Muhammad Ali was a big fan of the first two Rocky films. He told Roger Ebert as much in 1979 after they screened Rocky II. "It has all the ingredients. Love, violence, emotion. The excitement never dulled.” Ebert, knowing the obvious and unavoidable parallel between Apollo Creed and his guest, pressed Ali for a reaction to his on-screen avatar’s defeat. Never weary of a chance to land a clean blow on the racial politics of his day, Ali replied:
"For the black man to come out superior would be against America's teachings. I have been so great in boxing they had to create an image like Rocky, a white image on the screen, to counteract my image in the ring. America has to have its white images, no matter where it gets them. Jesus, Wonder Woman, Tarzan, and Rocky."
If Ali said that about his caricature taking the loss, yet still enjoyed the film, I hope he watches Creed. If he does, he’ll see a film that carries the spirit of its forefather while recalibrating its racialized narrative.
Creed’s revision starts with representation—the battery of Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler and leading man Michael B. Jordan portray the black characters as well-realized individuals that don’t cave to simplistic stereotypes of contemporary black life. Jordan portrayal of Apollo’s lovechild, Adonis “Donnie” Johnson. Tessa Thompson plays Bianca. She's Donnie's girl, but she's also a striving artist from Philadelphia with aspirations beyond providing some reaction shots of her man getting bruised in the ring.. While a lesser director may have forced Bianca’s artistry into an R&B/soul archetype you’d expect from an on-screen black female artist, her music (sung and written by Thompson) is more in the vein of experimental and progressive vocalists like FKA twigs.
Incremental details about Rocky’s black characters build a robust portrait. Bianca’s true to North Philly riff on the versatile usage of the word “jawn” reveals cultural insight on 1) how black people speak and 2) that black people in different parts of the country don’t sound the same. Donny twists his girl's natural hair. In the iconic training montage that no Rocky film can do without, the (mostly black) kids that "run" with Donnie ride dirt bikes, a reference to bike subculture emerging in poor, black communities in Philly and Baltimore.
Critics and moviegoers revered the original Rocky for its authentic portrayal of a fading second-class city and its people. Rocky was an icon of the increasingly disenfranchised, working-poor, ethnic white inner-city. However, as Ali identified, the film's glimpse into a struggling community of dock workers, small-time mobsters, and meat-packers was far from the extent of its appeal. Earnest as Sylvester Stallone's Rocky was, his triumph fulfilled desire for a "great white hope." The phrase, coined in the turn of the century by journalist Jack London, sloganed the fervent desire to see a white athlete return to boxing supremacy, a position threatened by Jack Johnson’s dominance. (One can only suppose that government, business, education, religion, and pop culture weren’t enough.) In 1910, London used this rhetoric to rally support against the defiant and dominant Johnson. When Rocky premiered in 1976, Muhammad Ali walked, talked, and competed with the spirit of Johnson; he was the unquestionable leader of his sport, and unforgivably outspoken about American racism. There had not been a white, heavyweight champion since Rocky Marciano in 1946, a wound that bled into the plot and title of the film. Is it any surprise that the first three Rocky movies end with the "Italian Stallion" beating the mess outta arrogant — or uppity, depending on your preferred dog whistle—black boxers? Shoot, did anyone here watch Southpaw? That came out in June and they still named Gyllenhaal's fighter Billy HOPE!
Creed doesn't dismiss all the values of the Rocky franchise. It proudly maintains the popcorn flick sensibilities of the Rocky sequels. Untangling all the knots of race, ethnicity and class in boxing history in the context of a two-hour film is not an easy (or necessary) task. But Coogler wants a broader audience to see the Apollo he revered when he first encountered the Rocky films:
"Watching the movies I always loved Apollo. I never saw him as a villain. It might be because I’m a black man myself so I related to him every time he came onscreen. He was kind of everything that you wanted to be. He was smart and business savvy and incredibly athletic and confident and very knowledgeable...I related to Apollo so much, man."
Coogler’s Apollo Creed isn't remembered as the pompous villain of the first two films, nor is he the slightly more tempered sidekick of Rocky III and IV. Instead, Creed is remembered as a hero.
One moment stands out: when Donny first meets an aging Rocky Balboa, the Stallion matter-of-factly describes Apollo as “the perfect fighter,” letting the young Creed know that “ain't nobody ever better.” Bianca’s inadvertently corroborates Rocky’s testimony during a conflict “the most famous boxer to ever live.” Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington scripted a better fiction of Apollo Creed and a better retelling of Ali’s dominance and legacy.
Creed will likely spawn many sequels as it offers a sly completion and correction to the racial overtones of its predecessor. It’s the truer and better Rocky; the one Ali has always known he deserved.
Stick to sports.
Raptors GM Masai Ujiri's key for success against Golden State: "Pray to God."
A couple weeks ago, Monmouth College was a liberal arts school 200 or so miles outside of Chicago. Today, the nation has heaped its attention on them and it has little to do with its 4-2 record. Nope, it’s actually about the players not on the court. Please join me in watching grown men take charades way too seriously. I can’t stop.
Delay of game.
Polynesian pride. Okay, not gonna lie: the fact that Marcus Mariota and I share Polynesian heritage nudged me to cheer for the dude last year in the BCS Championship. Our families are both from Hawaii, although he's ethnically Samoan. As it turns out, Samoans are waaaaay overrepresented in DI football: at the start of the 2015 football season, there were more than 200 American Samoans on rosters of Division I /college football teams. Those on the island enjoy a couple of McDonald's, a movie theater, and an unemployment rate between 10 and 20 percent.
Here’s the Samoan saga. “The biggest dream of everyone in Samoa is to leave the island and look for a better future. Right now, if you don’t get a college scholarship, the only thing to do is join the military. And then there’s football. Our largest exports are the tuna and football.”
We’re done with this. Megan Rabinoe scored two out of USWNT’s first three goals en route to the squad’s World Cup title this summer. But last Friday, Rabinoe tore her ACL, jeopardizing her chances of playing in next year’s Olympics. Following her injury, Rabinoe’s teammates, currently in the midst of a Victory Tour, decided they shouldn’t put their own safety at risk by playing “on a field that looked like it hadn’t been replaced in years” and canceled the Hawaii-based friendly. “Soccer is our job. Our bodies are our jobs. And nothing should ever be put in competition with our protection and safety as players.”
But, how will this impact your fantasy team? The same day Dodgers fans celebrate their new flame-throwing reliever, they learn he may have fired gunshots and choked his girlfriend. So the trade’s likely a bust. And no one wants to deal with it, partially because Chapman’s MLB’s guinea pig for its new domestic violence policy. At least his former (players’) manager thinks he’s “one heck of a guy.”
One unnamed National League executive quipped, "We know talent can cover up some character flaws, but domestic violence is such a hot topic now.”
Them's fighting words. Okay, former NFL quarterback Danny Kanell is willing to walk back his tweet blaming the “liberal media” for instigating a “war on football.” (Yup, he admitted that wasn’t his smartest move.) Kanell’s frustrated stemmed from a New York Times’ op-ed calling for families to stop allowing their kids play football. Its author, pathologist Bennet Omalu, will be played by Will Smith later this year in Concussion and he’s here with the science to complicate America’s violent love affair: “As a society, the question we have to answer is, when we knowingly and willfully allow a child to play high-impact contact sports, are we endangering that child?”
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Morgan and Bradford.