Ryan Coogler Gets in the Ring with Cultural Moynihanism in Fruitvale Station and Creed

Curator's Note

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.


Hannah, this is such a terrific focus (and I especially appreciate the link to *Fruitvale* and Oscar's role as dad). I'd love to hear what you'd have to say about the thread of father-son duos across the film -- the "padman" and his son Amir, the Sporinos, and Little Duke Burton (son of Apollo's trainer). It's another set of legacies, as Glen (and Mary Ann Creed) put it.

Thank you Amelie, this has given me a lot to think about as I approach my next viewing of the film. Excellent observation that the film is peppered with father/son dyads in the secondary as well as the principal cast. Definitely compounds the film's thematic focus on intergenerationality.

wonderful reading Hannah, with such a rich understanding of how these films work within contemporary discourses around black masculinity and the wider history of the cultural representation of black fatherhood. I think the film has a really interesting through line in terms of matriarchy, motherhood, and a particular version of absenteeism - mothers in the film are also not entirely there or their presence is 'late' in some way, contributing to the crisis around maturation and belonging. Lovely work.

Thanks Sean - yes, I agree, I was quite delighted to see Mary Ann feature as a character with the level of significance that she does, but nonetheless the structuring absence of Donnie's mother is, for me, one of the film's more noteworthy, and perhaps more troubling features, enabling as it does a narratively convenient depiction of Donnie's upward class mobility but also sidestepping the necessity of confronting working class single motherhood and the realities of Donnie's childhood.

So interesting Hannah! I would love to read about this in greater detail, especially on how Creed is more nuanced and politically charged than it might appear on black fathers and sons. Following on the discussion between you and Sean, I take your point about the side-stepping of the realities of working-class single motherhood and the impact on Donnie's childhood. Is what is so troubling to you about this that it is (arguably) the film's un-examined cultural Moynihanism? The notion of bad outcomes for children of the black matriarch. I wonder though how this might be reconciled with Mary Anne's role as Donnie's saviour. And also the strength of her character to take in the child of her husband's affair and raise him as her own, be prepared to stand up to him, and be the one to send him the shorts that recognise his identity as the child of both his biological parents. It seems that Apollo is largely a shadow for Donnie to box, whereas the mothers in the story are the ones who hold the responsibility. To what extent does this replicate Michelle Wallace's formulation of "black macho and the myth of the superwoman"? Perhaps Bianca's character pushes back against that in her refusal to be Donnie's surrogate mother. She has her own problems--which she doesn't choose. Donnie prefers to move in with Rocky anyway!

An illuminating reflection, Hannah, on Coogler's already resonant authorial concerns with contesting dominant cultural representations of black masculinity and absentee fatherhood - and all the more telling in taking over, extending and transforming another writer-director's franchise. What he will (be able) to do with Black Panther, as Rebecca wonders, will be interesting. The subsequent discussion on mothers in the and not in the film opens another rich vein to work.

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