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Michael B. Jordan and Denzel Washington
Michael B. Jordan and Denzel Washington
Michael B. Jordan and Denzel Washington attend the world premiere of "A Journal For Jordan" at AMC Lincoln Square Theater on December 09, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Sony Pictures)

Michael B. Jordan Is a Tribute to the Leading Black Actors of Yesteryear

Michael B. Jordan isn’t a successor to Black actors like Denzel Washington, but a tribute to him and other great Black leading men.

The New York Times’ 2018 conversation between Michael B. Jordan and Denzel Washingtonfelt more than anything like a way for the publication to satiate audiences who were anxious to appoint Jordan as the spiritual successor to Washington’s legacy. From the first question posed to Washington — “If Mike reminds people of a young Denzel, who did young Denzel remind people of?” — to Washington saying he’s ready to pass the baton to the next generation of actors, the article acted as a coronation for Jordan. But the reality is that the actor isn’t a successor to Washington more than he is a tribute to him and other Black leading men of yesteryear, whose precedents created the vacuum through which Jordan retreads.

Much like Jordan, Washington would also have to field his own series of reductive comparisons. In a 1995 Vanity Fair profile of Washington, several of the actor’s peers and collaborators interviewed for the article compared him to trailblazing actor Sidney Poitier, whose precedent-setting career paved the way for Washington to be, as actor Ossie Davis described him: “a performer, purveyor of sexuality whose blackness is not an extra cause or a negative.”

However, if Washington’s career was made possible by the trailblazing efforts of Poitier and freed Washington to play more nuanced portrayals of Blackness, then Jordan’s career is a testament to how far the idea of the Black leading man has come since, where everything from Marvel superheroes (and villains) to fictional boxing greats is on the table.

Making a mark with Fruitvale Station

A press conference at Fruitvale Station Cephus "Uncle Bobby" Johnson, uncle of Oscar Grant, speaks as his sister Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant, right, and others listen during a press conference at the Fruitvale BART station on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley is reopening the case after Oscar Grant's family and supporters recently demanded them to do so after his murder by BART police at the station on Jan. 1, 2009 (Photo by Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images).

With the wealth of Black talent that graces our screens today, it’s easy to forget how in 2013 — just two years before #OscarsSoWhite would bring Hollywood’s glaring race problem to the forefront — there was a dearth of young Black actors regularly starring in major Hollywood films.

2013 would be the year that Jordan began his ascension into adult stardom with Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, the real-life story of a young Bay Area Black man named Oscar Grant, who was murdered by a police officer in 2009. Jordan received critical praise for his portrayal of Grant, capturing a man trying to live a just life and do right by the people he cares about before meeting an unfortunate end.

Despite his early acting success with The Wire and All My Children, this film marked a shift in the adult phase of his career where he had been struggling for a number of years, even going as far as to apply at Jack in the Box. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter in 2021 about his career slump after his initial years of success, Jordan said: “Secretly, I felt left out and overlooked and I think that drove me further into the cave of working hard.”

It was also around Fruitvale Station’s release that comparisons to Washington began to crop up. In a review of the film for The Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy said that Jordan’s portrayal of Grant “gives off vibes of a very young Denzel Washington in the way he combines gentleness and toughness; he effortlessly draws the viewer in toward him.”

Since then, Jordan’s acting has come into question, with critics over the years saying he’s not as skilled of a performer as his peers, or more bluntly, saying that he can’t act at all. Yes, there are other Black actors in this current class who possess the sheer on-screen charisma and acting talent we’ve come to expect from leading men, whether that be classically trained actors like Winston Duke and the late Chadwick Boseman (who went to Yale and Howard, respectively), or even British imports like John Boyega and Daniel Kaluuya. But Jordan has grown to show his capabilities, whether that be as the tragic villain Killmonger, the conflicted Guy Montag, or the noble Bryan Stevenson.

Through Creed, Michael B. Jordan shows he’s coming into his own as a leading man

Michael B. Jordan at the premiere of Creed III dressed in a suit and speaking to reporters. Michael B. Jordan attends the European Premiere of Creed III at Cineworld Leicester Square on February 15, 2023 in London, England (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Warner Bros.).

It’s clear that Jordan has had the best success as Adonis Creed in the Creed series. Portraying the son of Rocky Balboa’s former boxing rival, the late Apollo Creed, Jordan first became a part of the extended Rocky cinematic universe courtesy of longtime collaborator Coogler, who directed the first Creed film. When he first assumed the role of Adonis, Jordan wasn’t unlike the titular character he was playing, the young man’s desire to build a legacy worthy of his predecessors akin to the actor’s own desire. As Jordan said in a 2015 Vibe profile: “I always wanted to have my name mean something based upon the work that I put in.”

It’s clear that with Creed III Jordan really put in the work to push the franchise further, particularly as a director (the film serves as Jordan’s directorial debut). Taking inspiration from an unlikely source (anime, specifically shows known for their fights — Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, My Hero Academia), Jordan managed to put a refreshing twist on the Rocky and Creed franchises, all while still telling an emotional story between two former friends turned rivals. Having set a major box office record as the biggest domestic opening for a sports movie, Creed III has been an affirming moment for Jordan, showing how he’s come into his own beyond an actor.

Jordan was just 31 when he first had that conversation with Washington. Now, rather than just being a successor to the legacy actor, he’s blossomed into his own accomplished actor and director, defining and redefining what it means to be a Black leading man. So much so that he’s even worked alongside the leading men who came before him (Washington, Jamie Foxx), and will work with others in the foreseeable future (appearing alongside Will Smith in I Am Legend 2).

Jordan doesn’t need to be a trailblazer. He’s an inheritor and tribute to the greats that have come before him, still finding out where he fits in the realm of Black cinema (and cinema as a whole), and making notable strides in the process. As Washington said of Jordan when asked about people comparing them: “I just know I like him, and I can see why audiences love him too. Whatever that 'It' factor is, he has it.”