There’s something serendipitous about Michael B Jordan ending 2018 with another smash hit. After an Oscar-buzzed role in Marvel’s Black Panther, he’s now headlining Creed II, a sequel that’s over-performing at the box office – and at the same time, the industry is expanding to give more chances to other black actors than ever before.
Alongside John Boyega, Daniel Kaluuya, Stephan James and Jovan Adepo, Jordan is one of an increasing group of stars who are finally being given major roles in blockbuster projects. But is this modern “black renaissance” the cause of his rise to leading man status, or was Jordan destined for greatness regardless?
The 31-year-old has been in the business for about 20 years, since first appearing in commercials as a child. This year alone provides proof that he’s graduated to a leading man, after impressing in The Wire and in 2013’s fact-based indie Fruitvale Station.
He stumbled in 2015’s poorly received Fantastic Four reboot, but then Jordan found hitherto unseen success as the supervillain Killmonger in Black Panther earlier this year. Reuniting him with his Fruitvale Station and Creed director Ryan Coogler, Jordan delivered an intensely complex, fascinatingly relatable bad guy, praised by fans and critics alike. Abandoned by his wealthy Wakandan family, Killmonger grew up fatherless, alone and impoverished with a surging rage for his predicament.
Jordan’s performance embodied black pain in a way that felt horribly relevant in Donald Trump’s increasingly divided America. But despite praise, Jordan’s immersion in the role took its toll. He poured so much of himself into the villain that the end of production was reportedly followed by a stint in therapy. “Once I got finished wrapping the movie, it took me some time to talk through how I was feeling and why I was feeling so sad and, like, a little bit depressed,” he shared on The Bill Simmons Podcast. Sessions with a therapist helped him move on just in time to prepare for his next project.
But the critical and commercial success of $1.3bn mega-hit Black Panther didn’t bleed into his second film of the year, HBO’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Jordan starred as a dystopian fireman, trained to set fire to “contraband media”, but while the plot might have felt prescient, and despite a formidable co-star in the shape of Michael Shannon, the film premiered at Cannes to lukewarm reviews. Jordan was too busy to notice, however, since he was in the middle of another grueling production.
In 2015, he’d scored a win with his induction into the Rocky franchise; Coogler’s rousing reboot Creed, a franchise he returned to this year. Creed II is already a major hit, outperforming expectations with $62m in its first week and scoring strong reviews. The saga chronicles a boxing underdog with a champion name – Adonis Creed – who is fighting his way to recognition, independent of a legacy that seemed to die with his father. In the sequel, Adonis must face the son of the man who murdered him. The journey he takes resembles Jordan’s own struggle to legitimate leading man status in a traditionally restrictive industry for actors of color. It’s no wonder that the actor plays the boxer so well. There’s also that name …
“Being named Michael Jordan – I think growing up playing sports and having a name like Michael Jordan, and I was extremely competitive, I used to get teased a lot,” he said to NPR’s Audie Cornish last month. “But it made me want to strive for greatness and be able to compete at whatever I decided to do.”
Toughness on screen has also been offset by an undeniably grounded charm off it: Jordan has achieved virality on more than one occasion this year. In March, Jordan offered to pay for a replacement retainer for a fan who broke hers from excitement over seeing him shirtless in Black Panther. Two months later, he was riding high on Twitter again after it was revealed he’d met a fan who contacted him via Instagram. Just this week, he’s been at it again – cannily meeting a fan who had previously gone viral by Photoshopping the pair together.
There’s also something else that drives Jordan: the need to prove himself outside of restrictions tied to his race. In an interview for Variety’s Actors on Actors series, Jordan revealed to Insecure’s Issa Rae that he seeks out roles written for white actors. Roles written for black characters, he reasoned, were filled with the writer’s preconceived notions of what his character was supposed to be.
“I’m first and foremost a black man, for sure, but what I’m trying to do, and what I’m trying to represent and build, is universal,” he said in a Vanity Fair profile in October. “We live in the times where everything is based around race, and for me, it’s like, I get it, I understand. It just makes everything so loaded.”
In March, Jordan made waves by announcing that his production company Outlier Society would adopt an inclusion rider for every future project they take on. He was the first to respond to Frances McDormand’s Oscar acceptance speech which saw her talk about the rider that would demand equality in front of and behind the camera. It was groundbreaking news by itself but later in September, Warner Bros announced it would partner with Jordan to ensure this became a company-wide policy.
“Inclusivity has always been a no-brainer for me, especially as a black man in this business,” Jordan said. “[But] it wasn’t until Frances McDormand spoke the two words that set the industry on fire – inclusion rider – that I realized we could standardize this practice.”
The first film to hold true to the policy will be Just Mercy, a film that sees Jordan star as civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson. It’s a project that will help to further extend Jordan’s appeal beyond the multiplex and into the awards conversation. Yet there’s a chance he might be heading to the main stage next year with experts predicting a best supporting actor nomination for his performance in Black Panther, a film that might well be the first superhero adventure to ever score a best picture nod.
Jordan has honed his skills and set his goals while plotting to challenge an oppressive system that has weighed people of color down. He’s working hard to claim his own seat at the table, and is taking care to prevent barriers to his progress and that of black actors coming up behind him. With a banner year, he’s not only become Hollywood’s most exciting new leading man, but he’s helping to define what we should expect of other leading men in the future.