Creed is not about Rocky Balboa. It is not about race, though many of the film’s actors are black. It is not about boxing either, even though the character is a fighter. Creed is an answer to the sometimes gleefully espoused notion that men no longer matter to child rearing. It is a movie about boys and the anguish and rage they feel when forgotten by men.
The story on the surface seems like a retelling of the Rocky (1976) narrative. A big-hearted underdog boxer seeks to make his mark against an incumbent champion of superior size and skill. Much like Rocky the titular character of Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 masterpiece, the title character of Creed is Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of the late legendary fighter Apollo Creed.
Apollo Creed was made into a titan by Carl Weathers. In the first film Apollo is the incumbent champ taking on the fiesty underdog Rocky. In a mirror image of the events of the first film Apollo’s son Adonis loses the climatic battle that closes the film only to gain the respect of the still champ. These parallels are where the film earns it’s classification as a Rocky spinoff, no doubt. But aside from the presence of a (fantastically played) older Rocky Balboa that’s where it ends.
Consider that the first film was largely concerned with universal themes of struggle and perseverence. There was also a widely documented racial undertone throughout the early films that I would argue are more present in the commentary about the movies than the movies themselves. Yes, Rocky was the white working class fighter from an underdog city (Philadelphia) against the athletically superior and brash African-American champion. But to the film’s credit, Stallone never portrays Creed as a layabout coasting on his athletic gifts. He is a hard worker, a shrewd publicist and in the end the logical thing happens: Rocky loses to the superior fighter.
In subsequent films the friendship between Rocky and Apollo deepens as the two meet for a rematch (which Rocky does win but just barely) in the second movie and team up to face a common enemy in the third. (Played with insane fury and glee by an excellent Mr. T.)
Their friendship culminates with Apollo’s death in the ring at the hands of a monstrous Russian fighter–a man so huge and powerful that he literally punches Apollo to death. Rocky goes on to avenge his best friend. Stallone would make two more Rocky films, including the underrated Rocky Balboa (2006), which represented a return to the form that made the first film so great.
But Ryan Coogler, director of Creed, is no Stallone. He is every bit the artist and then some but his concerns are different and Creed shows that. Where the original films’ characters were played with over the top fervor this latest film prizes subtler more nuanced performances.
We meet Adonis Creed at a boy’s correctional facility, where kids are marched in single file and ordered around like hardened criminals. Adonis is the most troubled one among that troubled group. In fact we meet him beating a much larger boy to a pulp with his fists. When Phyllicia Rashad, widow of Apollo Creed, comes to claim the illegitimate boy and save him from a life lived in a (quite literal) box he jumps at the opportunity.
Adonis was fighting so they would keep him in the jail. He would rather be there than in a group home.
Cut to many years later and Adonis is still fighting. This time in Tijuana for cash against much tougher opponents. He is pretty good at it too. He just can’t stop. So he quits his cushy office job to hit the gyms of LA in an effort to live up to his father’s legacy.
Michael B Jordan plays Adonis with a palpable intensity and chews up the screen even during his character’s few quiet moments. Adonis has never been trained and when he steps into the gym his dad once built to prove he deserves a shot he gets his ass handed to him. No one will train him in LA, so it’s off to Philly in search of the one man who knew his father perhaps better than anyone on earth: the man who beat him in the ring, Rocky Balboa.
The Academy does not vote on the best piece of art in a given year. If that were the case then Cary Joji Fukunaga would have a golden idol for his hallucinatory epic Beasts of No Nation, a film which sheds light on a subject quite possibly completely ignored in film until its making.
The Academy votes on itself, on it’s own narrative which is a ceaseless echolalia of it’s own importance. This is why films like Argo and Birdman win best picture awards ahead of far superior work. Was Creed the best film of 2015? It is arguable and it is a conversation that should have been. The Academy notoriously excluded all directors and actors of color again this year prompting the reanimation of the #OscarsSowhite hashtag.
Creed is about the millions of poor boys forgotten by the good men of this country and the dozens of ways those boys fight and rage against that neglect. I can think of only a few more important social ills.
Adonis has no other way to validate his life than to fight. When he tells Rocky in the final fight scene that he has to keep going, he has to win, to prove that he “wasn’t a mistake,” it is something the millions of boys growing up without fathers are trying to tell us every day. It is no accident that we first see Adonis in a cage and we last see him in a ring.
Boys live within four walls too often, in cages, put there either by our own rage and irresponsibility or by the state when it can longer handle their rage and fear. And if there are no good men there to show them the way out they will either perish in that cage or transcend it.
Adonis is every boy out there who cannot let it go. Who can’t get over it, move on and raise himself. They may not talk about it, fine. But they’ll join the military, fight in the streets, drag race, rage against phantom injustices, ask for trouble because that’s what fills the void when you can’t imagine yourself in the future or make sense of where you are now.
Ryan Coogler wants you to see Adonis in this light but the genius of Creed is that the aging Rocky is forced to see himself in that light too.
Rocky’s son is gone to “a place called Vancouver” and does not speak to him. His beloved wife Adrian is long dead. His best friend and comic relief Paulie is dead. (He doesn’t even have the robot for god’s sake. Presumably it is buried with Paulie.) Rocky lives in a mausoleum of their left behind possessions. He is all but dead, retreated from the world, until Adonis won’t let him say no to being his trainer. Rocky’s life is meaningless until he passes on what he knows. His kinship with Adonis is so strong that even after a bitter fight they can reconcile quietly, like family and get on with the business of fighting to stay alive together.
Creed is saying something the Academy is purposefully deaf to, like so many other institutions. These boys are begging for a chance to mean something, to live up to the names and expectations we have given them and shamefully left them to decode. It is up to men to take the mantle and save them, and thusly all of us.
It is de rigeur in today’s cultural climate to continually celebrate and uplift girls. That is the right thing to do and much needed around the world. But in that effort we must never forget the boys who, like the bikers who ride long with Adonis as he runs through the streets of Philly, are wandering through useless days, unsure of what to do, following the first thing that moves.
The numbers are staggering. 15 million children are living without fathers. Among those children boys are up to three times more likely to land in jail before the age of 30. Girls whose fathers disappear before the age of six are five times more likely to get pregnant as a teen.
Adonis was right to want to stay in juvenile detention. Children in non-parental care are 30 times more likely than children living with both biological parents to experience violence, sexual violence, substance abuse, psychological abuse and a host of other pretty terrible things.