On our way to see Creed, the new Rocky franchise spinoff starring Michael B. Jordan, my father shared an enlightening story of when the original film came out. In 1976, the audience of a Queens theater yelled racial slurs every time Apollo Creed appeared on screen. Each time Rocky punched Creed during the fight, the crowd cheered not to encourage the film’s hero, but to support the white guy beating the black guy. My parents sat in the back of the theater as fans booed, hissed and spewed profanities at the iconic Apollo Creed; all the while, a young black couple sat in the row in front of them.
Fans of Rocky, however, typically do not associate the movie with any racial undertones. The film’s most amazing quality is its titular protagonist, who is widely loved across American culture. Starring and written by Sylvester Stallone, the blockbuster follows Rocky as he fights his way out of the bars and into the ring with the world champion of boxing, Creed himself. Rocky presents the classic tale of a scrappy young fellow who gets his big break—a story that Americans not only relate to, but also admire.
Stallone’s intention with Rocky was to paint a picture of the underdog overcoming the odds. Sure, Apollo Creed is the villain, but not because of his race; rather, he is the antagonist simply because he is the person to beat. So why, then, is the film often turned into a story of pitting one race against the other? This may not be the sole interpretation of the film, but it is one that has lingered throughout the franchise’s existence (even despite the fact that Creed and Rocky admire one another and eventually become friends).
Creed might close the cover on more negative interpretations of Stallone’s Rocky.
Riddled with familiar tropes and clichés—an imperative of every Rocky sequel—Creed is not my favorite film of the year. Still, Creed is arguably the best possible extension of this tale.
Ryan Coogler, director of the socially potent Fruitvale Station (also starring Michael B. Jordan), took initiative on this next installment of the Rocky series. Even with Coogler as the director, anticipation for the film was low as an addition to a franchise that has long been overdone. The results, however, exceeded all expectations.
The film opens with a young Adonis Creed, who calls himself Donnie, in an L.A. youth facility where he has a reputation for fighting. Once Apollo Creed’s widow, Mary Anne, adopts him, Donnie stops causing real trouble and becomes haunted by the knowledge of who his father really is.
Donnie then abruptly decides to quit his white collar job fresh off of a promotion, packs up and moves to Philadelphia to seek out the man who took down his father.
Right from the get-go, a classic narrative is flipped on its head. Rather than growing up deprived or struggling to make ends meet, Donnie lived a comfortable life through the fortune that Apollo left and the home that his stepmother gave to him. Unlike Rocky’s circumstances, there is no economic pressure for him to fight. Instead, Donnie simply feels compelled to pave his way and fight like his father did.
After meeting Balboa, Donnie meets and becomes infatuated with Bianca, a girl who lives in his apartment building. We eventually learn that Bianca is a talented and aspiring musician who is on the cusp of her career taking flight. The classic dinner-date-in-a-booth conversation that Donnie and Bianca have does not entail stories of growing up in difficulty, but tales of motivation: they both want and are enabled to follow their dreams.
Creed and Rocky are similar movies with two vastly different origins. Without background knowledge of the films, one might assign the role of the rugged, lower class bar-fighter to Creed and the white-collar background to Rocky. Instead, Coogler made sure to disrupt these narratives and stray from assigning stereotypical racial roles.
Am I fishing for meaning beyond what is there? Possibly. But in today’s racially sensitive America, where anger is assigned colors and genders, Creed is a healthy reminder that a hero can come from anywhere.
Before the young Creed begins his journey, we see him in his lavish basement projection room, watching Rocky beat Apollo in the ring. For what is surely not the first time, Adonis intently watches the fight as he slowly gets up from his chair, goes in front of the projector and perfectly mimics Rocky’s jabs. We see Adonis fighting like Rocky, and vice-versa.