The world-burning of Michael B. Jordan
In Fahrenheit 451 and beyond, the acclaimed young actor is ready to burn it all down
Some men, as the saying goes, just want to watch the world burn. Michael B. Jordan may not be one of these men — but he sure seems to enjoy playing them.
In a three-month span, Jordan has portrayed two characters with literal and figurative penchants for fire. In February, he brought Erik "Killmonger" Stevens to life in Ryan Coogler's blockbuster Black Panther, while his turn as Guy Montag in Ramin Bahrani's Fahrenheit 451 will premiere Saturday. Both characters are prone to incineration. But while Montag begins as an agent of the system, using literal flames to solidify the government's stranglehold on its citizens, Killmonger is out to burn it all down.
Montag, the conflicted hero of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel turned HBO film, lives in a future dystopian society where books are unilaterally designated as "graffiti" and banned by the government. Any books found are subject to immediate burning by "firemen," who are essentially stormtroopers deployed to enforce the state's totalitarian regime.
Montag genuinely loves fire. It's the tool of his trade and an outlet for his natural showmanship. "Damn, it's a pleasure to burn!" he proclaims, as he and his fellow firemen light up a cache of "graffiti." And burn he does. He's a walking incinerator — and a flashy one, playing to his peers as well as to folks watching live via state-run internet.
Meanwhile, deep into Black Panther, Killmonger claims the throne of Wakanda, the sovereign African nation serving as the film's main setting. After he consumes the Heart-Shaped Herb, a mystical plant that imbues him with enhanced physical prowess, he adopts the mantle of the Black Panther, chief and protector of Wakanda and its tribes. But Killmonger isn't a protector — he's a conqueror. And so he has his attendants torch the rest of the crop. "Burn it all!" he commands. He's talking about the herb, but he might as well be talking about the Wakandan world order, too.
Killmonger seeks to upset the establishment. Montag maintains it. But both use flames as the apparatus of their office.
Now, Montag doesn't remain a loyal, unquestioning fireman forever. He is forced to confront his role when a job goes sideways: After discovering a veritable treasure trove of books, kept hidden by one lone woman, he prepares to burn them all — until the woman beats him to the punch and ignites herself along with the books while Montag watches in slack horror. Still, Montag is only a revolutionary in the making, while Killmonger is a full-fledged revolutionary.
Pyromania is a wonderful bridge for Jordan's select filmography (recall when he played Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, in Josh Trank's ill-fated Fantastic Four reboot in 2015) — but on a larger scale, it's the fight for social change that defines Jordan's career.
To date, Jordan has served as Coogler's go-to leading man in a loosely connected trilogy of films about lost boys: first, 2013's Fruitvale Station, then 2015's Creed, and most recently Black Panther. Killmonger's arc is considerably more radical than that of Fruitvale Station's Oscar Grant, who was murdered by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer on New Year's Day 2009, and much larger in scale than that of Creed's Adonis "Donnie" Johnson, who wants to prove himself not only as a boxer, but as a man.
All the same, there's kinship between them — three young black men neglected, disregarded, or flat-out executed by American authority. When Killmonger excoriates Wakanda's governors for their failure to stand up for black people in America, he might as well be talking about Grant and Johnson.
Neither Grant nor Johnson set the world on fire, but they did supply the kindling for Killmonger and Montag's rebellions against oppressive power structures. And Jordan, it seems, is no longer content with sparks. With Black Panther and Fahrenheit 451, he has his heart set on infernos.