For the number of fans waiting outside the Arlington Theatre for a glimpse of Michael B. Jordan, it was a moment worth waiting for. With handlers wanting to rush him inside for his retrospective night at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival–and the “Cinema Vanguard Award”–the star of “Black Panther” and both “Creed” movies took his time with the fans, who let out several roars of approval. For a fest that’s been subdued and damp over the week, this was neither of those things.
Inside, after the opening montage, and sitting with returning host Scott Feinberg, Jordan was relaxed, cool, and talkative, still running on a true appreciation of where his desires and determination have taken him.
Last year there were rumblings that Jordan might earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination for “Black Panther,” where he played the role of villain Killmonger, but it was not to be one of the seven noms the well loved Marvel film earned. Fans don’t care however, and the evening was one of the more packed houses seen at the fest.
Mr. Feinberg cleared up the mystery of his name, however–the star was not named after the basketball legend, despite being born at the height of that man’s career. Instead he was named after his father, who is older than the sportsman. The name, however, gave him the “competitive chip” in high school. Funnily enough, when Mr. Feinberg announced that the “original Michael Jordan is with us tonight” even the star did a doubletake until assured they were talking about his dad.
Born in Orange County, but raised in Newark, New Jersey, Jordan was spotted by a receptionist at his mother’s doctor’s office–she suffers from lupus, he said–and was told he should model. That led to various roles and then a breakthrough playing Wallace, the young kid caught up selling dope in “The Wire.” That HBO show, underrated at the time but now considered a classic, also could be ruthless in disposing of characters and when he knew his character would die, he said he cried. Executive producer David Simon said “We love you, but that’s why we have to kill you.”
For a while he didn’t think he’d work again, but he soon got a role on the soap “All My Children.” People might look down on soaps, but Mr. Jordan said it gave him amazing training and work ethic, especially shooting over an episode a day. “If you don’t know your lines or you mess up, that’s it, you’re moving on, and that’s going to air,” he said. “You never want to put yourself in that position again.”
At 19 years old he made the trip to Los Angeles and survived month to month, getting roles here and there. It was only when he about to pack it up and return to the east coast that he landed the role in “Red Tails,” the WWII film, that he finally earned some serious cash and allowed him to start looking for roles he wanted to play. He told his agent to send him out for roles that caucasians would play, he said. “I wanted roles with no bias,” he added, wanting to succeed beyond something that might be stereotypical, a method that Will Smith also followed. “I wanted to open the door and keep it open for others,” he said.
But coming back from shooting “Chronicle” in South Africa, he read about the Trayvon Martin shooting and knew he wanted to channel his anger into a “gritty independent film.” And that is how he met a first time director called Ryan Coogler with a script called “Fruitvale Station.” The film and that role brought him here to SBIFF in 2014 as a Virtuoso, and it really did launch him into the big time. (Coogler would go on to direct “Black Panther.”)
Coogler in their first meeting, told Jordan he was going to be a big star with “Fruitvale Station,” adding “Let’s prove it.” The evening, which featured more talk about “Creed” and “Black Panther” was additional proof Coogler was right.