Opening in theaters on Friday, Columbia’ Journal For Jordan is a thoughtful and nuanced adult melodrama. Denzel Washington helms this human-scaled romance between an ambitious young reporter (Chanté Adams) and a committed U.S. soldier (Michael B. Jordan) with a sure hand and a patient heart. Based on the 2008 non-fiction best-seller penned by former New York Times journalist Dana Canedy as a memoir to her son, the “based on a true story” flick is anchored by two terrific old-school movie star turns. It’s another rock-solid character drama, filled with intimate authenticity and refreshing specificity, from the man who directed Antwone Fisher, The Great Debaters and Fences. I hear he’s a hell of an actor too.
Journal For Jordan opens in 2007, a year before the book’s publication, with Dana struggling to balance her work as a journalist with being a single parent to a toddler. This isn’t a spoiler because it’s all-but-stated at the outset, but Dana is still deep in mourning after the overseas battlefield death of Jordan’s father. The picture doesn’t hide the challenges of being a Black single mother and a Black female journalist in a majority white profession, but nor does it yellow-highlight the inequities in play. We eventually dip back into the past, the late 1990’s to be exact, when Dana met Charles when the young man was delivering a birthday gift to her father.
He’s an artist and a soldier, one who credits her father (his commanding officer) for helping him through a recent divorce, and they hit it off to the extent that she invents a reason for Charles to drive her to her hotel. The sparks clearly but slowly fly between the two adult professionals, as Charles’ job demands that things at least start as a long-distance relationship. The charming, thoughtful but reserved soldier and the comparatively assertive and emotional reporter eventually fall into a conventional courtship. I was reminded here and there of early Tyler Perry films, with the caveat that A) I like some of those and B) Perry’s initial success was predicated on being the only game in town.
The picture, handsomely-lensed by Maryse Alberti, unfolds at a leisurely pace, jumping back and forth in time while giving us plenty of time to A) show off its unquestionably attractive leads and B) let us watch our protagonists actually get to know and like each other. What sticks out over the course of the picture is the sheer level of specificity. From the conversations about food preferences to a very funny shirt Dana wears before rolling in the metaphorical hay, these are three-dimensional characters who have nuanced opinions about subjects both life-altering and trivial (including the circumstances of their biggest fight), and the picture allows them both to breathe and navigate what is an unquestionably complicated relationship.
The film eventually arrives at the moment of almost inevitable tragedy when Charles is slain overseas leaving Dana on her own to raise their child. His death is depicted sans melodrama (it’s not a terribly heroic or cinematic death, just something awful that can happen in combat), and there’s a moment of shocking and unexpected goodness just after that, yes, reminded me of the gut-punching finale of Antwone Fisher. A Journal For Jordan emphasizes the micro-personal over the macro-political and the two parents possibly disagreed about Charles’ patriotic dedication. Young Jordan broaches the circumstances of the post-9/11 overseas conflicts, but this isn’t a film that wants to be a defining document of anything beyond its specific story.
There is an obvious passing-the-torch mentality to Washington helming a film starring Michael B. Jordan, even if I’d argue the Creed/Fruitvale Station star is (generously?) closer to supporting role than co-star, and it’s exactly the kind of film that you’d hope would appeal to those relishing Jordan’s more franchise-friendly offerings. Yes, there is value in a film like this for/from/about Black Americans, and frankly in this IP-era there’s value in just an adult-skewing romantic drama under any demographic circumstances. A Journal For Jordan sits humbly alongside Washington’s previous directorial efforts, grounded, thoughtful, nuanced dramas about the American Black experience that only exist because one of our greatest living actors wanted to make them.