What Michael B. Jordan’s GQ Interview Reveals about Race

Talking about diversity and representations of blackness can be frought terrain, even now when we are seeing so many more Black men and women in key roles in front of, and behind, the camera.

I thought about this immediately when I read Michael B. Jordan’s recent GQ article. I knew immediately after reading it that it would cause a stir. And not just because of the ongoing internet outrage phenomenon – though that’s certainly a part of it – but because most of us have insufficient language for describing the desire for fuller representations of blackness in art and entertainment.

Particularly when we fall for the trap that white supremacy presents us:

“I want to be part of that movement that blurs the line between white and black,” and tells me this: “I told my team after I finished Chronicle [the successful low-budget sci-fi movie that first partnered him with Fantastic Four director Josh Trank] that I only want to go out for roles that were written for white characters. Me playing the role will make it what it is.”

…Perhaps a more accurate way of putting it is that he would like the same breadth of opportunities as the white actors he takes as career models. The two he has mentioned most often are Leonardo DiCaprio and Ryan Gosling. “They made smart choices,” he says. “They played people, not being ‘a white actor playing a person,’ them playing a person. When I play a person or profession, it’s black this, black that. It’s obvious that I’m black, but why do I have to be labeled as that?” And the best way to guarantee himself a better path, he says, is to be involved when the material is conceived: “Instead of taking something conceptually written for a black guy, I want the stuff that was written for a guy.” (emphasis added)

The emphasis I’ve added really gets to the central problem with Jordan’s point of view – it is rooted in the false notion that white people get to play “raceless” roles.

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Race, Ethnicity, and ‘The Vampire Diaries’

In a fairly inoffensive, if silly, roundtable discussion post on AfterElton about The CW’s brilliant, The Vampire Diaries, this jumped out at me:

There’s yet to be much of a gay presence on the show. (Sorry folks, Caroline’s deceased Dad doesn’t cut it). Do you think a gay vamp making all sorts of snappy one-liners about the pretty boys in Mystic Falls would be a good thing?

Robyn Ross: I love that the show often blissfully ignores race, ethnicity, etc. because these kids have a lot more to worry about than those kinds of social issues. But sexual orientation (and sex in general) is such a huge part of the show that I think taking on a handsome gay vampire could add a lot to the mix. And let’s be honest, the banter between him and Damon would be priceless.

Because race and ethnicity are “social issues” one has to “worry about?” Wait…what?

Race and ethnicity should be central to creating character, particularly if you’re going to have a diverse cast, as The Vampire Diaries does. And so this is the one area of the show that drives me fucking crazy.


Bonnie, one of the all-powerful Bennett witches

I mean, this is a show that is set in Virginia, with frequent flashbacks to antebellum South and constant celebrations of antebellum Southern culture that conspicuously sidesteps the fact that that period was defined by American chattel slavery. This is a show that nearly always casts black actors to play witches but provides no mythological reason for this even though it’s clear that the producers are consciously deciding to always. every. single. time. cast a black actor as a witch.

Not even for the Bennett witches, who are central to the show’s mythology.

But here’s the thing? The vampire Katherine Pierce, who is also central to the show’s mythology played by lead actress Nina Dobrev, is Bulgarian because Dobrev is Bulgarian and speaks the language fluently.

The show’s producers are aware enough of Dobrev’s ethnicity to not only reference it in the show, but also make use of it (via Dobrev speaking the language in flashbacks), but there can be no indication in the show at all that the black actors are playing black characters with history, ethnicity and perspective.

In other words, race and ethnicity aren’t ignored, blissfully or otherwise. Just blackness.

Reviewing Will Smith’s Hancock

Will Smith as Hancock


Hancock is a big incoherent mess, anchored beautifully by Will Smith’s brilliant central performance.  But it’s also an intriguing, big incoherent mess.

Hancock continues Will’s recent trend to combine depth and spectacle.  It also, along with I Am Legend, marks a shift in how race complicates and enriches Will’s screen performances.

This is what makes the film so intriguing.

Film Journal International explains:

Since leaving his Fresh Prince persona behind for global movie stardom, Will Smith has established two distinct screen identities. On the one hand, there’s Big Willie: The Most Bankable Actor in the WorldTM, who keeps moviegoers laughing and cheering in blockbusters like Independence Day, Men in Black and Hitch. Between those crowd-pleasers, though, we’re treated to Mr. William Smith*, a hard-working dramatic actor who throws himself into challenging roles like a legendary boxer or a homeless single father and reaps acclaim and awards for his efforts. Recently, the soon-to-be-40-year-old has worked hard to fuse these personas into the same movie. (emphasis added)

The subtext?

This merger of personas means that “Big Willie: The Most Bankable Actor in the World TM” is now becoming increasingly comfortable with bringing a more complex black man, one that he’s crafted beautifully in his dramas, to his big budget films.

To put a fine point on it: Will has only played a black man on screen three times (Where The Day Takes You, Six Degrees of Separation, and Ali ). All three, not coincidentally, diversions from his “big budget” career.  The Pursuit of Happyness and The Legend of Bagger Vance do not count because the films were so aggressively, so doggedly concerned with deracinated blackness (or what other critics call “incidental blackness”).

But in Hancock, there is are clever allusions to life as a black man (not to mention a golden-era hip hop soundtrack) that never quite payoff, but are worth discussing.  Hancock is not unlike Ellison’s protagonist in Invisible Man.  Hancock is underappreciated and alone in the world and that has an effect on his ability to connect or behave appropriately.  His backstory eloquently puts his behavior in some context.  His behavior then has a melancholy nonchalance (played beautifully by Will in those first 50 minutes) that makes him more than the “asshole” he is purported to be.

Interestingly, a couple of reviews actually acknowledge that race colors the film.

Popmatters.com is eloquent when it states:

Ray can say this: he’s never been a scary black man with limitless physical powers and a stockpile of anger. Hancock has other issues, beyond his own psychic health, beyond his daily efforts to support the system that has made him feel so alienated and mad. The film notes these issues in passing, en route to its much more predictable and unenlightening resolution. But Hancock can’t actually consider the pop cultural environment that produces Hancock. It would have to be a different, more coherent movie. (emphasis added)

What they allude to in this passage is that Hancock’s race is completely erased, or discarded, after Mary (Charlize Theron, in a strong performance ) reveals her connection to Hancock.  You can tell most directly by the fact that, from this point on, the hip-hop soundtrack switches to a typical melodrama score. This can somewhat be explained by the fact that the tone of the film switches so drastically at this point.  But the subtext of this switch in tone, music (and Hancock’s behavior) seems to be that Hancock has to be deracinated once it is revealed that he’s Mary’s spouse and because, yea, a big scary black man with limitless power is, well…scary.

This is an imperfect reading of the film because the film becomes a disaster after the big reveal and never pays off what it sets up with respect to race.  In addition, Hancock’s blackness relies a whole helluva lot on Will Smith’s blackness to convey some of the subtext that makes the opening 50 minutes so intriguing.

The film then ultimately only flirts with making Will Smith a full-fledged black man.

But with I Am Legend (where his character is clearly black and even talks about it) and Hancock, we see Hollywood filmmakers, and Will himself, struggling to figure out what it means to have a black actor in a film environment that has historically been a white one.  You can see in I Am Legend that they are unsure what it means for the last man on Earth to be a black man.  His blackness is mentioned in passing (a speech about Bob Marley), but it is so intrinsic to who Robert Neville (Will’s character) is that its worth noting as a shift in Will’s big budget persona.

It’s worth noting that neither film “blackens” Will expertly, or even believably, all the time, but its interesting to watch.

This merger of Will’s persona that FJI discusses then hinges on rendering complex representations of race in film contexts that Hollywood has never done before.  Because what makes Will’s dramatic performances work is that the people he portrays are three-dimensional people, three-dimensional black people.  If you insert that kind of character into a big budget film, things necessarily change.

In an article I wrote a few years ago, I posited that the real arrival of black actors will be when our unique histories and identities are not erased by simply inserting us into roles written for white actors.  This means that any film with black leads is inherently different than one with white leads because our experiences are different.  And it should be written that way.

What does it mean that the last man on Earth is black?  What does a film like that look like?

What does a black superhero look like?  How does that flip comic book convention?

It’s not as simple as inserting a black actor into a role like, oh, just about every role Will has had before.  Robert Neville and Hancock are different kind of protagonists because they are black.

It’s nice to see that acknowledged and grapped with, if imperfectly.


*Interestingly, Will is short for Willard, not William.