Samuel L Jackson grew up watching movies on Saturdays at the Liberty and the Grand, segregated movie theatres in Tennessee. Some of the early roles he got in Hollywood didn’t even have names: he was cast, he said, “as ‘gang member number two’, ‘bum’, ‘hold-up man’, and, unforgettable, ‘Black guy’.” But over fifty years and 152 films later, Jackson has made himself one of America’s most enduring film stars, as well as the actor whose movies have earned “more than any other actor in history,” his friend and fellow star Denzel Washington said. Jackson’s box office total is estimated at $27bn.
Despite this, Jackson, 73, had never won a single Oscar, not even for his celebrated performance as a hit man in Pulp Fiction. The Academy finally awarded him an honorary Oscar on Friday, as part of the annual Governors Awards, which mark lifetime achievement in film and in humanitarian efforts.
“I’m really, really proud to receive this statuette,” Jackson said. “This thing is going to be cherished.”
He added: “Thanks to every person who has ever bought a ticket to any movie I was in.”
Unlike the Oscars, which are driven by intense competition and internal politicking, the Governors Awards gives the Academy a chance to play nice and revisit the careers of beloved stars and film-makers. Along with Jackson, Elaine May, Liv Ullmann, and Danny Glover were also honoured.
May, who started her career as a comedian in the late 1950s (including a successful and influential partnership with Mike Nichols) and broke barriers as a female director, screenwriter, and actress, was introduced by Bill Murray. May, 89, quipped that she thought she was going to be introduced “by [Ukrainian president Volodymyr] Zelenskiy, but thank god I got Bill instead.” (The Academy reportedly explored the idea of asking Zelenskiy make a video appearance at the Oscars on Sunday.)
“I think this is very nice,” May added as she accepted her award. “I don’t know what else to say except, enjoy your food.”
Glover, 75, received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and talked about how his film career was rooted in activism, including his participation in the longest student walkout in US history at San Francisco State University in 1968.
Alfre Woodard, who starred alongside Glover when he played Mandela on film in 1987, and founded the advocacy group Artists for a New South Africa with him, said: “Nelson Mandela welcomed us … He thought Danny a comrade, because Danny walked the walk of conscience.”
Glover also saluted his “rich relationship with organised labour”, including his guest, healthcare worker union president George Gresham, as well as the legacy of his mother, who grew up in Georgia and became the first person in her family to go to college. He also drew a connection between his struggles in 1968 to secure a Black Studies department at his state university, and the current era of Republican backlash against the supposed threat of teaching “critical race theory” in schools and the New York Times’ 1619 project (which reexamined the central role of slavery in American history). “How do you get to this point? How do you move and keep moving?” Glover asked. His answer: “People move, and they continue to move.”
Ullmann, the Norwegian who starred in some of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest films before becoming a director, said that Norwegian culture discouraged bragging. “That’s why I brought 20 people from Norway,” she said, “So they can tell Norway, it is true, she got the Oscar.”
While some might credit the success of Ullmann’s acting career to Bergman, her longtime collaborator, actor John Lithgow said that “Bergman would probably not have been called one of our greatest film-makers without her.” Ullmann also would go on to direct younger actors, including Jessica Chastain and Cate Blanchett, in key roles.
Film-maker Ava DuVernay told the Guardian the combination of artists who received Governors Awards this year was “incredibly moving”. As a female director, she said, it was powerful to see May and Ullmann honoured for their directing, “and to really remember, there’s so much attention to it now, but there were trailblazers who aren’t named in the conversation.”
Jackson and Glover, she said, are “two black men who have broken so much ground in terms of the sheer breadth and scope of work that they’ve done”. Jackson has more than 150 film and TV credits, Glover more than 200. “They’ve touched our lives and changed the culture.”
“It felt like fuel, for me,” she added. “It feels like food. I feel fed.”
Quentin Tarantino, who directed Jackson in some of his most famous roles, including in Pulp Fiction, told the Guardian after the awards ceremony that he believed Jackson should have won at least two previous Oscars, though he would not say for which films. But Tarantino that said seeing him honoured by the Academy was a “really cool career thing”.