Writer-director Ryan Coogler's inaugural feature Fruitvale Station, a dramatized depiction of events leading up to the tragic death of 22-year-old African American father Oscar Grant who was shot dead by police in 2009, generated considerable commentary and debate of a racially charged nature following its release. Much of the discursive buzz surrounding the film focussed on Coogler's configuration of a black masculinity that seemed to push back against the pernicious cultural stereotyping and pathologization of absentee African American fatherhood.
In 2015, Coogler revisited the thematic intersection of black masculinity and absentee fatherhood in the (perhaps not so unlikely) context of the Rocky franchise, with the release of the most recent entry in this film series Creed. On the surface the film's treatment of African American fatherlessness seems to follow some all too familiar patterns, and to echo some troublingly persistent tropes: aligning absentee fatherhood with juvenile delinquency, presenting the figure of the white savior father as the path to redemption for troubled African American youth, etc. However, Coogler's characteristically nuanced and politically charged consideration of the intersectional cultural politics of class, gender, race and power in 21st century America divests the 'cultural Moynihanism' towards which a surface reading of this film might reach, of much of its hegemonic power. Absentee fatherhood is differently shown to be endemic to African American kinships networks due to the 'mass incarceration' of black American men that Michelle Alexander argues constitutes what she calls 'the new Jim Crow', a contemporary manifestation of state sanctioned racialised social control that she demonstrates has structured US history in three stages: chattel slavery, 'Jim Crow' segregation, and now mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex. Where US cinema more routinely pathologises absentee black fatherhood as symptomatic of entrenched problems in cultures of African American masculinity, Coogler instead acknowledges some of the realities of African American fatherlessness by using it as a jumping off point from which to interrogate racism and the use of lethal force in policing in Fruitvale Station, and to consider – and to a certain extent dissemble – some of the cultural myths around African American class mobility in Creed.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.