Samuel L. Jackson's film Coach Carter, opening today, is based on the true story of Ken Carter, a basketball coach in an inner-city high school in Richmond, Calif. Carter benched his whole team because some varsity players weren't performing up to the academic standards he set in a contract.
Jackson, 56, knows his movie isn't going to elicit any big change in how education is regarded in schools, but he says he'll be happy if a only a few kids see the film and rethink their priorities.
What did you think of Carter when you heard about him?
I thought it was a refreshing change from always hearing about winning at any cost. I liked that about what he was doing, putting the idea out there that education is worth something, that it's important.
Do you agree with his methods?
Sure, in some ways. Somewhere along the way, we lost the idea of a "student-athlete." They have become "athlete-students." But winning on the floor is a reward for doing well in the classroom. . . . An education is something that can't be taken away.
What do you think about the idea that inner-city kids are set up to fail?
That's true. It's the whole idea that if you show up, you pass on. It's also that they need to see there's an upside to being smart, not just being athletic and hip. I don't think teachers are living up to the standards they should be. They tend to service the kids who pay attention; they don't want to deal with the kids that don't get the grades or that have the problems or that act out. In the city schools, they're also looking out for themselves and their well-being.
Do you feel like you have to be a role model because of your fame?
No. I think I need to be a responsible human being and do things I believe in, and I help out people, but I don't do that publicly. It's not my responsibility as an actor to tell you who to vote for or what cause to believe in or who to give money to. It makes me crazy to hear people in my profession preach about that sort of thing.
But you are pretty socially active, and you have been since college, right?
Ha. Yes. Where are you going with this?
Well, I read in 1969 that you held some board members hostage at Morehouse College and got expelled for it.
I grew up in segregation in Chattanooga. So when I got to college, and Morehouse is a predominantly African-American school, there were no African-Americans on the board, and no student representation. So we solicited to have that put in place, and no one would listen. We locked some of them up inside for a few days. And now they have student representation and African-American board members. And I went back and graduated. Now, of course, my hands are imprinted in the cement. Funny how fame goes.
Do you think students would do that today?
I think it was indicative of what kind of people we were. We thought what we said made a difference. I don't know if people think that anymore. But I bet if the draft was reinstated or something, people would start talking, start doing something. It's a shame it takes something so extreme.
You started your career in the theater?
Yes. . . . It amazes me when I hear some of my colleagues have never been in a play. I'm like: Where'd you learn to act? You don't know how to piece things all together unless you have acted in the theater.
But you like doing movies the best?
Well, when I was young, I thought theater was like the mail room. TV was like getting an office, and the movies, the big screen, that was like running the company.
You had some trouble along the way with drugs?
Yeah, when I was doing the drinking and the drugging, I didn't deprive myself of work, but it kept me from places I needed to get to. I checked myself into rehab, and that's not easy once you do it. But I got clean, and I saw direct results, especially with being able to focus.
You played a junkie in "Jungle Fever" (1991).
It was like two weeks after I got out of rehab. It was cathartic to do that role. When that character got killed, it was like a huge exclamation point in my life, a door that I could close.
How do you choose roles?
Story first, then character; if it is a challenge, if there is depth. I wanted to emulate the films I loved as a kid. So I got my pirate out with Star Wars, and that light-saber. I got the war thing out with Rules of Engagement. I'd like to do a horror movie, and a Western.