Michael B. Jordan could have been a contender.
That’s less of a reference to the Creed franchise (which in my opinion is worthy of all the Oscar nominations) and more a statement of fact about Jordan and his performance as real-life social justice lawyer Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy.
After Just Mercy premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Jordan’s odds as a heavyweight contender in the 2020 awards race were looking good — really good. (That is my last boxing reference). When I saw Just Mercy at TIFF, there were audible sobs rumbling through the theater. By the time the credits rolled, the crowd was on its feet. After the premiere, Deadline declared that Just Mercy had ignited “Oscar talk.” Variety hailed Jordan’s restrained performance as “quietly amazing,” and IndieWire wrote that Jordan “practically carries the movie across the finish line by himself.”
Cut to Monday morning when the 92nd Annual Academy Awards nominations were announced, and Jordan’s name was left off the ballot. Not only wasn’t Jordan nominated, he wasn’t even in the conversation for any major awards leading up to the announcement. Just Mercy opened this weekend and is sitting at a perfect A+ CinemaScore. It’s a slow burning, simmering, triumphant yet incensing courtroom drama about the unfortunate realities of the American justice system. It is at once an affecting, crowd-pleasing film and a call-to-arms for judicial reform. It’s one of those movies you expect to get accolades — a tear-jerking biopic is catnip for the Oscars — so when it doesn’t, the question becomes why? And would another (read: white) actor of Jordan’s fame and status be a shoo-in for the nominations he’s lacking? I think the answer is yes, they would, and if Jordan was white, he’d already have the Oscar nomination under his belt that older actors of the same ilk (hot guys who can also act) did at his age of 32.
He’s a leading man in a leading man’s body, a Movie Star in an era that is supposed to be post-movie stars.
In Just Mercy, Jordan plays Stevenson, a young Harvard-educated attorney who defends convicted inmates on death row. The story follows Stevenson’s attempt to overturn a guilty verdict for Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a Black man wrongfully accused of murdering a white teenage girl in Monroeville, AL. Foxx gives a devastatingly subdued portrayal of an innocent man stripped of his humanity, and it’s his (really great) performance that is getting the most buzz. Before the Oscar nominations dropped, Foxx’s SAG Awards nom for Best Supporting Actor was the only recognition Just Mercy received from any of the awards shows that tend to predict the outcome of the Oscars (I should note that Jordan and Foxx are nominated for NAACP Image Awards but The Oscars like to pretend those don’t exist). This year was no different: Foxx was left off the Oscar ballot. Still, he had a chance. While Foxx’s performance is the slightly flashier one, Jordan plays Stevenson’s anger with painstaking control and delivers stirring monologues that could each act as their own masterclass in acting. I thought for sure this role would put Jordan (and his co-star Rob Morgan whose performance will wreck you if you have a soul) on the path to an Oscar nod, but we know the Academy tends to favor white actors (#OscarsSoWhite) and movies about Black people that focus on slavery (Harriet) or include a white savior (2019’s Best Picture winner Green Book).
Part of what movies like Just Mercy have working against them is that, post-Harvey Weinstein completely reinventing how studios campaign for Oscars, most awards are now about politics and marketing strategies. Warner Bros is the studio behind Just Mercy, which got a later release date and a significantly smaller Oscar push than its other big awards contender: Joker, which racked up 11 nominations — the most for any nominated film at the 2020 Oscars. Let the record show that the studio’s priority was the film about a lonely white man terrorist over the emotional Black biopic about social justice. Oh, and Joaquin Phoenix’s first Oscar nomination was for Gladiator when he was 27.
At 32, Jordan is still a little young for there to be an outcry over the fact he hasn’t won an Oscar yet (the average age of a Best Actor winner is 44), but a nomination is a rite of passage for many A-list leading men — and like Phoenix, they usually come early. Leonardo DiCaprio’s first nod came at 19 for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Brad Pitt got one for 12 Monkeys at 32. Matt Damon’s first Best Actor nomination was for Good Will Hunting when he was 27, and Tom Cruise was the same age when he was nominated for Born on The Fourth of July. For women, the average age is younger (36) but it’s still telling that so many of Jordan’s female peers are already Oscar nominees and/or winners, including his Just Mercy co-star Brie Larson. Add Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, and Margot Robbie to that list. The closest Jordan has come to the coveted recognition of being “Academy Award Nominee, Michael B. Jordan” was his breakout performance as Oscar Grant in 2013’s Fruitvale Station, a role that was also inexplicably passed over for awards despite its stellar critical reception and it being a performance that catapulted Jordan from Internet Boyfriend to Serious Actor. It did, however, help propel writer-director Ryan Coogler to helm Black Panther, in which Jordan also starred.
Yes, there is a long list of Black actresses who deserve to win an Oscar before Michael B. Jordan — Angela Basset and Alfre Woodard have each only been nominated once and have yet to win — but I’m considering precedent here. We’re used to extraordinary talent from Black women being passed over in favor of more famous or more male celebrities. The Oscars is telling on itself that MBJ is not one of them.
Here’s the other glaringly obvious thing about Jordan: He’s a bonafide capital “H” Heartthrob. When MBJ came up in conversation the other day at a party (as he frequently does when you’re talking to me at a party), a friend said she didn’t buy Just Mercy because Jordan was “too good looking for that role.” DiCaprio and Pitt also have this problem (if you can call it that). They were both shut out from winning Oscars until well into their careers (DiCaprio finally received what many call a “career Oscar” for The Revenant in 2016, and Pitt is now the favorite to win his first acting Oscar for Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood). The theory is that the Academy thinks these men are too pretty to be taken seriously. But again, they’ve both gotten multiple Oscar nominations. It’s already a tiny bit of progress that a Black actor like Jordan is considered a universal object of thirst, but that title seems to be more detrimental for him than it has been for white actors. Look at Academy Award nominees Timothée Chalamet and Adam Driver, who get to be lusted after by all of Twitter and lauded by awarding bodies.
Many people have referred to Pitt as a “character actor trapped in a movie star’s body.” Jordan doesn’t have that problem. He’s a leading man in a leading man’s body, a Movie Star in an era that is supposed to be post-movie stars. Jordan’s got the boyish charm of Damon, the megawatt smile and daring athleticism of Cruise (there’s a couple of running scenes in Just Mercy that rival the famous Tom Cruise run), the intensity of DiCaprio, Pitt’s enigmatic sex appeal, and the gravitas of Denzel Washington — without any of the Oscar nominations. Jordan gets compared to Washington a lot. The latter is an example of a Black man who has consistently been recognized by the Academy, but Washington is the exception that proves the rule. It feels like every generation can only have one Black actor who becomes an award darling. Will Smith and Jamie Foxx have been there, only after (and less frequently than) many of their white peers, too.
When will Jordan get his shot at being the exception?