When I watch movies about the experiences of people who are different from me, I’ve found they usually invite one of two approaches.
Some films take a sort of anthropological approach: the characters are depicted sympathetically, and viewers leave the theater with deeper insights into a set of life experiences dramatically different from their own. For me, Straight Outta Compton was such a film. Films like these can help erode prejudices, since they let us look at something besides the portraitures of prejudice.
But there other films go even farther. They allow us, and sometimes coax us, to not only learn about the “other” but identify with him or her. So they not only help chip away at prejudices, but they also lay a foundation for connection, friendship, acceptance, and love.
You can call these works of art whatever you want—incarnational, transcendent, humanistic—but they usually have a deeper impact. They can transport and transform us, rather than just enlighten or persuade us. These types of films might be different for different viewers. One of the first I encountered was Milos Foreman’s Ragtime, which made me weep for and with a wronged African-American in a way that (even as a white eighteen-year-old) I understood was different from how I was responding to Roots.
Ryan Coogler’s Creed is another. It’s not a tragedy, so the emotions it provoked were quite different from what I experienced in Ragtime. But provoke emotions, it certainly did. How? It reminded me that even when someone’s experiences are different from mine, there are no fears, joys, temptations, or blessings except those which are common to all people.
The title of the film refers to Apollo Creed, Rocky Balboa’s antagonist in the first two films that bore that character’s name. Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), who goes by “Donnie,” is Apollo’s illegitimate son. His boxing skills were forged not in gyms but in juvenile detention brawls.
In an opening flashback scene, Creed’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) brings the child home to the luxurious estate the father he never knew paid for with his very life. As the film returns to the present, Donnie tries to convince himself he is content with a white collar job while sneaking off to Tijuana for low-money fisticuffs that are only a half-step up from Fight Club.
Eventually Donnie can no longer stifle the urge to follow in his father’s footsteps, so he heads to Philadelphia in hopes that Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) will agree to train him.
I’m always surprised when I revisit the original Rocky by how little of it is actually about the boxing. An hour into to the film, Rocky finally gets offered a shot at the title, and the film spends about as much time on Rocky’s and Adrian’s date as it does on the climactic title fight.
Creed mirrors, rather than continues, the original Rocky plot. An unlikable champion of a different race gives a long-shot a title shot as a publicity gimmick; an aging and reluctant trainer at first wants nothing to do with the bout; a sweet romance humanizes the warrior by allowing him to open up emotionally.
But there are important differences here as well. In Rocky, the Italian underdog originally says “no” to the title fight. “It wouldn’t be such a good fight,” he says softly, and the pain and humiliation on Balboa’s face when he says it is a reminder of just how good an actor Stallone can be. Donnie may be just as big an underdog as Rocky was when fighting Donnie’s father, but once the deal is struck, his smile can’t be contained. “I’m fighting Ricky Conlon!” he says, first quietly and then in growing happiness. For those who are used to being denied their dreams, even the chance to pursue them seems strange and wonderful.
Michael B. Jordan, who plays Donnie, is a star in full bloom. In his scenes with Tessa Thompson (who plays his love interest, Bianca), he is fully present; he doesn’t rush his reactions, so it often looks and feels like Donnie is hearing and experiencing these scenes for the first time rather than like an actor is reciting them for the tenth take. Jordan’s gracefulness and quiet emotional intensity remind me of a young Denzel Washington (circa A Soldier’s Story or Cry Freedom), while his range and physicality called to mind Ryan Gosling’s early films (The Notebook, Blue Valentine).
Rocky Balboa always seemed uncomfortable in his own skin. Remember how conflicted he was about acting as a loan shark’s bone breaker? Remember his bitterness when Mickey (Burgess Meredith) comes around looking for a piece of the big stage after giving his locker away and calling him a bum?
One of the joys of Creed is seeing Rocky at peace. It’s been a long time since Stallone was allowed to play a character who could listen rather than fight, who could be rather than do. A scene where Donnie helps unload restaurant supplies from Rocky’s truck reveals much about both characters and showcases both actors at the top of their form.
It is tempting to see Creed and Rocky in contrast, as emblems of their respective times’ racial politics. But I think to do so is to overlook how much of Apollo Creed’s antics outside the ring are performative. In the climactic fight in Rocky, the antagonists are mirrors of one another, as each pleads with his respective corner not to stop the fight before the last round. “You ain’t stopping nothing man!” Apollo growls to his manager. “You stop this fight I’ll kill you,” Rocky tells Mickey.
By insisting that he cares more about giving his all than he does about living to fight another day, Adonis is the descendant of both Apollo and Rocky. He can be like both, because the black fighter and the white fighter are like each other.
Creed doesn’t beat us over the head with preachy platitudes or political sermons, but it jabs, jabs, jabs, at our heartstrings. The ability to make us see ourselves—or at least parts of ourselves—in those who are like us, even when they don’t look like us, is what gives art the power to transform us if we let it.
There is boxing violence here, of course. There is also one sex scene, shot with no obvious nudity. There is also a smattering of problematic language, mostly of the scatological variety. The soundtrack has at least one clearly audible use of a racial epithet, a slang derivative of the euphemistically called “N” word. Whether the fact that writer-director Ryan Coogler is himself African-American makes its inclusion more, less, or not-at-all objectionable, I leave for those braver or more foolish than I to argue. I don’t particularly care to be the (white) guy that lectures the director of Creed and Fruitvale Station on language appropriation, so consider this a trigger warning only, not a statement of approbation. The arrogant champion also calls Donnie “boy.”
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.