By W. Kamau Bell
Stop saying that Creed is the best Rocky movie. You aren’t saying that because you believe it’s true — you’re just trying to sound smart. Yes, Creed has universal critical acclaim. And yes, Creed also has something better: the universal acclaim of the people (including this “people” who is typing this right now).
And yes, it may just be the best in the franchise. But we don’t know that for sure yet. We need time.
Here’s what we do know: director Ryan Coogler, co-writer Aaron Covington, actor Michael B. Jordan, and Rocky himself, Sylvester Stallone, have created a film that masterfully adds to the incredible legacy of the Rocky franchise. At the same time, Creed makes the Rocky narrative relevant to 21st-century concerns.
I love Rocky movies as much as I love Black cinema — and surprise!, Rocky is now officially a part of Black Cinema. Who could’ve imagined that Coogler would follow up his debut film, Fruitvale Station — the best film about racism in 2013; sorry, not sorry, 12 Years A Slave — with a Rocky sequel? It’s kind of like if Spike Lee had followed up his debut film, She’s Gotta Have It, by directing a James Bond film, but with Denzel Washington playing James Bond.
And Coogler does all this without losing any of the voice that made Fruitvale Station so important and revelatory — making Creed feel bigger in scope than any of the other Rocky movies. Creed stars Michael B. Jordan as a young Black man who is dealing with many of the issues that affect young Black men in this country today. This is a movie about how Black lives matter, without ever using the hashtag.
And the movie does something else that Black people needed right now — well, at least I needed. It puts Phylicia Rashad back in the type of role that made us love her in the first place. As Mary Anne Creed, Rashad, once again, plays the mom you always wanted, even if you already had a good mom. (Having her in the movie feels like a rescue mission really, but that’s a whole other article.)
Maybe this newer, Blacker version of a Rocky movie shouldn’t come as such a surprise. As much as the earlier Rocky films have been classified by many (including a young Eddie Murphy in his stand-up comedy film Raw) as Italian-American films, they were also very Black. Apollo Creed was always a very authentically Black character; to me, he always felt like the answer to the question, “What if Muhammad Ali had memorized Malcolm X’s dictionary?” He was an athletic marvel in the ring and as savvy as they come outside of it. In the early 1970s, he was the rare Black character in the movie who was clearly way smarter than the white character in the movie.
Apollo’s indelible mark on the franchise is what makes Creed feel like such a natural extension of the narrative, while at the same time taking the franchise down a new path. Creed does for the Rocky franchise what happens in comic books all the time: it hands the reins over to a new generation of creators. It’s like how every few years, some new guns take over the Spider-Man comic book, strip it down to the spine and all the essential details, then rebuild the body to connect with new readers. A radioactive spider bite becomes a genetically altered spider bite; a simple “boy genius” transforms into a computer nerd with an internship at the local biotech company; and in another universe, Spider-Man goes from white guy, Peter Parker, to half-Black, half-Latino Miles Morales. That’s what’s happened with Creed. For the first time, Rocky is the co-star and not the star of his own film, with Adonis Creed — the son no one knew Apollo Creed had from an affair — stepping into the center of the cinematic ring. (It helps that Michael B. Jordan, as Adonis, owns the movie from beginning to end.)
What director Coogler accomplishes by remixing the essential story elements is extraordinary. The way the film remakes the iconic scene of Rocky running through the city, for instance, is genius. Like Rocky in previous editions, Adonis lives in Philly, but Adonis’ Philly is, rightfully, Blacker, filled with hip-hop, and edgier. The blue-eyed soul of Frank Stallone in the early Rocky films is also replaced with the Neo Soul of Adonis’ neighbor, a singer named Bianca, played by Tessa Thompson as an effervescent, luminous world beater in her own right who has no time for Adonis’s my-dad-never-loved-me-so-sometimes-I-act-like-a-jerk nonsense.
The focus on this, and other, relationships is in large part why the film works as well as it does — because, despite the sizzle of boxing, the steak of Rocky has always been the relationships. Whenever someone goes toe-to-toe with Rocky — whether it’s his wife Adrian (Talia Shire, for the record, is way underrated for her transformative portrayal of Adrian), his opponent Apollo Creed, or his friend Apollo Creed — the movies reach their emotional peak. When those “adversaries” can’t match Rocky’s dramatic energy, then the movies just become boxing films (see: Rocky V and much of Rocky Balboa). In Creed, though, Michael B. Jordan gives everything he gets from Sylvester Stallone as Rocky . . . and more. It’s a beautiful, touching, heart-wrenching dance. (No, I didn’t cry; that theater I saw it in must have been dusty or something. And you better believe I reflected that in my Yelp review.)
This touches on another thing that makes this film so exciting to me: Coogler clearly loves the source material. Creed is not a reimagining or a reboot; Coogler is an artist who wants to build onto the existing universe with love and respect. He uses the iconic Rocky song “Gonna Fly Now” perfectly. But he is also an artist who wants to make the franchise more relevant to him and the current era.
Yet as much credit for the success of the film goes to Stallone as it does to Coogler, Covington, Jordan, and Thompson. Stallone — who had written all of the films up to this point and directed all but two of the previous entries — has never put this much of the Rocky story in other people’s hands. Here, he’s even trusted millennials with his baby.
On some level, this shift makes sense; collectively, the six films before Creed have been all over the map of genres, making the franchise one of the most malleable in Hollywood. The franchise has been a low-budget movie (Rocky). It’s been a film that symbolizes (and is a big part of the birth of) Hollywood’s never-ending sequel obsession (Rocky II). It’s been a film featuring maybe the first full-on, big-screen bromance (Rocky III) and a film that speaks directly to its times in an effort to make the world a better place (yup, Rocky IV). It’s been a glorified “B” movie (Rocky V), a sentimental favorite (Rocky Balboa), and a touching love story (Rocky and Rocky II). It’s been a prescient predictor of boxing (Rocky III, in which Mr. T plays Mike Tyson before there was a Mike Tyson). And it’s been a victim of the style of its era, as Rocky IV is basically a 90-minute, ‘80s-style MTV music video.
It goes without saying that no other American film franchise that has as many films as Rocky has had that much tonal difference and cultural relevance. Not Friday the 13th. Not Nightmare on Elm Street. And certainly not the seven films of the Faster, Furiouser, Kill Kill Kill franchise. And even though the James Bond franchise has a tone that is all over the map, every time they change the tone, they change the Bond. But Stallone has been Rocky from the grimy first one through the over-the-top, Hulk Hogan wrestling third one to this one where he tenderly plays Adonis’ white “uncle.” But like whatevs, Rocky has been post-racial since before anybody thought to make up that dumb word.
This latest turn weirdly makes sense, because Rocky Balboa is Hollywood’s most fungible character. You could just as easily see him wander into one of the Avengers’ movies teaching Ant-Man how to fight, as you could see him wander into a Judd Apatow movie teaching a Paul Rudd character how to fight. You could imagine Rocky in a Woody Allen film. You could imagine him in one of those Wayan Brothers’ parody movies. Quentin Tarantino could figure out how to use The Italian Stallion, and so could Spike Lee. So when Rocky Balboa suddenly makes an appearance in the middle of Creed’s first act, a movie that has at that point already established itself as a meditation on Black manhood, it just seems right. Who knows more about dealing with the harried cocktail of ego, machismo, and false bravado that makes up modern manhood than Rocky? And if he could turn Apollo Creed from one of cinema’s greatest onscreen villains (Rocky and Rocky II) into one of cinema’s most horrific and tragic deaths (Rocky IV), then he can deal with Apollo’s angry, lost son.
Stallone is the guy to do all this, and he plays the character of Rocky more convincingly and honestly than any actor has played any character in Hollywood history. You can try to put that on the fact that Stallone is Rocky, something people tried to say when the first movie premiered. But this simply isn’t the case. Sly, the man, is a good-looking, charismatic, intelligent, HGH’ed up, tale-spinning, quippy movie star. When Sly the actor plays Rocky, he lets that go and allows the character to take him away. Rocky is maybe the only franchise hero in Hollywood history that we have seen get old and frail and still maintain his franchise. To return to the James Bond analogy, every time the actor playing James slows down even slightly, he’s tossed onto a pile of wrecked Aston Martins like the expendable commodity he is. But not Rocky. We’ve seen him go from palooka, to over-bloated star athlete, to elder statesman, to broken down and dead-broke loser, to humble business owner, to . . . well, you’ll have to see the film, if you haven’t already, to find out.
So is Creed the best of the Rocky movies? Maybe. I don’t know. What I do know is that whenever I brought up my love of the Rocky franchise before this, I had to pretend the films were a “guilty pleasure,” even though I knew they weren’t. And I’m happy to finally be able to embrace them publicly now.
Yes, I have to stop tears every time Adrian tells Rocky to “win” from her hospital bed in Rocky II. And yes, I get goosebumps every time I see Apollo and Rocky hugging on the beach in Rocky III, because it reminds me of my own interracial bromance with my best friend since high school. I have quoted Rocky’s speech from the end of Rocky IV more times than I feel comfortable mentioning. And even the first scene in the very flawed Rocky V guts me every time I see it. I still laugh every time I see Rocky respond, “I don’t use them” to a question about investing in condominiums in Rocky II. When I need inspiration, I’ve been known to play “Gonna Fly Now” in a loop on Spotify. And if Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” comes on, I nod my head enthusiastically — while I pretend I’m doing it ironically if anyone sees me.
I will no longer be ashamed of any of this. And admit it: you’ve done the same stuff. If you haven’t run up a bunch of stairs and thrown your fists up in the air at the top like you have a whole city supporting you, then you haven’t really lived. And if you haven’t called old white guys you like “Unc,” as I’ll be doing now after watching Creed, you haven’t done life right, either.
Creed may or may not be the best Rocky film ever, but it is exactly what the Rocky franchise deserves: a truly great, and culturally relevant, film.
All images: Wikimedia Commons