Culture

Creed: All-American

Michael B. Jordan in Creed
Creed extends Rocky’s conservative ethic.

Who could have imagined that Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 Rocky – the most shamelessly sentimental boxing movie of them all — would inspire a black-liberation saga like the new movie Creed?

After all, Rocky gave post–Civil Rights America the great white hope that Vietnam War draft-resister and heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali had made unthinkable. Stallone’s Philadelphia palooka revived working-class, second-generation-immigrant identity. This, combined with primal memories of masculine endeavor — and sincerity — restored a romantic sense of pride to a nation as broken and wounded as Rocky Balboa himself.

Rocky’s contrived innocence works like a charm in Creed. That delicious title brings a statement of belief, rules of behavior, and a sense of civilized faith back to our jaded pop and political culture — and in the unlikeliest figure. A fatherless black boy, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), trapped in systemic detention gets his shot at becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. He’s the son of Apollo Creed, the bodacious, Ali-like boxing champ (played by Carl Weathers) to whom Rocky plausibly and ingeniously lost — although Rocky would win movie immortality.

This makes Creed more than an example of turn-about-is-fair-play. Adonis answers the dissatisfaction lurking beneath the Rocky fantasies — the Hollywood fairy tale that seemed more out of reach the further America’s working class sank into an urban underclass. But if you think Adonis’s story won’t interest you, or fear that it’s selling more of the usual race-blame that the contemporary media now use to commandeer liberal consent (and condescension) among blacks and whites alike, you underestimate the enduring appeal of Stallone’s conceit (last put to use in the movie Grudge Match).

The Rocky myth has been ingrained in American culture, undeniable even to those who, like me, never trusted or cared for it in the first place.

As a modern underdog story, the Rocky franchise has exerted real impact on the populace. Over the past 40 years, the Rocky myth has been ingrained in American culture, undeniable even to those who, like me, never trusted or cared for it in the first place. Gradually, Rocky’s many, variously effective sequels, spanning four decades and even including an international stage musical incarnation, would effectively speak to a basic romantic faith in bootstrap determination and ethnic pride, its spiritual sincerity coming just short of demagoguery. All that, embodied in Stallone’s indefatigable if pathetic figure, is resurrected in Adonis, a street kid who lives by his hip-hop inheritance: a legacy of stereotypical criminality, ruthless violence, and anti-social defensiveness that is ultimately self-destructive.

So, the longer you stare at Jordan’s Adonis, the younger he looks. Beneath the boyish swagger, and behind the cultural stereotype, you see his innocence. This princeliness is a young actor’s most amazing gift, and Jordan acts out its meaning according to 29-year-old writer-director Ryan Coogler’s surprising sympathy with what even non-white viewers saw in Stallone’s Rocky. It takes some kind of innocence (or forgiveness) to disregard the mocking intent behind Apollo Creed — or at least to appreciate it guilelessly.

It has taken two generations for Rocky to translate its own mythology through the evolution of pop-culture trends that include movies intersecting with pop music, both reflecting their historical and social contexts. Credit for this goes to Stallone’s personal largesse, but the startlingly satisfying story in Creed results from Coogler and Jordan’s astonishing cultural engagement. The three of them, together, have made the most American American movie this year.

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Stallone and Jackson in the gym

It would be wishful to think Creed could turn back the annoying tide of campus petulance and hijacked urban politics that are now part of the American scene, but the fantasy works for at least a couple of hours. Coogler and Jordan’s connection to Rocky overcomes the disadvantage of the earlier film’s origin as a white pyrrhic-victory fantasy. They relate to Rocky as a totem of mainstream American cultural values. After illegitimate son Adonis is lifted out of poverty by his father’s widow (Phylicia Rashad), he willingly sacrifices career opportunities — including fast-track promotion at a brokerage house — to be a boxer. The drive to prove his masculinity is understood as a personal agony: the felt absence of paternal influence that so much hip-hop music has bluffed past, establishing throughout the landscape a peculiar kind of orphan archetype.

Creed addresses the crisis of young black male identity with a precision unknown to media endorsements of campus brats and street hoodlums.

A scene of Adonis sparring against a video projection of his father battling Rocky (he mimics Rocky’s moves) is a perfect visual metaphor of a generation of young men fighting their fathers’ phantoms. This shadowboxing translates Rocky’s journey into a black Oedipal drama. Creed addresses the crisis of young black male identity with a precision unknown to media endorsements of campus brats and street hoodlums. Coogler articulates this misguided social development even as he romanticizes then corrects it.

A montage of the fighters Adonis challenges introduces each one with his stats on screen; it is a parade of stunning, virile, working-class specimens, one of them from as far away as Great Britain. This coheres with real-life ghetto competitiveness — the gangsta rivalry of black machismo and victimization that Straight Outta Compton completely falsified. Coogler includes the significance of post-Rocky boxing lore: the glamour of street-tough fisticuffs that is part of Mike Tyson’s legend. (One ambitious boxer in a downscale gym wears a T-shirt that reads: “I fight because I can’t sing or dance.”) Adonis even has a workout sequence set to a hip-hop update of Muddy Waters’s blues classic “Mannish Boy” — here reinterpreted as Fatherless Child.

Rocky’s coaching relationship to Adonis makes up for whatever rivalry he felt with Apollo. This gets mawkish (and Stallone milks it, which is OK; he has earned audience affection over the years), but its purpose is to remind young Adonis that “You’re your father’s son. You’re part of him. It doesn’t mean you have to be him.” This speaks to the fatherless crisis that has been ignored throughout the past 50 years of black pop culture. When Rocky tells Adonis, “Forgive him. He’s still taking a toll on you. You’re still caught in his shadow,” the direct explanation is moving because it’s so exact — it makes up for the impertinent enigma of the missing black father that’s favored without solution in patronizing mainstream media from the HBO series The Wire to the PBS documentary The Black Panthers and elsewhere: Remember how the severe dysfunction at the center of Denzel Washington’s Flight came down to the estranged son confronting the incarcerated father: “Who are you?”

Jordan recalls some of Denzel Washington’s facile manner, but he acts with a depth of social significance Washington lacks.

Denzel Washington has based his career on toying with that black-miscreant stereotype, often sexualizing it, but mainly using it to symbolize the black phantom of American racism. Jordan recalls some of Washington’s facile manner, but he acts with a depth of social significance Washington lacks; part of it coming from a generational advantage. Adonis has love scenes with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and love scenes — movements toward socialized maturity — are what Washington’s film career notoriously lacks.

Brash Bianca, a trip-hop performance artist also struggling against ghetto pressure, updates Talia Shire’s Adrian from Rocky, but with a ghetto complex. “Stop knocking on my door like the police!” she chastens Adonis’s neediness. Such urban details show Coogler’s adept use of the boxing genre’s class-based formula. He proceeds from the socially conscious exposé of his debut film, Fruitvale Station (unhelpfully exploited by the media in support of the Black Lives Matter campaign), to focus substantively on personal drama and individual psychology. “You gonna find a problem with everything I say?” Adonis asks Bianca. Her response makes this scene the most honest and ardent young lovers’ quarrel in decades.

#related#Coogler directs the boxing matches with impressive vividness, using real-time, up-close mobility that shows genuine filmmaking skill (Maryse Alberti’s ring lighting makes skin tones glow). Coogler also contextualizes Rocky’s myth in a graveyard scene that surprisingly evokes John Ford’s masterpiece Young Mr. Lincoln. It’s a way of paying debts to Stallone and to movie culture: Both have served Coogler’s own liberation — encouraging him to rise out of the black indie movie PC ghetto and join the larger world of cinema.

Creed makes its own justification even while treating Stallone as an icon. He’s familiar (from both Rambo and The Expendables) but with more than a liberal do-gooder’s face; his message has always been uplifting but not patronizing, and that’s what makes Rocky essentially a conservative fantasy. It’s no wonder Rocky won the 1976 Oscar over All the President’s Men, Network, Taxi Driver, and Bound for Glory — all liberal melodramas that expressed post-Vietnam, post–Civil Rights, post-Watergate cynicism. Rocky was the people’s candidate, which is more impressive now when the mainstream media have seized and perverted the populist ideal.

Who would have thought this latest franchise sequel would have such sociopolitical significance and emotional strength? Creed serves as a response to the wayward campus protests by privileged black students who, like Adonis, are protesting against themselves and their own frustrations even if they don’t know it.

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