What follows is from this month’s GQ Magazine, which named actor Michael B. Jordan — who we first victimized in “The Wire” — for the breakout performance of 2013. His fine work in “Fruitvale Station” is wholly deserving and the film is an important one. I was honored when the magazine asked me to write something for the year-end issue, and it’s reposted here with the magazine’s kind permission. Congratulations, Michael. We knew you when.
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Perversely, we are at the edge of creating a hard-and-fast rule of film narrative in which the one assured means by which we can get America to care about young men of color is to shoot Michael B. Jordan.
Not Michael, to be fair. But any character portrayed by Michael.
The drug war? Stop and frisk? Racial profiling? Black-on-black violence? Our separate Americas? All that is commentary. If you need white folks to actually feel something, it pays to aim a handgun at Michael B. Jordan’s delicate and nuanced humanity and pull the trigger. Suddenly the risks of being young and black on an American street are apparent.
A decade ago on The Wire, we put Michael in the path of a bullet, knowing we were breaking hearts. Not merely because the kid was a fine, careful actor playing a grandly sacrificial role. But that smile—the open, adolescent warmth that filled Michael’s face in ordinary moments—God, the smile alone was going to wreck anyone watching as Wallace’s story played out.
We started him sweet and foolish and playing with action figures, and we finished him in a vacant public-housing unit, with a high-caliber bullet in his chest. On that last day of work, even the Baltimore crew—veterans of all manner of cop-show savagery and betrayal—were sullenly setting up the shot.
“I can’t believe you’re killing Michael,” said the makeup lady.
No, we’re killing Wallace.
“It’s just wrong. It’s evil.”
When J.D. fired the prop gun and the squibs spurted and Michael dropped onto the stunt mat, the script coordinator started crying.
So now, a decade later, comes Fruitvale Station, a quotidian, last-day-in-the-life account of Oscar Grant, another young black man—this one shot to death by a transit officer in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 at the Fruitvale stop of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.
Now, again, a few earnest souls in our film industry are taking steps from the beaten path to present the human-scale cost of our racial pathology. And the right actor is again required to take a bullet in such a way that we will feel the loss in all of its intricate detail.
No surprise who gets the call. Now Michael B. Jordan, an actor honed by a decade of meaningful work, turns in a performance that surrounds the doomed Oscar Grant, making him seem idiosyncratic yet average, ordinary yet precious. That’s the power of Fruitvale.
It’s easy to say as much, but to feel it? And it’s harder when we are obliged to consider those who wear hoodies, who smoke a little weed, who text the wrong thing to a girl, who ever make a single mistake in their short lives. Harder still if the dead man can’t win us with his smile.
And there’s the lesson.
If we shoot Michael dead a few more times, there’s a small chance we might actually learn it.
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At GQ, online: