Michael B. Jordan: Black Star Rising

Michael B. Jordan: Black Star Rising

Michael Bakari Jordan is pressed for time. The photo shoot set he just arrived on knows it, his personal team knows it and he knows it. With an intense press tour ahead of him for his newest film Creed, it’s surprising that this sort of new leading man takes the pressures of a demanding schedule like a rugged veteran. The straight-laced actor’s time is carved into an itinerary reminiscent of an 18-credit syllabus. With his spotlight getting brighter, it becomes more and more apparent that the man of the hour has arrived.

It’s a glaring afternoon in Jordan’s summery city of residence when he enters the spacious downtown L.A. studio loft on Cole Avenue. Instagram’s resident #MCM’s presence naturally brightens up the room. Yet the Sun powered light, beaming through the lily-white curtains, competes with the man-made photo bulbs hanging overhead. This allows you to see his flawless face once he greets you with a wide smile. Jordan, athletically built, but slimmer than the many billboards and snipes that are plastered around L.A. with his chiseled body promoting Creed, arrives to the same photo studio where VIBE's August 2015 Eazy-E cover was shot back in the mid-90s. He’s a little behind schedule after the slotted time, but it feels as if everyone involved in the production of this shoot is no longer concerned with the clock—at the moment. Greeting everyone from the photographer to his stylists with familiarity, Jordan leans towards a la familia energy. The photogenic star’s stylist, Jeff K. Kim has worked with him for a little over two years. “He trusts me,” Kim says while organizing a few outfits for the first look. Designer loafers to Timberlands, button-downs to winter-ready pullovers, personality glasses to minimal jewelry, it’s all for Jordan’s choosing. It’s ironic how his style on camera matches his casual attitude in real life.

An even-tempered persona makes it look seamless to work with him, agreeing to model a sweater that you can tell by his body language that he wants to stray away from. “I don’t know about this one, but I’ll try it,” he says with a foreseeable “I-told-you-so” smirk. The red, white and blue fitted sweater, with an asymmetrical button slant, has Jordan feeling anything less than patriotic. A couple of tepid clicks of the camera and a few tense moves from Jordan is all the persuasion his stylist needs to change clothes. Ever on the clock, the realization of his time, is the only thing MBJ seems to have control over. Probably for a split second, Jordan is learning to capture this moment, which admittedly has been difficult for him to practice in his day-to-day obligations.

“You have moments where you sit back and it really hits you. You might have an outer-body experience where you have to appreciate [the moment]. But then it’s back to work,” he says with a chuckle. Jordan deemed his 20’s to be nothing but a constant grind, and he’s been on that near-decade run of churning out quality roles from 2012’s Red Tails’ inspiring events of the Tuskegee Airmen to the gripping and tragic story of Oscar Grant in 2013’s Fruitvale Station and now, Creed.

The 28-year-old actor reunited with Fruitvale's breakthrough director Ryan Coogler to bring this all-conquering film to life. Alongside the captivating Tessa Thompson (Dear White People), and the legend Sylvester Stallone (Rambo, Rocky I-VI), the cinematic feature tells a story of Rocky’s heavyweight champion title holding boxing character Apollo Creed’s (played expertly by Carl Weathers) son, Adonis Johnson, and his quest for making his own name in the boxing realm. With the help of his father’s past rival-turned-friend, Rocky Balboa, Creed bridges a gap between two generations of old and new Rocky fans. By now, you’ve probably seen multiple commercials promoting the film, read interviews featuring the cast, or managed to catch Stallone’s November 2015 cover story with American Airlines’ American Way magazine. You’re aware of the layered synopsis and what you see for face value from the movie’s promo, yet one thing that sticks out is the personal attachment it holds with Coogler. For the Oakland native, the film was inspired by what his own father means to him and what Rocky means to his father. “When I was finishing up film school getting ready to make the first feature film I directed, Fruitvale, my father got really sick and just going through that, being sad about that,” he lets out with an exhale, “dealing with how that changed our dynamic with father and son, going through something like that gave me the idea to put that into film form and [Creed] is what I came up with.”

What Coogler created translates as an authentic story that remains true to the genuine aesthetic of the 30-year-old Rocky franchise. There are intense fight scenes, family-oriented dialogues and a passionate connection between the characters. Namely Adonis and Bianca, the latter of whom is played by Thompson. “I think inside the context of this boxing movie, there’s a love story, but we had some really specific things that we wanted to talk about and one of them was what does millennial love look like?” she says meditatively. “Another thing that we wanted to bring to the screen was, what does black love look like? Because that’s something that you don’t—criminally, really—often seen portrayed in a way that’s honest and bankable in the context of a big studio movie.”

The actors all had a hands-on approach in making their characters as believable as possible. For Thompson’s portrayal as an aspiring singer, the L.A. native said she spent two weeks writing the original music with famed composer Ludwig Goransson. Her character is also hearing-impaired, and knowing the responsibility that comes with representing that community of people, she immersed herself in sign language classes with the help of Coogler’s fiancée, Zinzi. “I’m representing a lot of people that have unfortunately experienced hearing loss and had to process that, but Ryan’s fiancée has been working as a sign language interpreter in the Bay Area for about seven years. That was his introduction to the community and what inspired him to write that,” Thompson explains.

For Stallone, is there really any direction that you could give the person who spawned this picture? Although it took him some convincing, “I knew it would be complicated getting him to do this and come along for this ride,” Coogler says. Given Stallone's founding relationship with the franchise, he let the magic happen with minimal input. “He was super collaborative and took his hands off and let me and Ryan and other creatives get involved and work through the story,” Jordan adds. In an interview with American Way, Stallone said Coogler’s eye for developing a new dynamic for Rocky was all the reassurance he needed to get on board. “Ryan’s story gets deep and in areas that I thought Rocky wasn’t really equipped to go into,” Stallone said. “But I discussed it with the powers that be, and then I decided, ‘Let me just take this chance for the franchise to be reborn.’”

With Thompson becoming one with her character and Stallone finding new ways to channel his inner Rocky, Jordan morphed into Adonis. From a Trunchbull-like diet to workouts that will test the limits of anyone's patience, Michael strived to look as close as he could to a professional boxer. And there were no stunt doubles, either. From super middleweight champion and gold medalist Andre Ward to cruiserweight and five-title holder Tony Bellew, he went toe-to-toe with the pros in real life. “I did everything on this film which was a challenge,” Jordan says. “I’m super competitive. If I could do it, why not?”

Upon watching the film, there were many parallels between Adonis’ character and Jordan’s own personal life. Adonis shares a name with an icon, but painstakingly aims to create his own legacy without being compared to “that guy.” It’s not hard to tell who “that guy” is in Jordan’s own life. Like Adonis fighting to walk in his own shoes, Michael, who is named after his father, had a similar situation with NBA legend Michael “Air” Jordan. “He set the bar so high of success and his accomplishments and just respecting his own craft,” Jordan says. “I always wanted to have my name mean something based upon the work that I put in. It wouldn’t be just a comparison to that guy, I would have my own legacy.” MBJ also recalls getting teased for his name, even missing out on a few pizza pies because he would get the dial tone after they asked who’s calling. Even his middle name gets picked apart now, swapping out Bakari for Bae, which you can see deep within his Instagram remarks. “I don’t read all of [the comments], but every once in a while if I post a picture or somebody either screenshots something and sends it to me like, ‘You need to read this,’” Jordan says with a wide grin. “It’s pretty funny to hear them go back and forth on the comments.”

Another conclusion was the fight to overcome certain obstacles or correct mistakes along his journey. Jordan had to do this with a few statements he made on women and the color spectrum of the roles he selects in GQ’s October 2015 issue. The controversy surrounding his remarks prompted him to pen an open letter that placed the reception of his image back into his hands. “This has been an important lesson for me. I humbly ask my fans to grow with me, as I learn more about myself and this industry,” he writes within the missive. When asked about how he feels penning that statement, he says without hesitation, “That’s something I had control over and it was like, ‘Okay, this is what I meant.’ I’m sorry that I left room for error that could ever be misunderstood or taken out of context. That’s on me. I just want to set the record straight.”

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The clock is creeping towards 3 p.m. Michael is midway through the shoot, and finds his second wind while Fetty Wap’s “679” blares in the background. The lively tune inspired a “zombie dance” between Michael and his stylist, one of the more candid, comical moments during the shoot. He lets his guard down for a second, allowing a peep into his personality that all of those close to him rave about. “There’s not many people that you come across in the industry that you connect with like that, but him in particular, he’s definitely one that I’ve always been around and it’s always been nothing but love,” actor/singer Tristan “Mack” Wilds says on his The Wire peer. “I think that’s the true meaning of family.”

One of Jordan’s favorite artists at the moment, Louisville crooner Bryson Tiller, is up next in the music shuffle. “I’m a big fan of music and it’s very rare that I hear somebody talk about the things that I go through or the thought processes and the things that I think about,” Jordan says. “When I hear that in music I’m kind of connected to them and vibe with them.” The sampled rift of “Exchange” pours into the room, prompting an outburst from the poised actor. “This one’s for you boo!” he cries out to no one in particular. Pressed on his relationship life, he calmly declines to go beneath the surface of the topic. “I kind of don’t want to get into the whole dating thing," he says. "I’m going to keep that to myself.” When it comes to the personal bits of his life, Jordan is indeed guarded, allowing outsiders to only uncover things a little at a time. Maybe it’s a direct result of his eye-opening GQ article, which he firmly says is in the past now. But you can’t help but wonder if it’s still affecting him in the present.

After the clicks of the camera are done, he sits for a few questions and goes into why he rarely dives into his personal life now on purpose. He shifts on the plush leather couch a little bit, adjusting his fitted grey t-shirt. “It’s something that I’m learning, the nuance between being too honest, not even being too honest, but learning how to protect yourself,” he says. “Your privacy is all you have. I live out my life in the public eye now, so it’s a new territory I’m learning everyday.”

People have a fear of success and they don’t either immediately acknowledge it or they don’t know it, but I think they do. What’s stopping you everyday from going out there and doing what you really want to do or giving 110 percent to things you really want to do? —Michael B. Jordan

You can tell Jordan wants to leave the story well behind him, shooting comical side-eyes after each GQ-related question. Even though he wants his work to speak for who he is as a person, he’s willing to tackle the remaining questions head on. When asked if he was aware of how his “female” comments within that profile came across when he learned of its backlash, he flips the script and asks for my opinion.

"How do you feel about it? As a woman, how do you feel about it? I’m curious."

[My response]: It sounded like a conversation that was to be held off the record. I was taken aback by it, though, when I read it.

“It read the wrong way. I have a huge respect for women. My mother, my sister...are two of the most important people in my life. I think it was more or less the… it was taken out of context. That was the biggest thing, taken out of context. That piece is its piece and it’s in the past and it’s over with. That’s whatever, but moving forward I’ll do a better job with giving a better depiction of who I am. People that know me know me. It’s always a fine balance or I guess I’m learning the balance between giving too much and not. There’s a balance of certain people out there who have done a really great job of navigating professional and personal life in the limelight and kudos to them. It’s not easy. I’m a normal guy, I’m a regular guy, I try to be anyway but I say with success and certain things that people...they look at you as if you’re not allowed to be as normal or as human as you want to be. I think that’s the biggest thing I’m coming to terms with is understanding that. At the end of the day I just want to do great work that makes people think and feel something and the progression. I want progress.”

Accepting the fact that Jordan’s in a different league of public figures now, there’s a 24/7 microscope aimed at everything he says. “Everybody is not going to get your personality and sense of humor or the intent in which you say things in person,” he admits reassuringly. “When people translate that and write things down on paper and words, it’s taken out of context more often than not. It was a learning experience and it’s something that I’m definitely glad I went through early because it’s a lesson I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I take it as a positive. It’s growth.”

 

That growth knocked him swiftly on his manicured head, revealing that he had to remix his mindset to be able to deal with the public scrutiny. “You have to change the way you think. Things you want to do or used to doing is not the same. You can’t go grocery shopping the same way anymore,” he says. “Or when you go out to get something to eat or now if I go out to eat with somebody I have to be more considerate of maybe I do get shot by paparazzi or whatever, how would they feel about it? Now I’m putting them in a situation or up for scrutiny and opinion and critics like, ‘Who is that?’ It’s the whole thing that comes from ‘I just went to lunch actually because I was hungry and we just had some food,’ (laughs). I think that’s something that I’m getting used to and understanding that’s what it is. ‘Mike get over it, that’s what it is so now what? You’re going to sit there and be upset about it? No you’re going to deal with it and try to find a way to get comfortable.’”
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Being raised in Newark, New Jersey, Jordan literally had a village to help guide his path. His grandmother was a door knock away and he could probably use a pair of binoculars to see what his cousins were up to across the street. “We had seven or eight houses on the block that were friends of the family for decades,” he says. Jordan’s so close to his family that he admits they know more about his schedule than he does at times. With a reminiscent laugh, he says they can recite his day-to-day itinerary better than his buzzing iPhone can.

A young MBJ began his entertainment career in the modeling world after his mother took a trip to the doctor’s office. There, a receptionist with two sons already in the modeling business suggested that Jordan’s mom should get him some face time in front of a camera. Modeling snowballed into auditions, and the rest is history (or listed on IMDb). “Getting small successes when I was young and early, that kept me wanting to explore and learn,” he says. “And I was curious about the industry. I grew up into it and fell in love with it.”

Stemming from his upbringing, Jordan learned the importance of maintaining a tight circle of family and friends. One of those confidants is Sterling “Steelo” Brim. The MTV Ridiculousness co-host has been bros with Jordan since pre-teen days. They met on the set of one of their first major films, 2000’s Hardball with Keanu Reeves, and they’ve been each other’s support system since.

“Me and him organically hit it off and so did our parents,” Brim says. “That made the bond that much stronger because our parents actually hung out and got to know each other well. Our families are really good friends to this day.” Brim describes Jordan as a lovable kid then, bonding over music and basketball and says he’s the same person today. We may know him as Michael B. Jordan, but back then, Brim addressed him by another moniker. “I used to call him little Rottweiler because he looked like a little Rottweiler growing up,” Brim jokes. “He hated it, but he was the same lovable person he is now. He was a very easy-going person, very cool. He was that same kid.”

Their friendship grew even tighter after a dark moment. They were in Los Angeles for Hardball’s red carpet premiere the day before the 9/11 terror attacks happened. They decided to take a bus from the left coast back to Chicago the following day, and once they arrived in the Windy City, Jordan’s family voted against flying to Newark. Brim’s parents volunteered to drive them back to Jersey, which he said wasn’t an easy travel, but tightened their bond for years to come. “That’s a fond memory of our family getting closer and closer,” Brim says.

Fast-forward a decade later, roommates Brim and Jordan just moved out to the City of Angels where their living situation was anything but heavenly. “I remember us being on the 7/11 diet, where we only could afford a hot dog and an Arizona [soft drink] each day,” Brim says. “That’s what we ate, that was our meal for the day. You had little snacks here and there but that was our meal, which is not a meal.”

Jordan echoes that sentiment. “We held each other down and pushed and motivated each other to be better,” he says. “There’s a friendly rivalry competition with us from the first time we met each other and it’s healthy especially out here in L.A., just out here period in the entertainment industry. It’s rough, so your friends and your family, if you’re blessed enough to have them around you when you’re on the journey, on this grind, they’re very important.”

Brim also recalled a few times when Jordan wanted to give up on his acting career after missing out on roles that he thought were the right fit for him, and wanting to move back to Newark. “I think that’s for any actor, everything happens for a reason,” he says. “You just have to be ready for your season and your time, and right now it’s his time.”

Others close to Jordan express that same thought. Wilds also believes this is Jordan’s season. The two have been friends since Wilds was 16 and had a similar come-up in the film industry, thanks in part to The Wire, which Wilds, who played the character Michael Lee, described as an “unconventional acting school” for the younger stars.

“It taught us everything that we needed to know,” the Grammy-nominee says of the gritty Baltimore based street life HBO series. “I think it was one of those things that put us in a place with veterans and either had to stand up or sit down.” Although Wilds came into the show a few seasons later, he remembers watching Jordan’s character every Sunday night with his mother. “Michael B. is one of those guys who’s really good at portraying real life feelings and situations, whether it was The Wire or Hardball or the soap opera [All My Children] that he was on,” he says. “He’s one of those guys that can truly portray real life situations in a way that comes off very real.”

Those closest to Jordan feel that genuine characteristic, essentially meaning they know the real him. From the secondary inputs, you learn a few interesting things about the actor that reiterates his down to Earth mentality. “I think a lot of people don’t know this, and he’s going to laugh when he sees this, but he’s an amazing cook,” Wilds says, chuckling. From curry cook-offs to taco nights, Jordan would host friends at his house to showcase his skills in the kitchen. It’s one of his hobbies, Jordan mentions, that he loves to engage in when his schedule isn’t so demanding.

Another thing that you learn through his best friends is that Jordan has a comedic side that’s yet to be seen on the screen. Brim says that he thinks his closest confidant can be a successful comedic actor, but one of his first chances to showcase that talent didn’t go over so well. That Awkward Moment (Focus Features, 2014), starring Zac Efron and Miles Teller, could’ve been Jordan’s shining funny moment. “I feel like Mike was awkward,” Brim says, pun intended. “I feel like Mike wasn’t the Mike I knew and I want to see him do so many more comedic roles because I think he’s a very funny person. The world will see that sooner or later. He has a long career ahead of him.” Jordan also feels the same way about his gauche performance, describing this role as one of his more challenging portrayals.

“I was jumping into the comedic space like that and it was something that I wanted to have more time with,” he admits. “I think comedy is super hard. Time is so important and I have such a respect for the comedic actors. That’s something I definitely want to start doing in the future.” Jordan’s fearless attitude to dive into uncharted territory is also a side he’s showing more to the world, although he admits he’s still working on practicing Nike’s motto. “I think a lot of people have a fear of success and they don’t either immediately acknowledge it or they don’t know it, but I think they do because what’s stopping you everyday from going out there and doing what you really want to do or giving 110 percent and all of you to things you really want to do?” he says, leaning forward. “What’s stopping you? Getting past that I think is a big obstacle for a lot of people. I’m working on it.”

Whether he has a fear of success or regrets, he makes it clear that there’s no use in turning back or beating yourself up about a circumstance. One opportunity that didn’t come to fruition, but he’s okay with now, was his possible role as Dr. Dre in this summer’s surprise box office hit on rap icons N.W.A, Straight Outta Compton. Due to his prior obligation with Fantastic Four, Jordan had to pass up this role. When asked his thoughts on this decision, he sounds pensive, but keeps his response short. “Me and Dr. Dre met a couple of times,” he says. “We spoke about it, but ultimately it didn’t work out that way. It was some mutual interest for a moment, and it didn’t develop into anything for it to work out.”

These tough decisions all serve as learning lessons for someone who wants to contribute something great to society through his on screen portrayals. “I want things that are worldly, that anybody can go to the movie theaters and enjoy,” he says. Jordan shares that comment after asked about his sentiment on selecting roles, “traditionally reserved for White actors,” which he mentioned in the GQ article. There goes that side-eye again.

“I just want to revert to my track record,” he says. “It’s so easily forgotten how I got here, or the projects and the things that I’m involved in that got me to this point. It’s kind of hard to be labeled as whatever when my whole career, my whole everything, is based around who I am as a black man.”

Wilds understands where Michael is coming from when it comes to the types of roles he’d like to play. Referencing both of their decisions in the film industry thus far, Wilds, who’s received pivotal screen time from his dynamic role on 90210 to the leading man in Adele’s “Hello” video, says they’re opening doors and showing the gatekeepers in Hollywood “that we can tell those stories just as well and we have so many more of our own.” He continues, “I think it’s definitely harder than I guess anyone else, but just like anything that’s worth anything it takes work. It takes time.”

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Michael picks up his phone for the first time since we sat down 35 minutes ago. The lock screen is full of green bubbles, an indication that he’s in high demand and his time at the loft is running out. “I have to get to this other thing at four,” he says, but he decides to kick back a few more minutes. Tiller is still playing in the background, so maybe Jordan wanted to hear Trapsoul in its entirety before he pulls off in his charcoal colored Beamer. Either way, he remains focused on the questions, taking a swig of his orange-flavored Gatorade before diving into his involvement with the My Brother’s Keeper organization, one of President Barack Obama's newest initiatives.

With a central focus on the youth, Jordan wants to make sure he’s leading by example and reaching out to those disadvantaged children. “A lot of programs and kids are really important to me like the youth, and finding ways to break these vicious cycles and these circles, it’s something that I’ve always been thinking about really getting involved in,” he says. “It’s always a timing thing. You have to be smart and strategic about certain things. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Whenever you want to see a real change, it happens on a lot of different levels. It comes from a series of small victories that can equate to something big and massive. That’s something I really want to get involved in.”

I feel like Mike was awkward. I feel like Mike wasn’t the Mike I knew and I want to see him do so many more comedic roles because I think he’s a very funny person. The world will see that sooner or later. He has a long career ahead of him. —Sterling "Steelo" Brim

A video of a school security officer manhandling a young Black girl at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina caught Jordan’s attention before he arrived for the shoot. You can tell he’s in tune with the struggles that the youth are facing, especially in the education system, given his passionate take on the video. He says some schools are worried about the wrong things instead of focusing on whether or not a student had breakfast that morning or if they slept well the night before. Jordan’s prowess concerning learning institutions will play out on the silver screen when he links up once again with Coogler for Wrong Answer. Based off of a New Yorker article on eleven teachers who were convicted of forging students’ scores on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test in Atlanta, Jordan will assume the real life persona of one of those educators, who was found guilty of racketeering. Details concerning the production of the film are still under wraps, but Jordan and Coogler are planning to bring the plight of the education system to the big screen in an impactful way.

“I’m trying to shine a light on doing films that get people to think about the things we have in place: our systems, education, judicial, police brutality with Fruitvale Station,” he says. “I want to tell the contemporary black male experience today of those situations of how we’re treated.” Can he define what the black male experience in America is at this moment? Taking a beat, he’s honest and pondering with his response, admitting that he’s still trying to decipher it himself.

“It’s rough, it’s rough right now. I understand and I’m trying to figure it out, I’m trying to figure out how to get some real change,” he says. “I just don’t have all the answers.”

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Jordan actually has to leave this time. He gathers his shades and bag before him, and although he’s running late for his next meeting, he doesn’t make a mad dash out the door to save time. That easy-going aura still surrounds him.

He understands that given a whirlwind of his name in the press this year, he can only try to let his work speak over the headlines, and control whatever he can with this newfound responsibility. “I think that’s what makes him such a great actor, is that he wears his heart on his sleeve,” Coogler says. Jordan knows that part of his scrutiny from here on out will stem from the projects he decides to attach his name to. The rest of that is out of his control.

“There’s no other film besides Fruitvale that was a film that I got a lot of respect from. Hopefully Creed will be good and people will really respond to it, but it’s not for me to say it’s my breaking out,” he says. “I’ll let other people speculate on that.”

Photos by Peter Dokus
Styling by Jeff K. Kim for The Only Agency
Image #1: Simon Miller Shirt
Image #2: Timo Weiland shirt
Image #3: Sandro button down, Bassike t-shirt, Simon Miller jeans
Image #4: Timo Weiland sweater
Image #5: Sandro sweater, Simon Miller jeans

Main Image Credit: Peter Dokus