The Cannes Film Festival is over for me, and when I come to a place like this, I find myself asking, where are the next stars coming from? Between Fruitvale Station’s Michael B. Jordan and writer-director Ryan Coogler, and Inside Llewyn Davis’ Oscar Isaac, I feel like I got three answers to that question over the course of a weekend.
I come to Cannes primarily to chase deal stories, as I do in Toronto and Sundance. At those other two, the threat of transactions leaves me confined to a hotel room waiting for action. The sporadic action here allowed me see movies and stroll down a rain-soaked Croisette. The drivers here are entirely dangerous in their tiny cars; one driver trying to turn came so close to plowing into my leg that I had to pound his hood with my fist (luckily I didn’t damage my typing finger, which would have cut my output in half). I also made time to see movies including Fruitvale Station, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Behind The Candelabra. While Steven Soderbergh ends the movie-making part of his movie career 24 years after it began here when he won Palme d’Or in 1989 for sex lies & videotape, the road is just beginning for Jordan, Coogler and Isaac. Based on the films I saw here, each has a long drive ahead.
I spoke briefly with Isaac following the Inside Llewyn Davis premiere and jokingly asked him how they possibly could have overlooked him for Les Miserables, given his remarkable singing chops. He seemed jolted for a moment and then smiled as I did, because we both knew this was much, much better. Joel and Ethan Coen created a tour de force folk-singer role for him that any actor with pipes could only dream about. “This might sound cliché, but I feel like I’ve been training 33 years just for this movie,” said the 33-year-old actor. Judging by the talk I overheard between CBS Films and Isaac’s reps about keeping room in his late-year schedule for Oscar-season stumping, Isaac wasn’t overstating the case.
Coogler, meanwhile, is a 27 year old who hails from Oakland, and who got a football scholarship and then went to study film at USC. He found his feature debut in the story of Oscar Grant, the young man whose accidental shooting by roughshod cops atop a train platform created national outrage. Jordan plays Grant and to watch him, Coogler and their cohorts staring wide-eyed at the Cannes premiere crowd at the Palais was charming. A standing ovation must have lasted 10 minutes, and I can’t recall a movie where I saw so many audience members in tears, a remarkable accomplishment since so many absorbed the dialogue through subtitles. Much of the movie’s power is Jordan’s engagingly accessible screen persona, but a lot of credit goes to Coogler. As I and other journos milled around him, I could see Coogler bristle when they put him in the “black filmmaker” category, and it doesn’t surprise me that one reason Harvey Weinstein won Fruitvale Station over other bidders is that he was the only mogul who, when speaking to Coogler, drew parallels to films like The Bicycle Thief, classics Coogler studied in school. Coogler made more right decisions in this movie than is usual for a first-time feature director. His best one: making this a family story and not an angry urban polemic. It makes Oscar’s tragedy relatable to anyone who has abruptly lost a loved one (it hit me like a sledgehammer). As for the Cannes adulation, Coogler was overwhelmed, but applied a lesson learned on the football field when he was a wide receiver. “You constantly remind yourself over and over to concentrate on catching the ball and securing it first, before you try to run with it.” It is all about attention to technique and detail, he said, and he’ll take his time figuring out the next film. It will be something he can make personal, the way he did Fruitvale Station.
I also spent time with the 26-year-old Jordan, and can’t remember the last time I met an engaging young actor like this with such global star potential. Jordan admits that as a youth he lucked into great roles on two classic TV series — The Wire and Friday Night Lights — and the Newark-born actor (“Brick City, baby,” to be more precise) is eager to advance to the point he makes things happen for himself instead of relying on more luck. But all of this is so sudden. When they made Fruitvale Station with, as Jordan says, “$900,000 and some duct tape,” his dream was simply to get into Sundance. He didn’t see the finished film until its Sundance premiere, and found himself bawling like everyone else, as two deaths in the movie reminded him of the death of a friend he rode motorcycles with, who’d crashed when Jordan wasn’t with him (he tears up with the memory when we speak). It won both top prizes and now he was trying to wrap his arms around his first ever trip to France. He’d walk the Croisette and be amazed by the reaction from people who’ve seen his film, even hearing someone shout “Where’s Wallace?” which is a pivotal moment from The Wire. As for the Palais premiere?
“I’ve watched it happen to others on TV,” Jordan said. “You envision yourself in the moment and wonder what you would say or how it would feel. Then the movie ends, the lights come on and they just start applauding and it doesn’t end and you can just feel the love and the tears and the energy being thrown at us. I understood how it felt to be a rapper or singer onstage and how infectious the energy is that comes from the crowd. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. People who don’t speak English were saying ‘Thank you for making this movie.’ I’m going, ‘Thank me? No, thank you!’ I worried people would think of this in terms of a black film but they didn’t. It translated, and people got the message that it was about a person trying to do the right thing and get his life together for his daughter. I mean this in the most compassionate and sympathetic way, but I think Oscar’s death was a sacrifice. It’s tragic he lost his life, but so many good things changed because of his death, and this film is creating conversations about how we treat one another all around the world. Maybe this will help people think before judging someone for the way they look. I know I hate being judged before people know me.”
One reason I think Jordan has a shot to do memorable things is that, like globally successful stars Tom Cruise, Will Smith and Brad Pitt, Jordan is curious about the world and is eager to tour and develop a rapport with those audiences. Getting the festival love for a film most people won’t see until July is a Twilight Zone experience in one respect. When Jordan attended Oscar parties in February, he was embraced by the likes of Ben and Casey Affleck, Samuel L. Jackson and others. None of them had seen Fruitvale Station, they’d only been told it was good by friends who’d just seen it at Sundance. Until everyone else catches up with the film, Jordan won’t be bothered if asked to audition for a role.
“I’ve always had to go hunt for my food and I’ll never not like going out there and getting my hands dirty,” he said, sounding a lot like the more famous person who also bears that name. “I have been like a sponge working on those series and the soap opera and just soaking it all in. I like working hard, doing the homework and putting the time in because I know when I go in those rooms and meet people and audition, nobody will have worked harder than me to be ready. When everybody’s sleeping, I’m working. When other people are eating and playing around, I’m working. So when it’s time to actually go in there and do my thing, I feel like I can leave it all in that room. Now, getting offers isn’t a bad thing, either. I’m in the early stages of that right now, and hopefully in the months to come…”
Encounters like this are good ways to knock the cynicism off a fossil like myself. I’m glad I met these guys in their star-making turns. They will be easy to root for.