It’s impossible not to love Michael B. Jordan. Ever since the actor broke onto the scene with his head-turning performance as the soft-hearted Wallace in HBO’s The Wire, he’s gotten steady work playing relatable, confused characters. He’s played a lot of criminals seeking forgiveness or reconciliation or something like grace. It’s a testament to Jordan’s talent that he’s delivered a variety of performances in these roles despite their homogeneity. He’s done the “good guy thug” thing, tackling the roles Hollywood seems to require of any actor brave enough to be young, black, and male all at the same time. This is why it’s fascinating that he’s been picked to star in the remake of the young, black, male actors: The Thomas Crown Affair. The role is about being unrepentant and empowered.
The film is being made by MGM, the same studio that made Jordan’s last film, Ryan Coogler’s Rocky reboot, Creed. Apparently, the studio agreed to make Thomas Crown based on Jordan’s involvement alone. But what does that involvement entail in the established narrative of art thief Thomas Crown.
Think about Michael B. Jordan’s biggest roles to date. Wallace on The Wire lives in a tenement with no power or water. In Friday Night Lights, Vince Howard is a two-striker who’s son to a recovering addict and one step away from juvie, something that Coach Eric Taylor reminds him of frequently. In Jordan’s most lauded project, Ryan Coogler’s amazing Fruitvale Station, Jordan’s Oscar Grant is basically a good guy who’s in such dire straits that he’s forced to deal drugs. These characters don’t wear suits. And when Jordan does get out of the hoodie, things get weird. Chronicle was great, but he was in it for 10 seconds. That Awkward Moment was so poorly conceived Jordan played second fiddle to Zac Efron. Fantastic Four happened.
For his part, Jordan is chomping at the bit to branch out artistically and take on roles that go beyond what he’s been afforded the chance to do. He told GQ last year that he’d decided only to“go out for roles that were written for white characters.”
Thomas Crown is pretty much the whitest character there ever was, so Jordan is clearly sticking to the plan.
Historically, Thomas Crown is a debonair thief who’s calm under pressure but undeniably charming. In the film’s previous iterations, the lead has been embodied by the guy who was — at the time — the living embodiment of upper crust cool. The first time around, Steve McQueen was the mastermind of a robbery so slick he never even met his co-conspirators. For round two, Pierce Brosnan played Crown as an art thief with a penchant for ridiculously audacious heists. The movie was middling, but hardly inclusive. Look at the screenshot for the YouTube clip below. Notice anything missing? (Hint: minorities.)
Both Crown films are notable for having tripled their budgets. You better bet that MGM knows this.
No doubt by now you’ve heard at least one person go off on a rant about how the Oscars are racist. While that may be true because old white guys over 60 tend not to be as open-minded as you’d hope, racism is actually a little beside the point. Hollywood is a money business and, from that perspective, the move is not so much progressive as cynical. Studio heads know that they are losing money by making traditional choices. Michael B. Jordan is black, but it’s more important from MGM’s perspective that he’s a good actor and people like him.
The argument that black actors aren’t bankable is no longer — if it ever was — remotely reasonable (Furious 7 had a nearly $150 million opening weekend on the strength of an audience that was 75 percent non-white), and it definitely doesn’t go down with the public.
The clamor from social media and some big time Hollywood talent was given way more credence this week when USC released a report that uncovered perhaps the least shocking secret in Hollywood: White dudes get most of the work. In examining “109 motion pictures and 305 broadcast, cable, and digital series,” the report, titled “Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative,” essentially put numbers behind the long-held notion that guys get all the lines, women are basically just hot scenery, and white dudes call all the shots.
For example, speaking roles in film and on television are awarded to men twice as often as they are to women (by a margin of roughly 65 percent to 35 percent). Meanwhile, nearly a third of the female characters were either “shown in sexy attire” or told to get naked at one point, compared to between seven and 10 percent of the men. When it comes to diversity on the screen, more than 70 percent of people with speaking roles in films and television are white (and 65 percent of those white people are guys). Behind the camera, about 90 percent of directors across all mediums are white, and more than 70 percent of them are men.
Is Michael B. Jordan now the standard bearer for black actors? He shouldn’t have to be. Michael B. Jordan just has to be good at his job, which he historically has been, and things should work out pretty well. His new role gives him a chance to be unapologetic. MGM is ready for that performance and, truth be told, America’s been ready for it for a while.