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.