Michael B. Jordan is no stranger to playing troubled urban characters who often end up on the wrong side of the law. The African-American actor, 26, is best remembered for his roles as the teenage drug dealer Wallace in HBO series The Wire (2002-2008) and rebellious quarterback Vince Howard in the NBC series Friday Night Lights (2009-2011).
His first leading role in Fruitvale Station follows the same trajectory, as he plays Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old black youth who was fatally shot by a white police officer on New Year’s Eve at a Bart train station near Oakland, California.
The debut feature-length film by director Ryan Coogler, 27, named after the train station where the shooting took place, won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year. But Jordan seems slightly restless as he tells Life! over the telephone from Los Angeles that he has always wanted to diversify his resume, hinting at his desire to avoid being typecast even as he reflects seriously about Grant’s story.
He is “extremely humbled” to be compared by the American press to actors such as Denzel Washington or Will Smith, but also looks up to Leonardo DiCaprio as a role model. “There are a lot more things that I’ll like to try, sci-fi, act in a love story, be an action hero… ” he rattles on, seemingly overwhelmed by the thought of projects that he has yet to take on.
While he has no confirmed projects coming up, rumours have circulated that he might be playing the blond-haired blue-eyed Human Torch in Josh Trank’s remake of Fantastic Four, the 2005 American superhero film based on the series by Marvel Comics. Human Torch was previously played by Chris Evans, a white actor. Jordan, however, refuses to comment on this. But he later lets on in the interview that Trank is among a list of directors that he hopes to work with, in addition to Paul Greengrass, who is behind several film thrillers in the Bourne series (2002-2012), and Paul Thomas Anderson, the renowned director and screenwriter behind the Oscar-nominated dramatic films There Will Be Blood (2007) and Magnolia (1999).
He would also like to collaborate again with Coogler, who based the film on a true incident in 2009 that sparked protests. The court had ruled the police officer guilty of involuntary manslaughter, rather than murder, after he explained that he had mistaken his gun for his taser, an electroshock weapon used to stun aggressors.
The officer, Johannes Mehserle, was then sentenced to two years in jail. The question of whether race played a part in the ruling still remains unanswered, but Jordan clearly stands on his character Grant’s side. “There were many similarities between us: We are close in age, we both come from the inner city, I have been to those places that he frequented before, so I have a lot of empathy with him. There are many things that others don’t quite understand about being African-American,” says Jordan, a former child model who grew up in Newark, New Jersey.
He was named after his father, Michael A. Jordan, and bears no connection to the basketball player. His middle name, Bakari, is Swahili for “noble promise”.
To do research for the character, Jordan moved to the Bay Area a month before the three-week shoot for the film started, to get a feel of the area and speak to Grant’s family and friends to get an authentic version of the man they knew. “It was overwhelming. I was nervous about meeting them at first. I just didn’t know how awkward it would be for them to relieve the events all over again,” he says. Their wounds are still fresh, according to him, but the re-telling of Grant’s story goes a long way in facilitating the healing process for the family. “It is hard for them to accept the transit officer’s explanation as true, given that he has been a professional for so long.” He also identifies how father figures often exist as peripheral figures in African-American communities as a key factor that contributes to dysfunctionality, which is starkly pointed out in the film. “It’s not enough for a young black male to grow up without his father around, they’ve got such an important effect on a child’s upbringing. “Then they make mistakes and they end up getting put into a certain box. That’s where it starts and it’s extremely difficult to get out of it,” he says.
While director and screenwriter Coogler did not speak directly to the accused police officer, he was able to craft the script from the testimonies given out in court, explains Jordan, whose younger brother is in middle school and older sister is a producer. The racial lines seem to be drawn very clearly in the film – which creates a poignant depiction of the last 20 hours of Grant’s life before the shooting – but Jordan seems to suggest that this was an intentional move on the film-maker’s part to articulate Grant’s perceived position as victim. “You can give people different opinions through art, get people to feel things that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to feel,” says the actor.