Directed by: Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station)
Written by: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington
Starring: Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky), Tessa Thompson (Dear White People)
Release Date: November 25, 2015
Beyond its underdog storyline and boxing movie framework, there is nothing simple or stereotypical about Creed. Its themes run deep and broad, presenting the concept of privilege — racial, economic and hereditary — as complex and the struggle to affirm them even more so.
Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) inhabits a complicated arrangement of these privileges, or lack thereof. He’s a black orphan who spent the bulk of his youth getting into fights with other kids in foster homes and juvenile halls. But after he gets pulled out by his father’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), he finds out that he derived his violent tendencies from his dad: legendary boxer Apollo Creed. He then goes on to lead a life inside the comforts of the Creed mansion, with a promising office job and a slick mustang.
But he isn’t settled. More than anything else, Adonis knows he is a fighter. And so he leaves his luxury behind to make a name for himself as a professional boxer, going by Mary Anne’s last name “Johnson” instead of Creed. Already, within its first ten minutes, the film has forced the audience to contemplate how to judge Creed and his actions. Although we witness and empathize with his rough upbringing, we also question whether he deserves a fair chance in the ring, knowing he reaped the financial, genetic and nominal benefits of being the son of a legend.
Rejected by trainers for the very same skepticism, Adonis takes off to Philadelphia to seek his father’s most infamous opponent as a trainer: Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). From here, the movie takes off and soars into predictable yet fresh territory. Yes, Adonis gets knocked down, rises back up, meets a girl who understands him and shares his passion, etc. But underneath all of this and the many training montages required of Rocky films, which Creed both is and isn’t, we get to know intimately what exactly Adonis is fighting to do: affirm his privilege.
His aspiration — to define himself apart from his father — appears generic on the surface, but it’s much more than that. He not only has to prove himself worthy of the “Creed” legacy; he has to prove that he did so without it. The money and the name didn’t teach him how to fight. He learned that in his foster homes, in the juvie cafeteria and in the shitty Tijuana boxing bars. Adonis, in one scene, challenges the trainers at his father’s old gym who cite his privileges as grounds not to train him: “Where was you when I was in group home? Did you miss any meals, homie?”
Much of America has already gone out to see Creed, loving both it and its main character for good reasons. But by making this story about a black man, director Ryan Coogler poses a predicament for many, if not all, of the movie’s fans: how would you judge this black man and his circumstances if he were not just a fictional character? As a great article from Salon articulates:
“A rising young boxer with a history of violence and a childhood in juvenile homes gets arrested — what’s the dominant reaction? In the film, Adonis is separated from the other prisoners because he keeps fighting. What would the headlines make of such a person in our current reality, especially if that person were later found dead in a cell? Or, if police killed him out of reasonable fear for their lives? Wouldn’t much of white America — and, indeed, some of black America — find this acceptable, especially given the criminal’s violent past?”
Coogler presented a similar challenge, though in more direct fashion, in his previous and first feature Fruitvale Station — a true story of a black man, also played by Jordan, who was shot dead by an Oakland BART police officer in 2009 while handcuffed. In visiting these characters of color, Coogler, with his unapologetic viscerality, and Jordan, with his incorruptible pathos, have confronted modern cinema in ways that most filmmakers are either too scared or too apathetic to.
In bringing Creed to life, the two have cemented their status as cinematic forces for diversity and sincerity.
Satisfying in every cinematic way possible, Creed is a brutally touching spin on the Rocky franchise that knocks it into 2015.
“Creed brings the Rocky franchise off the mat for a surprisingly effective seventh round that extends the boxer’s saga in interesting new directions while staying true to its classic predecessors’ roots.”