Michael B. Jordan on Purpose and Power

By: Gerrick Kennedy

Michael B. Jordan is somewhere off the coast of St. Barts, sinking slowly into the depths of the Caribbean Sea while holding a lava stone steady above his head.

When he hits the sandy bottom, he’ll take 20 steps, drop the rock, then rise back to the surface. It’s an aquatic workout and an apt metaphor for how many of us have felt over the past 12 months: head underwater, weighed down by the heaviness of our current times.

It’s early January, and the year is off to a grim start. The coronavirus has reached devastating new milestones just as inoculation efforts begin, and the Trump era has ended with a failed coup attempt—a violent, well-orchestrated storming of the Capitol by white nationalists that played out on social media—and a historic second impeachment for the president. This dizzying turn of events has made a lot of us feel as if we are sinking even deeper into the abyss. Jordan is in the Caribbean with his girlfriend (more on her later) during all this madness, a rare getaway he was able to swing after spending a year sitting still.

When the world slammed to a halt last spring, so did Jordan. The wave of uncertainty that swept every industry seemingly upended Hollywood overnight. He was forced to rethink which film projects he could tackle next—an enviable position to be in, what with the fickle nature of the movie business, but the 34-year-old had just hit a different kind of stride. After the one-two punch of the Creed franchise and Black Panther cemented his leading-man status, Jordan was laying the groundwork for the next phase of his career—one in which he wasn’t just a screen idol but also a Hollywood mogul of his own making, with a slew of films he would star in, produce, and, in the case of the third Creed film, direct. And then the virus disrupted his plans.

“I had three films lined up [for 2020] . . . potential projects that I had been nurturing for a long time,” he says. “I had really tough choices to make on which projects had the most chance at actually getting green-lit . . . based upon the pandemic and where we could shoot. I was trying to get to a place where I could, in my mind, take a slight break. That break just got moved up a little bit.”

Given how fresh his Hollywood omnipresence is, it almost feels unreal that Michael Bakari Jordan has been orbiting our screens for a third of his life now.

Twenty years after his first film role, Jordan is one of the biggest movie stars on the planet—carving a seat for himself at the proverbial table with his production company, Outlier Society, and his eye for projects that either speak to the experiences of Black men in America (like 2019’s critically acclaimed Just Mercy) or expand the perception of the roles Black actors can take on (like his new action-thriller Without Remorse, in which he tackles a popular Tom Clancy character previously brought to the screen by white actors).

Yet there’s something else to be said for this moment he’s in, the gravity of it all. The same year People crowned Jordan the Sexiest Man Alive, he was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people for his work pushing Hollywood toward better racial diversity onscreen and behind the scenes, both above and below the line. But he is still in uncharted waters. He’s a young man navigating an industry where every choice for Black creatives is one of consequence and responsibility, and he’s stepping into a period in his life when he’s fully aware of his purpose—and calling all the shots.

“[This past year] was just me really becoming a man, you know,” he says. “That’s such a cliché, overused term, and it has a lot of baggage to it. But I think when personal purpose and meaning align, it allows you to be a man. I’ve been doing this for 20-plus years . . . . Now I get the opportunity to lead by example.”

Born in Santa Ana, California, and raised in Newark, New Jersey, Jordan scored his first gig in 1999, as an unnamed bully with two lines on The Sopranos—but you probably first noticed him on The Wire, as a doe-eyed teenage drug dealer whose heartbreaking end was one of those gut punches that shake viewers to their core. Jordan’s star slowly rose with roles on shows like Friday Night Lights and Parenthood and on the big screen in Red Tails and Chronicle. But it was his performance in the 2013 indie hit Fruitvale Station that really made us pay attention. The film, which traced the last 24 or so hours in the life of Oscar Grant and arrived at the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, was the first collaboration between Jordan and writer-director Ryan Coogler. We’ve watched them flip the Rocky franchise by rebooting it around the son of Apollo Creed, ascend to new heights with the billion-dollar blockbuster that is Black Panther, and become powerful forces that have helped usher in a new Black cultural renaissance in entertainment.

“I’ve always been a person that tried to be present but also live in the future,” he says earnestly when I ask if he’s spent much time reflecting on his recent career breakthrough. “Usually when you shoot projects and movies, when you finish, it’s done and over with. You kind of check out. Then you’re on to the next thing, and you don’t really talk about the past thing until you do a press tour or something like that. You kind of let go of it as an artist [when] you give it to the world. It’s for everybody else now.

“But I think about legacy a lot,” he continues. “What I leave behind is something that I think about a lot. This past year brought a lot of that to the forefront of my brain. Everybody’s had their share of loss in one way or another. I lost a friend in Chadwick [Boseman]. There are a lot of things that I want to accomplish, and I know time is limited and life is short, [so] I try to not take it for granted. It’s really made me focus on that.”

Like most people interacting with other humans these days, I first meet Jordan over Zoom. Though he’s lived in Los Angeles for the past 15 years, he’s calling from New York, which is his temporary home while he shoots the Denzel Washington–helmed Journal for Jordan, one of the few projects he’s been able to keep on the books amid the pandemic. Jordan comes into frame wearing a classic black V-neck that shows how incredibly sculpted his chest is—and why he could most certainly lift lava stones over his head underwater like an Adonis just for fun.

Naturally, the lost year that was 2020 is at the forefront of our conversation. Jordan is bummed about having to postpone a lifelong-dream trip to Japan (he’s a massive anime fan), and the uncertainty of shooting during the pandemic means fans will have to wait even longer for Creed III, but he would much rather think about the future than ruminate over stalled plans. “You’ve got to try to find a silver lining,” he says while flashing the warm, dazzling smile that’s one of the many reasons he’s a charming leading man.

And so I ask: What has been his silver lining at a time of so much upheaval? “Patience. . . . I’m a pretty patient person, but I think it was taken to another level,” he says with a laugh before calling a deepening relationship with his spirituality and uninterrupted family time—which includes relishing his duties as an uncle to his sister’s baby—the balms that got him through 2020. “Being able to spend time with the little man was extremely important,” he says. “I got a chance to change some diapers, a thing I wouldn’t normally have done.”

For Jordan, this new chapter in his life is about purpose and, most important, autonomy. In 2016, he launched Outlier Society, which focuses on diverse storytelling and was among the first companies to adopt the inclusion-rider concept for all projects it makes. Jordan’s career strategy is a rather simple one. He goes after roles that advance his profile, even if they weren’t created with a Black actor in mind. Going back to 2015’s Fantastic Four reboot, in which he played the Human Torch, Jordan has taken roles that aren’t solely reliant on the fact that he’s a Black man in America. It’s why he challenged himself by diving into a 2018 adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, and it’s what appealed to him about signing on to remake The Thomas Crown Affair, in which he’ll star as the titular character previously portrayed by Steve McQueen and Pierce Brosnan.

“I’ve been playing chess in this industry for a long time, and people often don’t understand what that really means,” he tells me. “You’re in an industry, in a profession, where sometimes your success and your popularity go hand in hand. When you’ve got to do things that are unpopular, you’ve got to move with your intuition, your gut, and what you know is right for the long run, even though people may not understand it.”

His latest film, Without Remorse (out April 30 on Prime Video), is no exception to this line of thinking. Jordan stars as John Clark, a U. S. Navy SEAL who seeks vengeance against his wife’s murderers, only to find himself inside a grand conspiracy. The adaptation of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan spin-off has been in development hell since the early days of the Clinton administration, and the actors attached to the role have run the gamut
of the white action superstars you’d expect. Early into the film, there’s a scene in which Clark laments serving a country that doesn’t love him back. It’s a line that Tom Hardy or Matt Damon or Tom Cruise wouldn’t have had to utter, and a subtle reminder that Jordan is always cognizant of his responsibility as a Black man in Hollywood even while delivering slick popcorn flicks.

“You take these roles that aren’t written specifically for [you] because they have a platform, and you inject yourself and your experience into the character. That’s the Trojan horse,” he says before confirming my suspicion that he requested that the line be added to the script. “Until this past year or so, that was a lot harder to do. We’re in this moment in time where I think that now more than ever, places are looking for that, because if not, there are ramifications [and] criticism. The conversations that we have behind closed doors in the development process . . . you have to impose your will and you have to fight for ideas and thoughts, and characters and decisions. It’s a constant thing.”

When I ask Jordan how he balances the roles that advance his box-office ambitions with the ones that are critical to advancing his people, he admits it’s not an easy task.

Fruitvale Station set the tone of expectation. People really connect with characters, and if that’s one of their first major introductions, it’s an expectation to continue down that line. There weren’t a lot of leading men doing those types of movies at my age, and you’ve got to look at how to position yourself in an opportunity to not be boxed in while being able to give yourself the biggest stage to do the things you want to do,” he says. “And then you’ve got to be happy and do the things that you want to do and you care about.”

Though Jordan is far removed from the days of being mostly offered stereotypical roles for Black male actors (ya know, some variation of a troubled youth in search of redemption), the cultural impact of Fruitvale Station led to an avalanche of offers that served as a different kind of typecasting. “I’ve passed on a lot, because I can’t play every Black historical figure. There’s other amazing, talented actors out there that should have opportunities for those,” he says. “One of the reasons why [I started] the production company was I wanted to be able to open up the doors for other people that haven’t had those shots, that maybe couldn’t see the pathway or the move to make in order to carve out their piece.”

This combination of strategy and intention has even extended to Jordan’s personal life. He’s long been fiercely private, and his commitment to keeping the public at bay has made him one of the few millennial stars left who haven’t commodified their personality. But Jordan’s desire to cultivate an air of inaccessibility has contributed to the perception that he doesn’t want us to know him—something that has often come up in past interviews and gotten him in hot water online. So it doesn’t surprise me that when I prod him on chess moves that ended in a checkmate, his answer concerns how he’s responded to public opinion.

“Trying to overexplain things, I think I might have made a wrong move here or there by being too sensitive to what other people think,” he says.

Jordan’s eyes widen and a massive grin spreads across his face when I point out that this could be the answer to so many things: the way he’s come across in earlier interviews; why he’s taken roles not meant for Black actors; the speculation about his dating life; and a belief among some of his female fans that he preferred non-Black women, followed by a rather infamous Instagram Live that had Jordan using a milk analogy to push back against the chatter.

When we meet, social media is buzzing over his romance with Lori Harvey. It’s the first time we’ve seen Jordan publicly in a relationship, and people had very strong opinions when the two went official after months of wondering. It’s a level of scrutiny ingrained in the territory of fame, and he’s only recently gotten better at responding to and internalizing the perceptions of himself that he can’t control. It’s part of the reason we’ve seen him loosen up a bit on IG, posting the occasional thirst trap and showing us more of his life off- camera (though he’s still very cautious about what he shares of his personal life), but it actually points to where Jordan is now as a man in his 30s who has come of age in public view.
 

“For all the success that I’ve had, there’s going to be negative reactions and opinions thrown at me. That just comes with it. When you’re younger, you’re just frustrated, but when you start to realize that this is what it is, you start to understand,” he says. “I’m never going to make everybody happy. People are always going to have their opinions about me. People can make up something completely false that has no f**king substance or anything, and there’s going to be 100,000 people that are going to believe it and that’s going to be their opinion of me. I can’t do anything about that, and I’ve just got to accept that and keep moving in my purpose. People that know me know my heart. But people that know me for my work . . . they know what I allow them to know. The fact that I’ve been so closed off about a lot of parts of my life was a personal choice. As I’ve gotten older and a little more mature and comfortable in my own skin, I’ve become less concerned about it.”

That chess analogy Jordan used is fitting. He’s playing the long game by making moves both behind the scenes and in front of the camera that will set him up for his next checkmate. Purpose and legacy. That’s where his focus is. Those are the words that come up most often in conversation. For so long, Jordan was working to be the next big thing. The next Will Smith. The next Leonardo DiCaprio. The next Tom Cruise. He’s put in the effort in order to become the next great movie star a little Black boy can look up to, but more than that, he wants to be a blueprint for those who come after him.

“Everything that I’ve been through—everything that I’ve been taught, all the successes that I’ve had, all the failures that I’ve had, all the wisdom that I was given, I’ve learned from people who have done it before me,” he says. “This past year was all that coming to a boiling point for me to break out into the guy that I am right now.”

That guy is his own man, in control. He’s thinking about the chess game again. “I’m playing to be autonomous,” he says. “That’s liberation, because you’re really controlling your own destiny, and it gives you the freedom to make an impact where you see fit. It’s like, ‘All right, I can do what I need to do, when I need to do it, and there’s no asking.’”
 

About Sahar Mourad