Austerity Lustre: The Fight in Creed

Curator's Note

He just fights all the time

Creed speaks to the post GFC crisis and the politics of austerity. Legacy in the film isn’t simply patriarchal, familial, nor a film franchise been reborn or a star image (Stallone) being resurrected, but a continuation of neo-liberal policies that create the need for (paid) violence and which leave a liquid underclass behind. In Philadelphia, we see this manifested in the black-American motorcycle boys who herald Donnie’s rise as if he is their way out of the contemporary ghetto of high youth unemployment, sub-prime mortgages and empty shops. The scene in which Donnie trains as these nomads ride and pull wheelies behind him to the sound of ‘Fighting Stronger’, emblematic of the neo-unemployed looking to rise again and of the need to fight one’s way out of one’s marginalized existence. The audio-visual echo back to the black realist pictures of the late Reganite 1980s, is signed. In Liverpool (and ‘Toxteth’, where the 1981 race riots took place) we see austerity personified by Pretty Ricky Conlan, on remand for gun possession, and whose father worked as a labourer in the docks. The cross-cuts between Philadelphia and Liverpool draw together two global arcs of austerity lustre: that those of non-white ethnicity and the lower social class have been left behind by the lights of late capitalism, as has the industrial cities where they live. Whose fault is this? At the beginning of the film, when Donnie gives up his position as a manager at a hedge firm, the suggestion might be, the bankers who got us into this mess. However, the sense of poverty and inaction seems to ultimately just sit in the environments we find them in as if it is their fault (as austerity discourse would want to have it). The only way out is professional boxing, and the promise of violent self-actualization in a world behind the hood.


Sean, I'm interested in your economic analysis of the film, but I have a couple of questions. First, do you find this critique one that the film itself is making, or do you find it emerging out of the margins of the film? And secondly, why do you see the bikers and ATV riders as emblematic of a liquid underclass? Given the celebratory ride and the sense of community it represents (between the men, and between them and Donny), as well as the fact that the scene is based around an actual vibrant subculture in the city (and other mid-Atlantic cities), it's hard for me to read this scene in quite the terms you've laid out. Could you say more?

Amelie, I am not sure I am making a simple or singular 'economic' analysis here. I see the film's arteries and veins as shaped and informed by the withering age of austerity - a cultural, ideological, political and economic set of discourses, processes and practices. My favourite scene in the film is the one I read above - it is certainly celebratory and in one sense empowering - culture is never done to but vibrantly engaged with. However, it is Donnie that is being heralded as he trains - a heroic monomyth in the making - but his empowerment ultimately is through the fight in the ring - a classic way out of the margins, and given he could have access to wealth, there is a slight of hand at work here too. One can resist austerity discourses but I do see the film's ultimate articulations as rather reductive.

Sean, thanks so much for this extension of your post. I think I better understand what your are getting at, and of course I can see those complexities intertwined in the name of austerity. It seems to me any film could ultimately be called reductive -- especially if we see that most if not all works are defined ultimately by their contradictions -- but I am increasingly thinking that viewers/scholars can make a decision in their arguments not to end on the reductive element of a text. And that is still a political act of critique.

Most definitely, the contradictions in any given text can either be resolved to support dominant ideology, as is very often the case, or work to undermine it either because of 'surplus value' or because the re-equilibrium is too hokey or underwhelming. I think our job as scholars is to work out what we think a text is doing - and to call it as we see it. The politics of austerity are some of the most brutal that i have ever witnessed - particularly around race, ethnicity, and gender. I enter the arena here to challenge those politics, in an act of active agency. There is defiance and resistance in Creed, as there is most texts, as there is in me. But for me all i can say is I think (feel) that Creed ultimately works in support of austerity. And i will resist that.

Sean - this is a really fascinating reading of the film. I especially like the parallels you draw between UK and U.S. cultures of austerity. And how you highlight both Donnie's unease with his place in the world while working in the financial services industry, and the easy affinity that the biker boys have with him. This has made me think far harder about some really rich details that I did not notice on first viewing. Thank you

Sean, before I clicked on your posted, I was thinking: surely Sean will address the scene with the motorcycles. And you have not disappointed me! This is a fascinating reading of the film and I think gets to some of the complicated class dynamics in the film (that Amelie asked me about in her comments). I think your reading also gets to questions about Ryan Coogler's own race and class position as an African-American working in Hollywood and now working on Marvel's Black Panther. Is he going to become a franchise director and how might that compromise his political agenda? (Interesting that Donnie gets referred to as "Hollywood" by the Philly locals.) I watched Creed again last week and I was wondering about Coogler's vision of racial uplift. On some level, I registered what you're saying about the motorcycle scene, not in economic terms, but with the "heroic monomyth." I wondered about it whether the scene is performing the black community, and that Donnie isn't alone, but part of a vibrant and much bigger heterogeneous community. (That certainly fits with the Coates reading on it that Amelie has linked to. But on that note, here is a link to a class critique of Coates: Yet Donnie is differentiated from them by his money, through his name, and so he is separate and ultimately alone in the ring--Rocky's wisdom rings in my ears as I type: the toughest opponent you'll ever face is yourself. And so if Donnie has to pull ahead and away from the gang, is separated by virtue of birth and talent, does he represent a form of Du Bois's "talented tenth"? I noticed that there's a film scene in which Donnie walks by a poster prominently displayed and the fighter's name on the poster is "Du Bois." And after the final fight, Pretty Ricky Conlan who has questioned Donnie's legitimacy because he's "silver-spooned," validates him by saying that Donnie is the future of the sport. Which is all a long way round of saying that your analysis of the film gets at something troubling, perhaps an elitism, or conservatism, manifest not only in economics, that undermines some of the film's more radical possibilities. Or is that inevitable when making a Hollywood film?

Wow, thank you, a beautiful set of complicating factors and themes you raise here. There is a type of 'passing' here in terms of Donnie - if you track his positioning he goes from orphaned street fighter to successful (suited) banker and simultaneously back-street fighter to professional boxer etc. He is a son (three different variations), lover, and caregiver. All this to say he is granted passing privileges and an ethical layering usually preserved for white narrative agents (does he become too white?) and yet he embodies a type of post-Obama American dream and neo-liberal bourgeois individualism. I wonder if one of the film's implicit austerity messages or contextual anchors is that we all 'need to do a little bit of heavy lifting'. There is something in the plasma of the film about the 99 and 1%. Whoa! Lots to think about. I do think, however, as passionately as one might, that Hollywood films can and do resist dominant ideology. One of my favourite pieces of writing is by Richard Dyer on Gilda (where I stole the idea of surplus value: Gilda becomes too excessive to be recuperated by Johnny etc), and I have tried to save many a film in terms of its arguable ideological transgressions (My chapter on the brilliant Point Break a case in point :) ). I think this is what Amelie was rightly pointing towards... Anyway, I cant wait until we develop these pieces further... come on... Sean

A passionate and provocative post, Sean, as only you can deliver. Your inclusion of Ricky Conlan - who is tellingly never reduced to a villain - to deepen, and internationalise, your austerity reading is particularly compelling. The running-biker scene (the culmination of the training montage I wrote on) was one that I struggled to make sense of at the time. It is certainly a celebratory moment in the film, but the boys are so thoroughly unanchored throughout, marking the tenuousness of their place in this world. I do wonder though whether they push Donnie on, a riding with rather than the running behind so a part of the genre, and what that might mean. I am not sure the film infers that their inaction and poverty is their fault though. The vibrancy and life unbent suggested by the occasional shots of these blighted neighborhoods seems to resist, however futile, the weight of such positioning. But it is indeed strange, and warrants further thought, that Donnie's first job is so clearly a white-collar one: it could have been anything, so why does Coogler make it this?

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