When Michael B. Jordan told me that 2018 has been “incredible; it’s been a crazy ride,” he wasn’t exaggerating. The 31-year-old had three films come out — blockbusters Black Panther and Creed II, and HBO’s Fahrenheit 451 — and is now doing the awards circuit, as Panther has garnered a slew of recognition, including seven Oscar nominations and two Screen Actors Guild wins, one of which was for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. Jordan will also receive the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Cinema Vanguard Award on Thursday, February 7, at The Arlington Theatre.
Jordan began acting at the tender age of 12 and has plied his trade ever since. His résumé is impressive, weighted with intense, complex characters such as the 16-year-old drug dealer Wallace on HBO’s The Wire and quarterback Vince Howard on the TV series Friday Night Lights, as well as BART police shooting victim Oscar Grant in the film Fruitvale Station. More recently he took on the Rocky franchise with 2015’s Creed, playing the emotionally layered protagonist Adonis “Donnie” Johnson Creed, the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s opponent-cum-friend Apollo Creed.
While Jordan has innumerable other television and film roles under his belt, his 2018 films Creed II and, particularly, Black Panther have launched him into the cinematic stratosphere. I recently spoke for a few minutes over the phone with Jordan, who was in Utah at Sundance Film Festival.
In Creed, Adonis embodies a multifaceted masculinity that we don’t typically see in film. And then there is Black Panther‘s Killmonger, whose behavior seems more stereotypical male. What do you see as their similarities and differences? I never thought about it until just now. [Pauses.] I’m just trying to be thoughtful about [my answer]. Killmonger’s a very aggressive, very passionate, very emotional person who has a lot of hurt, a lot of pain. He has a lot of pain that’s deep inside him that’s rooted from childhood, from a lack of identity, a lack of knowing where he comes from, from growing up in systemic oppression … but kind of outcast from this Wakandan culture in the world of Marvel.
Then you have Adonis, who comes from the world of Rocky, who didn’t know who his father was either. He grew up in the shadow of legacy, of history. One who doesn’t know his history and his legacy at all, who didn’t really get any type of attention … that was brought up kind of in the shadows as well, but kind of been running from his legacy, his father’s shadow, so to speak. He’s very passionate as well. He fights for what he believes in. He’s very hot-tempered. He’s very emotional as well. But just grounded in a world where they don’t have superpowers or superheroes. … They’re both very passionate about what they believe in, and the differences are all of the obvious ones. One has vibranium, and one doesn’t. [Laughs.]
In Black Panther, the story was changed from New York City to Oakland, where Ryan Coogler is from. Was there a particular reason for that? I think the purpose behind that was to ground the history and backstory of the character to something that’s relatable [today]. You have this fictional world, these fictional characters, but trying to ground it in things that audiences can actually relate to. … The question that Ryan kind of proposed and then tried to answer and flesh out … is what does it mean to be African? What does it mean to be African American? … Black Panther had such a huge impact on the culture, on African Americans taking a stand and fighting for what they believe in, fighting for their own safety and their own equal rights in America. So to have that tied into the struggle of what Killmonger’s father was trying to do [in Oakland], what his mom was trying to do, and to have him take that dream to the next level, I thought was genius, and just ties perfectly into who Killmonger was.
Black Panther is a very layered film, and the story allows probing into a lot of current issues. I don’t know if that’s how you perceived it, but as an audience member, that’s definitely how I perceive it. That’s exactly how I perceived it. When you give somebody like Ryan Coogler the opportunity to make a movie on this scale, you know what you’re going to get. It’s going to say something. It’s going to mean something. So he’s not your typical Marvel filmmaker that kind of came through that system. The fact that we were able to get the support and the platform that Marvel [offers], the worldwide broadness of it, and be able to give it to a filmmaker who can make something that’s so specific and that’s going to say so much, I think you get the perfect ingredients between the two.
Its success seems to me to fly in the face of the industry that often claims people only want to see films about white men. Clearly that’s not true. I naively hope that they don’t say that anymore. Just because you get one black president doesn’t mean prejudice and racism is over in America, you know what I’m saying? So once you get one film like this doesn’t mean it’s all over. I know that’s wishful thinking and a lot of optimism, and I love it and I appreciate it. … It just proves that this is a system with a model that works, and hopefully we have more support and backing to tell more stories like this, but by no means does it mean that it’s all over because we have Black Panther. But it’s a huge, huge step in the right direction.
That’s how I felt about Wonder Woman. Exactly. That’s exactly how you feel about Wonder Woman. Exactly. That’s a huge win. It’s amazing to talk about it. But there’s so much more work to do.
Michael B. Jordan will receive the SBIFF Cinema Vanguard Award presented by Belvedere Vodka at 8 p.m. on Thursday, February 7, at The Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.). See sbiff.org.
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