'Just Mercy' Star Michael B. Jordan on How His Upbringing Shaped His Life

The actor opens up about his mother's lupus and what it took to play civil-rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson.

Posted in , Jan 8, 2020

Photo by: Robert Deutsch

Award-winning actor Michael.B. Jordan stars in the new movie, Just Mercy, playing a real-life hero—trailblazing lawyer Bryan Stevenson who created the Equal Justice Initiative which represents wrongly accused death row inmates.

Guideposts Editor Celeste McCauley spoke with Jordan about how family and his faith helped him become the actor he is today.

CM: Tell us about your role playing lawyer Bryan Stevenson. What inspired you to be in this movie?

Michael B. Jordan: Just Mercy tells a true story of what it’s like to be wrongly accused and convicted of a crime. To be put on death row. To feel hopeless. To find no recourse. And then to have a lawyer with a passion for justice take on your case and give you a second chance. In this movie, I play that trailblazing lawyer, Bryan Stevenson. My friend Jamie Foxx plays Walter McMillian, an innocent man who was saved from death row. I took this project on because I believe in the work that Bryan does and the organization he started, Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor and the wrongly condemned. As Bryan once said, “The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”

CM: How did your own upbringing lead you to this role?  

MBJ: It’s a movie I would not have made without the influence of my own parents. I grew up in Newark, New Jersey. My mother trained as an artist, seeing the natural beauty of the world. When I was in junior high, she worked as a counselor at the school I went to, helping poor families navigate the system, doing all she could for “the least of these.”

My dad, a former Marine, worked nights as a supervisor at JFK Airport. Then he started a catering business he ran from home. We always had good food cooking in the kitchen. No wonder my friends were constantly coming around, staying for sleepovers. Our house was the house. You could get a great meal and play basketball or video games or watch a movie. Education mattered a lot in our family. We were expected to read not just the textbooks assigned in school but books that told us who we were and where we had come from and how we could make a difference. Whenever I’d walk by the dining room, there would be Dad absorbed in another book, reading about issues of justice, civil rights, black history—the kinds of things that Bryan Stevenson also cares about it.

CM: When did you get the bug for acting?

MBJ: When I was 11 years old, I was in a doctor’s office one day and someone in the waiting room told my mom that I should be a model or an actor. One little comment from a complete stranger, but that got me going. I started taking acting classes, going to auditions. Soon I was getting callbacks, getting parts, meeting agents. I was only a teenager when I was cast in a major soap opera. I felt called. Perhaps it has something to do with my name, my middle name. People hear “Michael Jordan” and think of the basketball player. But I’m Michael B. Jordan and that B makes a world of difference, B for Bakari. The word means “noble promise” in Swahili. My parents saw and nurtured noble promise in all of us, my two siblings, Khalid and Jamila, and me.

Michael B. Jordan and his parents, Donna Jordan and Michael A. Jordan. 

CM: Your parents have been huge inspirations in your life. They both battle chronic illnesses. How does your positivity and faith help you help them?

MBJ: When I was a teenager, my mother got a scary diagnosis: lupus, or SLE, a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body attacks healthy tissues, damaging skin, joints, the kidneys and other organs. Mom is not one to complain, but you could tell when things were hard, how tired she was, how much pain she was in. She put a smile on everything, but I knew when she was not at her best. When she was down, I’d try to give her strength. That’s the thing about family—we’ve got to be strong for each other. Still I wished I could do more for her. At age 19, my role in the soap opera came to an end. I didn’t need to stay in the New York area anymore. I figured I’d try my luck in L.A. The parts came, roles in TV shows like Friday Night Lights and Parenthood and then in movies like Fruitvale Station and Creed II. It was amazing to work with Sly Stallone. Some people might say I had a lot of good luck, but it was work too—hard work. Sticking with it, not being afraid to risk failure, to risk all. One of my favorite Bible verses comes from Psalm 91: “You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day.” That takes faith, trust, the awareness that there is a higher power looking after you. That there is something stronger than fear.

CM: Your biggest role to date was in the huge blockbuster, Black Panther. How did your role in that compare to Just Mercy?

MBJ: I was barely 30 when I took on my role in Black Panther. I played the bad guy in that one, Erik Killmonger. You learn something by being the villain, getting inside a character, trying to see what makes them tick, what makes them so different from you, looking at them from the inside out.

Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy is a whole different sort of person, someone who does something heroic, who takes huge risks, speaking out for justice, becoming a force for change in the world. It’s almost harder than playing a villain to take on the role of a truly good person and make them believable. You wonder how he does what he does, what motivates him. Well, it’s like that Psalm. Trusting in God. Knowing that there’s something bigger and more powerful than the evils of injustice and racism and that it can triumph. Just mercy.

A couple years back, all my success made it possible for me to buy a house out here in L.A.; big enough for more than a single guy like me. I knew right away who I wanted to move in with me: Mom and Dad. Whatever I could do to make their lives better, Mom with her lupus and Dad—unfortunately, he’s got diabetes these days. They looked after me for so many years. It was nice to have the chance to look after them. Sort of like my childhood, when our house was the go-to house for everybody. Because of them.

Last year, Black Panther was nominated for seven Academy Awards. I was also asked to be a presenter. Of course I was going to go. And I knew exactly who I wanted to take for my date, someone to join me on the red carpet, someone who would really enjoy the moment. Dad was fine about watching it all on TV. Stepping into the chauffeur-driven limo were just the two of us: Mom and me.

On May 20, the American Bar Association announced that Just Mercy was selected to receive the 2020 ABA Silver Gavel Award for Drama and Literature.

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