Society defines masculinity on very rigid, archaic terms: be aggressive; know the answer to every question; showing emotion is a sign of weakness; get a 9-5 job; get married and have children; be #1. Especially in America, perceptions of Black Masculinity can be chalked up to just one of these: be aggressive. Aggression is all American society seems to expect or even acknowledge from Black men; why else would we be twice as likely to be killed by police while unarmed? Hollywood has a tendency to feed into this one-dimensional stereotype (read: the double-edged sword of Jamie Foxx’s Django in Django Unchained) as much as it deconstructs and retracts from it, but thankfully there’s been more of the latter lately. Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton, and even Spike Lee’s already divisive Chi-Raq are all films from this year that take strides toward redefining what it means to be a Black man in America, for better and for worse. But as 2015 is finally coming to a close, writer-director Ryan Coogler’s Creed is looking to tear down the stereotype even further by mixing old Rocky iconography and story structure with new themes and sensibilities, crafting the meaningful and entertaining narrative that earlier boxing effort Southpaw tried – and ultimately failed – to be.
And that isn’t just a conveniently surface comparison, either. Both Creed and Southpaw deal with boxers drifting through life with absent fathers and lavish hip-hop soundtracks, but the generic riches-to-rags-to-riches story told in Antoine Fuqua’s film reeks of a project that jumped between directors and writers and lost whatever singular voice it once had. Even as a continuation of the legendary Rocky series (the film is even being released on the fortieth anniversary of the opening of the first film), Creed lives and breathes by the firm grip of Coogler’s themes and is very much a passion project for him, born from the love he and his father had for the Rocky series, according to an interview with the LA Times. Starting a film that was propelled by a deep father-son bond with the fatherless Adonis Creed punching his way through a juvenile detention facility is the kind of punch to the gut (no pun intended) that keeps you guessing throughout Creed.
Apollo Creed’s widow Mary Anne (played by on-screen mother emeritus Phylicia Rashad) tracks down Adonis (going by the name Donnie) and whisks him away to a much better life furnished by the father that he never met. Cut to years later, Mary Anne’s parenting gamble has paid off; Donnie works a cushy 9-5 job, but is still intrigued enough by boxing to take on down-low fights in Tijuana, eventually quit his job, and move out to Philadelphia to locate and convince Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him. Even though he’s spent his life fighting in his father’s shadow (in more ways than one), Mary Anne’s efforts are what led Donnie toward discovering, and ultimately forgiving, a man who wasn’t around to defend himself.
Both Coogler and Jordan have travelled down this road before with Oscar Grant III, the subject of their breakout project Fruitvale Station. Grant’s death during an altercation where a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer mistook his gun for his taser spurred Coogler to make what wound up being his critically acclaimed feature-length debut. As young Black men “abandoned” by their fathers and left to fend for themselves, society expects them to lack direction, or immediately assume that whatever direction they do have isn’t leading anywhere good. Coogler and Jordan dispel that assumption by showing Creed and Grant making good on their potential: Donnie gives up the comfortable life that his father died for to pursue boxing, and while Mary Anne is afraid she’ll lose Donnie the same way she lost Apollo, she supports him from a distance. Donnie receives more hands-on support from a budding relationship with local singer Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and his training with Rocky, but his first “official” fight (filmed in one sweeping long take) speaks volumes in reiterating that Donnie’s self-taught technique drove him here; he initially doesn’t even want to box under the name Creed. Cut to Fruitvale, where Oscar is so desperate to reconnect with his daughter after his time behind bars that he dumps an entire pound of weed into the ocean, applies for a grocery store job, and makes a genuine effort to get his life together.
Not to be completely overwhelmed by the inherent nostalgia of Rocky, Coogler carries these themes over to Creed as well. There’s something to be said of the camera lingering on Black children looking up in awe at Donnie in training sequence after training sequence; it’s enough to make you think Creed belongs in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Blackness in Creed isn’t blunt or in your face as much as it is inherent and ever-present: in the way Donnie and Bianca bond over music and the melancholy reveal of her Progressive Hearing Loss, or in the way that Black boys rip through the Philadelphia streets on dirt bikes and ATVs behind a sprinting Donnie while Meek Mill’s “Lord Knows” blasts in the background, reminding you why so many people fell in love with Dreams Worth More Than Money before Drake doused the flames.
Coogler’s themes and steady hand might be steering, but he’s not the only one pumping Oscar-caliber work out here. Fresh off of her breakout roles in Dear White People and Selma, Tessa Thompson brings gravity and nuance (and much need exposure) to Bianca that marks her as an exceptionally well fleshed-out Hollywood woman of color, while Sylvester Stallone gets in his digs in his most iconic role but keeps his presence squarely supportive. It’s hard to imagine a movie where Rocky Balboa fighting a terminal illness is relegated to the B-story, but Stallone is a good actor who knows when to keep it low-key. But Michael B. Jordan remains the yang to Coogler’s yin, bringing a fire and impassioned sense of purpose to Creed’s story that lifts it above the familiar Rocky template and is almost good enough to wipe this year’s Fantastic Four fiasco off the slate. Almost.
Creed is one of the year’s best films for various reasons: the fantastic performances, Coogler’s themes, the franchise’s reinvigorated sense of purpose in the 21st century, Maryse Alberti’s eye-watering cinematography, Philly rap from The Roots and Meek Mill taking on new life, and the fact that it’s easily the most hard-hitting and (forgive the pun) punchy boxing flick since Million Dollar Baby. Coogler and Alberti should find their way onto the shortlist for Black Panther for this, it’s that good. Even if none of that does it for you, go see it solely because it helps the kiln of Black hope burn just a little brighter.