I think most people have seen Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. At the very least, we’re all familiar with his iconic Philadelphia boxer, but most of us have never bothered to ask the question of why such a technically mediocre and at times crushingly dull film made $200 million dollars and went on to win Best Picture. We forget the social and political context of the 1970s, the busing riots in South Boston, the uprisings in Newark and Detroit, and the backlash in the form of Italian and Irish American vigilante groups, George Wallace’s attempts to win over the white working class in the Northeast and in the Midwest.
By 1976, most Southern and Eastern European immigrants had long been assimilated into the American mainstream. The New Deal, the Second World War, the GI Bill, and the growth of working-class suburbs in the 1950s and the 1960s had uprooted traditionally urban, immigrant neighborhoods and scattered them into a true melting pot. Television had broken down regional and ethnic identities and created a national, mass, corporate culture. The counterculture of the 1960s, and its ensuring popularization through rock music had loosened traditional morality. The Civil Rights movement had began to desegregate formerly all white neighborhoods in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.
At the same time, the ruling class was ready to give up on New Deal liberalism. The Nixon administration had participated in the coup against Salvador Allende in Chile. Lewis Powell had written his famous memo on how to launch a counterattack against organized labor. Right wing academics like Samuel Huntington were talking about the “crisis” (crisis meaning too much) of democracy. The war on drugs and the massive construction of prisons were beginning to take shape. It must have been a worrisome time for the American ruling class. What if blacks and the white working class managed to get together and fight for their common interests before most of the new, repressive institutions could be put in place? The Vietnam War had shaken faith in the military. Patriotism wouldn’t become genuinely fashionable again until 9/11.
One stopgap measure was the Bicentennial Celebration. A nationwide festival designed to prop up support for American nationalism after Watergate, it forms the backdrop for the first Rocky movie. Who represents the “spirit of America,” the slick, establishment African American Apollo Creed? Or the coarse white ethnic Rocky Balboa?
Muhammad Ali was not only the greatest fighter of his generation. He was a draft resister and black nationalist. White conservatives couldn’t beat him in the boxing ring. They couldn’t make him back down politically. But they could beat him in a Hollywood movie. Apollo Creed, who is very clearly modeled on Ali, has a similar style as a fighter. He’s quick, graceful, arrogant. He’s a fast talker and a quick thinker. But the resemblance between the two men stops there. Creed is not a rebel. He’s a capitalist. While you can see him palling around with Donald Trump, you’d have a hard time imagining him resisting the draft or saying anything like “no Vietcong ever called me nigger.” Creed is also, if not a patriot, then at least willing to use the imagery of American patriotism to sell his act, half minstrel show, half Fourth of July celebration. Apollo Creed is not only a fighter. He’s a media entrepreneur. His latest fight, which is going to take place in Philadelphia, is part of the Bicentennial Celebration. When Macklee Green, a ranked contender, shatters a bone in his hand, Creed also becomes the boxing world’s Simon Cowell, the producer of one of the first reality shows.
Apollo Creed chooses Rocky Balboa not because he thinks he’ll be a worthy opponent in the ring, but because he likes his nickname, The Italian Stallion. Cocky black man vs. Italian, what better way to celebrate the Bicentennial? What’s more, by giving a local, unskilled fighter a shot at the title, he not only gets an easy fight, he gets to further burnish his credentials as an entrepreneur and media impresario. Rocky Balboa’s nickname might be “The Italian Stallion” but there’s really nothing very Italian about him. We don’t know who his parents are. He’s not interested in Italian cinema or literature. He doesn’t even have a photo of Frank Sinatra. He has two father figures, a loan shark who seems no more Italian than he is, and a boxing manager, who we later learn is Jewish. There’s a long, boring romance that takes that takes over a half hour out of the middle of the film, but he and Adrian don’t go to an Italian restaurant. They don’t shop at an Italian grocery store. They don’t even visit family. After Adrian’s brother Pauli throws them out of the house, they go to an ice skating ring. Unlike the mobsters in Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Rocky doesn’t care about food. The only thing we see him eat is a cup full of raw eggs, a dish even a WASP could cook without screwing up.
In other words, Rocky and Adrian aren’t Italians, or even Italian Americans. They’re working class. Adrian is 29 and she’s still a virgin. She doesn’t know how to dress. She’s under her brother’s thumb. She works at a low wage job in a pet store. Her life has been about deprivation, repression, and a lack of opportunity. Rocky is 30. It’s 1976. That would have made him 20 in 1966. He’s spent his young manhood at the very height of the counter culture. But don’t look for any Beatles records in his apartment, any Bob Dylan posters. Don’t expect him to offer Adrian half a joint. In fact, Stallone’s script does the full Stalinist number on the history of the United States between the Kennedy assassination and the Bicentennial. He simply takes it out of the picture. It never existed. Rocky’s opponent is a thinly fictionalized version of probably the era’s most famous draft resister. Yet Apollo Creed enters the ring waiving an American flag to the sound of the Marine Corps hymn.
The neat Orwellian trick the American ruling class did in the 1970s was to create a class of “white ethnics.” Italian Americans like Rocky and Adrian weren’t “ethnic” because they had any more connection to Europe than the typical elite WASP, but because they had less. I don’t become more of a Polish American when I write about a Krzysztof Kieślowski film. I become less of one. When black men like Apollo Creed and Muhammad Ali pushed to join the American mainstream, demanded they have the same access to the same schools and housing as the Irish and Italians, that created a problem for the ruling class. What if blacks, Irish, and Italian Americans got together? What if the working classes became, not a segmented stew of races and ethnicities, but a single, class conscious proletariat? What if Italian Americans like Rocky Balboa realized that they were, in fact, the excess population driven out of Europe to serve as the cheap labor for Gilded Age American capitalism? What if they began to understand that they had been deprived of their culture, ripped out of the centuries old agricultural communities in Southern and Eastern Europe, and flushed down into the hell of the Anthracite coal mines in Northeastern Pennsylvania and the slaughter houses in Chicago?
For people living culturally and economically deprived lives like Rocky and Adrian, there’s no working-class reality left, only the “the American Dream.” They call it the American Dream, George Carlin tells us, because you have to be alseep to believe it. Rocky understands that he’s not in the same league as Apollo Creed. But nobody else does. They don’t care. Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed is a reality show. Rocky’s fellow “Italians” in South Philly no more care that Rocky has no talent than people who watched Jersey Shore cared if Snooki and the Situation had any talent. Apollo Creed knows the difference between the minstrel show and the sport of boxing. This is just a game for him. Boxing has become too easy for him. He doesn’t take it seriously anymore. He’s like Alexander the Great lamenting he has no more worlds to conquer or like Michael Jordan after the 6th championship. What’s left? Creed’s rage at the beginning of Rocky II comes from the way his own joke backfired. After Rocky takes the fight seriously, trains hard, and goes the distance, Creed is exposed as a fraud. He’s no longer the great athlete who showed up at a reality show to clown around. He’s just another clown in the reality show. He needs to get Rocky back in the ring and demonstrate that the first fight was just a fluke.
But, while Creed may feel humiliated, the joke’s really on Rocky and Adrian, and, more importantly, on the white working class they represent. Rocky, unlike Apollo Creed, is not an educated man. He can barely read. His extended effort to make a living outside of boxing, outside of the reality show, comes to nothing. He has no skills. What’s more more important, in the 1970s, the white working class was under attack. There would be no high paying unionized job for Rocky to go back to once he’s retired from the ring. For Rocky and Adrian, that means he either has to make it in “show business,” in the Apollo Creed reality show, or they both lose their house and sink into dire poverty. Rocky makes it, but at what cost? The very last scene of Rocky II shows Rocky and Apollo Creed trading blows, the “white ethnic” and the African American, pummeling each other into semi-consciousness. Rocky, the white ethnic, wins, but barely. A real victory would have meant a victory for both of them. They would have walked away from the rigged game altogether. Stallone, the right wing populist, doesn’t give us that option. But it was there from the beginning. It’s what films like Rocky, and cultural extravaganzas like the Bicentennial Celebration, were designed to suppress. Sadly, they achieved their goal.
We live in an America where you’re either a big star, or you’re nothing at all.