In 1976, conservative boxing fans finally got what they had longed for all through the 1960s and 1970s, a white man who could beat Muhammad Ali in the ring. True, the white man was an actor, not a boxer. Ali was more of a Republican than a black nationalist, but every time Rocky Balboa threw a body punch against Apollo Creed, the Archie Bunkers of America stood up and cheered. The “great white hope” had finally arrived.
If Apollo Creed had simply been a villain, however, Rocky would have been a boring movie. By 1976, even the most reactionary American had a grudging respect for the great Muhammad Ali. Hadn’t he been right about Vietnam? Stallone couldn’t just punch Ali in the face. He had to turn the tables on the man who had stood up to the federal government and declared that “no Vietcong ever called me nigger.” So he re-imagined Ali as a slick conservative, and the “great white hope,” not as an Aryan superman, but as an inarticulate, Italian American, working-class underdog. Creed became the symbol of the establishment. Rocky Balboa became the stand in for all those Irish Americans in Boston who didn’t want their children bused across town, for all those blue-collar grunts who went to Vietnam while the children of privilege went to Harvard.
For Stallone, appropriating Ali’s status as anti-establishment rebel was a much more satisfying victory than simply writing a screenplay where he got to knock him out. He also understood, however, that it was a lot more complex, that whatever their differences, most white and black Americans had a common belief in upward mobility, in “The American Dream.” Rocky had to do more than beat Apollo Creed. The two men eventually had to become friends.
“Where are the real fighters gonna come from, the pros?” a racist bartender asks Rocky in one of the film’s key scenes, pointing at Apollo Creed on a TV set above the bar. “All we got today are jig clowns.”
“You callin’ Apollo Creed a clown?” Rocky shoots back. “Are you crazy? He’s champion of the world. He took his best shot at becoming champ. What shot did you ever take?”
The interview Apollo Creed is giving on the TV set is even more illuminating. While Rocky, the blue-collar white ethnic wants to be heavyweight champ, Creed wants something more. Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman, and, of course, Muhammad Ali himself, African Americans dominated the world of heavyweight boxing in the 1960s and 1970s, but none of that meant genuine social equality. Creed surely knows that most boxers end up broke and punch drunk, that black men, whatever their athletic achievements, still get beaten down by the police, and locked up in prison at a much higher rate than white men. Sports are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves.
“Stay in school and use your brain,” Creed says to the interviewer on TV. “Be a doctor, be a lawyer, carry a leather briefcase. Forget sports as a profession. Sports make you grunt and smell. Be a thinker, not a stinker.”
Creed, the new film by Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler picks up where Apollo Creed’s television interview ends. In the end, Apollo Creed couldn’t live up to his own advice. Happily married, and well-off financially after a long, distinguished career in boxing, he became one of those fighters who can’t leave the game, who stays in the ring too long and pays a horrible price. A few months before his death at the hands of the comic book Russian villain Ivan Drago, Creed had had an affair with an unnamed woman, and a son he never got a chance to meet. 30 years later, that son, Adonis Johnson, played by Fruitvale Station’s Michael B. Jordan, seems to have lived up to his father’s ideal. After a rough start in foster care and stints in juvenile detention, he is adopted by Creed’s widow Mary Anne, and brought up in upper-middle-class comfort. When Creed begins, he’s a college graduate. He wears a suit and tie, works for the financial services company in Los Angeles, and has just gotten a promotion.
Adonis Creed Johnson, however, would rather be “a stinker not a thinker.” Like his father, and like Rocky Balboa, he’s a natural born fighter, no more cut out to be a banker than Rocky was to be muscle for a loan shark. Coogler understands that the same financial services industry that employs Adonis Johnson as an adult also helps to maintain the system that locked him up in juvenile detention when he was a child. So Adonis quits his banker job, and heads back east to Philadelphia in the hope of persuading Rocky Balboa, whom he’s never met, to train him as a fighter exactly the way “Mick” trained Rocky. The problem for the Millennial generation Adonis, however, is that the Boomer generation, to which both Mary Anne Creed and Rocky belong, still want him to be a thinker, not a stinker. Black people, no less than white people, still believe in upward mobility, even in 2015, seven years after Wall Street destroyed the American economy. Nobody wants Adonis to be a fighter, not his step mother, not Rocky, not the owner of Apollo’s old gym in Los Angeles, who threatens to black list him if he even tries.
While too cerebral a film to have the same visceral thrills as the original Rocky, Creed manages to avoid becoming “Family Guy.” Even though the climatic boxing match between Adonis Creed and “Pretty Ricky Conlan” is almost a carbon copy of the first fight between the young Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed, it’s not simply a collection of signs pointing back to the older films we’re supposed to pat ourselves on the back for noticing. In many ways, Adonis Johnson dramatizes a rebellion by the millennials against the “helicopter parenting” of the Boomers. As Coogler demonstrated in Fruitvale Station, it’s dangerous to be a black man in America. If Creed feels repressed — and no fight in Creed quite has the same over the top violent intensity as the cat fight between Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain in Crimson Peak – it’s entirely by design. Rocky Balboa and Mary Anne Creed both know that Adonis’ love of fighting, in or out of professional sports, could kill him, that he could end up shot down on the pavement by a racist cop as surely as Ivan Drago left his father dead in the ring. Yet both also know that the answer isn’t to give up your masculinity, and become a neuter in a suit and tie, a “little Eichmann” who shuffles paper and kicks people out of their homes.
In other words, Coogler is exploring, not only the fear every young black man feels in America feels in 2015, but the dead culture that has resulted from the Baby Boom generation’s turn towards conservatism in the 1980s. By “appropriating” Stallone, an important cultural icon of the Reagan years, in almost the exact same way that Stallone himself appropriated Muhammad Ali, Coogler has turned the tables on the conservative backlash of the 1970s and 1980s, and pointed us the way to the future. In the film’s closing scene, where Adonis helps the elderly Rocky up the iconic steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the generational roles are reversed. Adonis is the parent, Rocky the child. Yet it’s not quite satisfying. Adonis’ triumph as a boxer feels more “by the numbers” than genuine, almost as much as his relationship with Bianca, a pretty young neighbor he “meets cute” when she plays her music too loud. Their relationship feels more like an instruction manual in how a respectful young black man should act towards an eligible young black woman than the politically incorrect, yet passionate love affair between Rocky and Adrian. Rocky II ended on a triumphal note. “I did it,” Rocky cries out to Adrian. “I did it.” When Adonis “goes the distance” with “Pretty Ricky Conlan,” however, it feels more like the final scene of The Graduate, where Benjamin Braddock gets what he wants, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, then wonders why he wanted it in the first place. We remember the look on Dustin Hoffman’s face in The Graduate. Somehow it would have been equally appropriate for Michael B. Jordan in Creed. I doubt anybody really wants to see another fight between Adonis Creed and “Pretty Ricky Conlan,” but we are curious.
What comes next?