I had two gnawing fears when “The Latest Rocky Film” (otherwise known as Creed) hit the theaters. These anxieties were rooted in knowing only the basic premise: Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa trains the late Apollo Creed’s troubled son, Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, played by Michael B. Jordan.
My first and greatest fear was that it would be a “white savior” film: Think Different Strokes with more punching. Rocky would rescue Adonis and be the great white father the troubled but gifted young black man always needed yet never had. In other words, we would see Michael B. Jordan reprising his role as Vince Howard in television’s Friday Night Lights, with Sylvester Stallone playing the role of Coach Taylor. That’s not necessarily a bad film—I loved FNL—but it’s tired and Caucasian self-congratulation for black success, especially in sport movies, has already occupied enough reels for one century.
My second fear was that Stallone, years since he did anything decent—Copland (1997)?—would deliver the kind of campy performance only John Waters could love. If Stallone was willing to spend decades in front of the camera as a caricature and make millions, good for him. But that’s not the way I wanted to see Rocky go out.
Neither of these fears, blessedly, came to pass. Before writing about why those concerns were pummeled like some “hurting bombs” to the kidneys, I must confess to being a lifelong Rocky fan-boy. I entered Creed having seen all six of the Rocky films a disturbing number of times, memorizing the lines, the fight sequences, and even—God help me—the lyrics to “In the Burning Heart” by Survivor. As a teenager, I even won a radio contest by watching the first five Rockys in a row without leaving the theater to go to the bathroom. My prize, a fake gold chain with a boxing glove on the end, turned my neck green. Despite the mint-hue around my clavicle, I never took it off until the necklace disintegrated into dust.
I loved them all. I loved the 1976 Oscar winning Rocky, which is really a gritty indie film down to its Hollywood/anti-Hollywood finish. I loved Rocky II, with the chasing chickens, sappy ending, and “Yo, Adrian, I did it!” which never fails to make me blink away the tears. I loved the utterly 1980s, flagrantly offensive Rocky III where Balboa learns how to fight with rhythm, or in the words of brother-in-law Paulie, like a “colored fighter” with the help of former nemesis turned blood brother Apollo Creed, and defeats Mr. T, playing a racial caricature out of a Jesse Helms campaign ad. I loved Rocky IV, which is effectively three music videos, a lot of Dolph Lundgren, and all soaked in writer/director Stallone’s red, white, and blue, andro-infused Cold War ejaculate. I even wrote a self-righteous defense of what is universally regarded as the worst of the Rockys, Rocky V, which most fans of the franchise pretend never existed.
The most recent flick in the canon, Rocky Balboa (2006) is, for me, the least re-watchable, but it has its moments (“don’t forget to visit your mother”) and seemed an appropriately wistful coda for the series, with a couple of classic speeches and a final shot of Rocky waving goodbye. I thought it was done. We all thought it was done. To revive this franchise seemed as logical as—to paraphrase Dr. Harry Edwards—giving CPR to a corpse.
The main reason Rocky felt over is that the underlying premise of the series seemed achingly dated: a fictional “Great White Hope” who dominates boxing shuts up the loudmouth cocky black fighters while also winning black respect. At its worst, the franchise was Skinemax for the white male sports fan.
In the era of Ava DuVernay, the time for Rocky films had surely passed. Fortunately, Creed is not a Rocky film. It’s a Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan film. Coogler directed and Jordan starred in my favorite movie of 2013, Fruitvale Station. Just as Coogler took the tragic and iconic story of the police killing of Oscar Grant and infused it with the beats of everyday life, he does the same with Creed. It’s the little moments: Jordan’s Donnie Johnson learning Philly slang with the terrific Tessa Thompson over cheese steaks; the twitch on his face the first time a kid on a motorbike shows him love; that 50,000 watt Michael B. Jordan smile that breaks out when you least expect it and shatters the screen. Creed is to Rocky what Wide Sargasso Sea is to Jane Eyre: fan fiction elevated to high art.
Being a Coogler film more than a Rocky film is without question what saves Creed from being a “white savior” movie and shows the value when conscious black directors and writers get to tell their own stories. It is the best repudiation of Matt Damon’s instantly infamous statement on Project Greenlight that diversity matters only in front of the camera. Jordan’s Adonis Johnson is not saved by Rocky. He’s saved first and foremost by Apollo’s widow—beautifully underplayed by Phylicia Rashad—as an orphan in a Los Angeles youth prison. It’s a selfless act, taking in another woman’s child out of love for her late husband. Adonis then saves himself from a future in the criminal-justice grinder by leveraging this new wealth to get an education and a job in a corporate office. He has options, but chooses to box.
When Donnie makes his way to Philadelphia and approaches Rocky, he is not begging to be saved. He is asking to be coached. He is asking Rocky to pay a debt owed to his family and be the “Unc” (short for Uncle) that Apollo would have wanted him to be. Rocky doesn’t become Donnie’s savior. Rocky becomes family. This is a Rocky movie as translated through the lens of Black Lives Matter consciousness and shows how black agency can become a force of collective deliverance. It makes Creed one of the more hopeful films about what divides and unites us in recent memory. It makes Creed essential viewing even for someone who knows nothing about Rocky Balboa or even boxing.
But for the diehard fans, Michael B. Jordan is astonishing as a boxer. His first fight, filmed without cuts, is a testament to his training and is more athletically credible than anything this franchise has ever put on screen. Coogler is also savvy enough to put enough Rocky callbacks to the previous films to satisfy the hardcore fans. I will not spoil any of them, but suffice it to say, when the classic music finally kicks in toward the end, it feels earned.
As for Sylvester Stallone, the old man nails it. His wry melancholy, which comes off him in waves, is at times overwhelming. Whether it’s Rocky’s quiet grief when talking about his lost love Adrian or Stallone’s obvious pain when holding up a photo of his real-life son Sage, who played Rocky’s son in Rocky V and died in 2012, you feel his quiet pain. People are saying this should be Stallone’s Oscar. Who cares? All I know is, when the film ended, I didn’t want to give him an Oscar. I wanted to give him a hug. Stallone’s Rocky is family, and you don’t turn your back on family. Coogler didn’t turn away from Rocky, but he also didn’t turn away from his own unique cinematic vision. As a result, we have a franchise reborn and a young director and actor announcing their intention to take the world by storm. Yo, Adrian, they did it.