gator.
The result is a performance that’s terrifyingly realistic and deeply distressing, but wholly cathartic for Jackson. However, I can’t help but wonder just how difficult it must have been for him. Something that those who haven’t survived addiction may not understand is that being in recovery means living with post-traumatic stress disorder. Sober people live with the sense memories of their rock bottom, and especially in early sobriety, you don’t know what may trigger that addict side of your brain still filled with panic and fear. It’s proof of Jackson’s strength as an actor that he was able to channel those difficult emotions into what can only be described as acting therapy. The lingering demons of his addiction were worked out through Gator, allowing Jackson to do what he couldn’t when high: reckon with his self-loathing.
The scene in which we see this the clearest is also one of Jungle Fever’s most harrowing moments. After Gator steals a color television from his parents, Flipper finds him in a cavernous crack den in Harlem, filled with rows upon rows of addicts. Flipper demands that he return the television, but Gator is defiant, telling Flipper that the TV is gone: he smoked it.
As Flipper tells Gator that his family is cutting him off, he slaps the crack pipe out of his hand, causing Gator’s girlfriend Vivian (Halle Berry) to erupt. As Flipper trudges off, Gator is left to contend with Vivian as he forces the pipe back in her hand and lights it for her. Vivian’s dependency on Gator for a fix puts Gator’s own addiction into perspective. As he watches his brother walk away, he pushes Vivian off of him and rolls over. Light illuminates his eyes, and within them we see a man broken, depleted. We see him quietly processing the anger, the sadness, the resentment that he feels not at his family, but internally. He’s angry that he’s lost himself. It’s so vividly realized because Jackson didn’t have to do extensive research to understand the mind of an addict. He only had to reflect on his own past.
After Jungle Fever, Jackson began to see the level of success that would come to typify his career. As he told the radio show The Breakfast Club, “Once I got clean, everything sort of changed. So there’s a very distinct correlation of me changing my life and being focused and clear about what I needed to do and my success.”
Jackson has the work ethic that any sober person will recognize. Essentially, he replaced one addiction with a healthy alternative that completely revitalized his life. Stephen King is famously known for this, his addiction to various drugs replaced by his constant, tireless writing. As someone who overcame an addiction to alcohol myself, I understand the inherent need to replace the time you spent doing your drug of choice with something, anything else. You’re currently reading what I do to replace my addiction. Writing fuels me, it gives my life purpose, and especially in the early days of my sobriety, it gave me an outlet to not dwell on my addicted past.
The same can be said for Jackson. He replaced his addiction to drugs with an addiction to his craft. When asked about her husband’s work ethic, LaTanya Richardson told the New York Times, “It’s his drug. He had to replace it with something. As long as Sam has read a script or the camera is there, he feels as if he’s been fed that day.”
Jackson has always used acting as a form of therapy to overcome the obstacles he faced in his life. His trademark swearing? It’s what helps him break through a stutter he’s had since childhood. In a similar fashion, Jungle Fever gave him the ability to fully process the trauma he was dealing with in his early recovery from addiction. It’s what separates this film from the rest of Jackson’s body of work. There is a deep sense of vulnerability inside Gator’s volatility that knocks the wind out of you in how utterly realistic it is.
With Gator, Samuel L Jackson gives us the opportunity to see the true depth he possesses. He may have a laundry list of great performances that have made his name synonymous with “badass mother f—r,” but don’t forget Jungle Fever. If it wasn’t for this performance, we may have never gotten the next three decades of iconic characters from this iconic actor.