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Michael B. Jordan: Burning Through Barriers

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Fantastic Four’s Michael B. Jordan blazes a trail for African-American superheroes...

When he wondered who might follow in the footsteps of award-winning African-American actors like Jamie Foxx, Denzel Washington, and Forest Whitaker and no obvious candidates emerged, Jordan decided that he was the man for the job.

When the young Michael B. Jordan started landing roles on television, he was grateful just to be employed as an actor. Several years later, he was catapulted to full-blown leading man status with a pair of breakthrough movies – a crowd-pleasing hit (Chronicle) and an award-winning critics’ darling (Fruitvale Station) – that confirmed his movie star potential. As a result of these successes, there was a sudden shift in Jordan’s professional outlook. Where he was once content to pursue any available role, he now set his sights on a more specific goal: filling a conspicuous void in his generation of actors. When he wondered who might follow in the footsteps of award-winning African-American actors like Jamie Foxx, Denzel Washington, and Forest Whitaker and no obvious candidates emerged, Jordan decided that he was the man for the job.

Determined to build a career worthy of those Oscar winners, Jordan took radical action, announcing some new rules to his managers and agents. For one, he decided that he no longer wanted to play characters that die onscreen. A recurring fate in Jordan’s screen career, premature death has cut short many of his best performances. By shifting his focus to characters that make it out alive, Jordan felt he could relieve his mother of some unnecessary grief – no matter how much warning he gives, she always sobs through his screen deaths – and make a more powerful impression on audiences, even appearing in the occasional sequel.

With his second rule, Jordan managed to attract some unintentional controversy. Insisting that he wants to be considered only for the roles offered to white actors, he left many African-American fans feeling abandoned. However, as Jordan sees it, his black identity comes through no matter what character he plays. By restricting himself to parts with no racial specificity, he felt he could keep himself in the conversation for more leading-man roles, not just the ones that seem like an obvious fit. A similar philosophy has helped Will Smith (another Jordan role model) broaden his appeal, keeping him competitive with his white peers.

For the most part, roles in Hollywood movies can withstand this kind of racial fluidity – in fact, it usually slips by undetected – but audiences aren’t always flexible when it comes to iconic characters that have been around for generations. This is especially true in the world of superhero movies. Most of the prominent superheroes were introduced in an era when it was unheard of to release a comic book with a black protagonist. Fifty-plus years later, this arcane restriction is still limiting opportunities for African-American actors in big-budget Hollywood movies. Aside from Samuel L. Jackson and Anthony Mackie – who play supporting roles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – few black actors have benefited from the superhero boom.

“Maybe, if I set an example, Hollywood will start considering more people of colour in other prominent roles...”

As Marvel icon Stan Lee sees it, the resistance to black actors in white superhero roles has more to do with the public’s connection to the source material than racism. However, Jordan’s first-hand experience suggests that this issue is a bit more complicated. During his pursuit of roles written for white actors, he was cast as Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four. Even though he was warned of the inevitable fan backlash, he dared to venture online, discovering some shockingly racist vitriol in the process. While this was undeniably painful, Jordan sees that as the price of breaking new ground. “Maybe, if I set an example, Hollywood will start considering more people of colour in other prominent roles,” he wrote several months before the film’s release. “And maybe we can reach the people who are stuck in the mindset that ‘it has to be true to the comic book.’ Or maybe we have to reach past them.”

In essence, Jordan is asking fans to be more flexible in their vision of superheroes, as a shift of this kind has the potential to make superhero movies far more diverse and inclusive. As Jordan has matured, he has also come to demand more flexibility from himself. While he still wants to be considered for all available roles, he has come to recognize the benefits of roles written specifically for African-Americans. This is largely the result of his continued collaboration with writer-director Ryan Coogler, who has cast Jordan in two projects about real African-Americans (Fruitvale Station, the upcoming Wrong Answer) and a franchise movie (Creed) spawned from an iconic black character (Rocky's Apollo Creed).

Ideally, Jordan would like a career that allows for a range of possibilities: from serious black dramas to crowd-pleasing superhero movies. While African-American actors have often been denied the latter, Fantastic Four  established a precedent that is likely to change the way these movies are cast in the future. Just as Chris Evans parlayed his Human Torch experience into many more superhero movies, Jordan sees this role as a stepping-stone – for himself and others. “It would be irresponsible not to really sit back and look at the platform that I have and the position that I’m in,” he explains, adding that audiences also have a role to play in levelling the playing field. “I want people to start thinking more. That’s what I’ve always tried to string through my work, and times are changing. People are evolving, and it’s a good start.”

Jonathan Doyle writes about movies for Comedy, The Loop, and Space.