Your Legacy is More Than a Name: Creed and the Resurrection of the Boxing Film

Curator's Note

The first film of what became the Rocky franchise launched to critical acclaim in 1976. Its hero Rocky was a poor, unknown, thirty-something boxer, eking out an existence as a leg-breaker for a loan shark. The commercial draw of racial antagonism was the force behind the selection of Rocky, a “snow white underdog,” to fight the world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, an African American, at a show match on Independence Day.

In a decade when working-class white men felt the brunt both of economic recession and affirmative action policies, when the women’s liberation movement attacked patriarchal power, Rocky (and especially its sequels) played as a fantasy, a restoration of identity to white men in an America that seemed to have forgotten them. It was not that Rocky needed or expected to win. What mattered was that he could “go the distance,” that he would know finally, that he was not “just another bum from the neighborhood.”

That search for legitimacy is the central theme of writer-director Ryan Coogler’s revival of the franchise in his 2016 film Creed. The new protagonist, Adonis “Donny” Creed, is the illegitimate son of Apollo. Like Rocky, Donny wants to know that he has value, that his life matters. When Rocky, in his role as trainer, mentor, and friend, wants to stop Donny’s fight with the world boxing champion, Donny implores him not to by reasoning “I want to know I’m not a mistake.”

The audience’s willingness to cheer for Donny matters more to the film’s success than what happens to Donny in the ring. How can the audience believe, now that we know the damage that boxing inflicts on fighters, that the ring has any potential to grant him legitimacy? In Creed, the ring is an extension of the racial violence Donny has had to fight since birth; a racial violence that, in the world beyond the film, has become so visibly extreme during the two terms of the first African American president, that civil rights and Black Power have been reborn in a movement named for its defining creed: Black Lives Matter.

In a reversal of the negative value traditionally assigned to blackness in the United States, Donny’s black struggle gives meaning and relevance not just to his fight, but more broadly to a Hollywood franchise and film genre that could not have been credibly revived in any other way.

Comments

Amelie Hastie's picture

Legitimacy

What a beautifully poignant piece, Rebecca! So many wonderful points. I’d love to hear you say more about Donny’s complex class identity (and Bianca’s as well). Adopted into class privilege, he enters back into a world where men box because they don’t have another choice, he’s consistently told. What do you think of this in terms of the notion of “legitimacy” — class, cultural, and familial?

Rebecca Sheehan's picture

Thanks for your comment and

Thanks for your comment and question Amelie. I think Donnie’s racial position is the only thing that gives him legitimacy in this film. Without it, the issues that you raise would obliterate legitimacy and empathy for his character. Class is something that can be transcended, race isn’t. If Donnie were white and had come out of poverty to a luxurious lifestyle, he would seem a fool to choose boxing. By contrast with Bianca he seems a fool anyway. At one point, Donnie says about fighting/boxing “it ain’t a choice for me.” Here is where I see that he’s really referring to the fact that he’s black and racial conflict is an inevitable part of his life as a black man in America. That part is not a choice. The boxing itself is though, and I think that Coogler might be gesturing towards this by creating Bianca’s character as a musician whose hearing is degenerating to the point that she will one day be deaf. Donnie has a choice to avoid a sport that will risk his life and cause him brain damage, Bianca has no choice but to face and prepare for becoming deaf. And then she won’t be able to do the thing that she loves. Bianca illuminates Donnie’s complex identity position.

But, if I’d written the film, at some point after she’s revealed that she is suffering degenerative hearing loss, and Donnie is saying he has no choice and has to keep shadow boxing his father, I’d have Bianca tell Donnie what’s what. And then dump him!

Hannah Hamad's picture

Black Lives Matter

Deft linkage to the Black Lives Matter campaign here, and some great points raised about the racial politics of this franchise as they pertain to the specificities of the Obama era. Very interesting post Rebecca, thank you.

Rebecca Sheehan's picture

Thank you Hannah!

Thank you Hannah!

Glen Donnar's picture

Thank you, Rebecca. Your post

Thank you, Rebecca. Your post beautifully evokes the many ways the film mirrors the first Rocky, but also highlights the many changes it makes and which make it, from the film’s focus on young black lives through even to attitudes to boxing itself. Your point about the struggle for legitimacy extending to the franchise/genre itself—and arguably Stallone—and the manner in which each needed young black lives to reestablish or renew its lost/tenuous legitimacy remains fascinating.

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