Creed (2015) by Ryan Coogler
Review by Zach Dennis
Legends linger over you like an imposing shadow.
Early in Creed, the 2015 film from writer/director Ryan Coogler, the titled character, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), watches a YouTube clip of his father, Apollo (Carl Weathers), in one of the scenes from the first Rocky movie where the American flag clad boxer fights the hero of those films, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).
The younger Creed watches the fight play out before standing up and taking part in the ongoing clash between these two titans — shadow-boxing along with Creed and Balboa as they trade punches.
The scene is powerful — the framing of Adonis engulfing the stature of Balboa in the projected video so that it creates the illusion that he is fighting his father is superb — and feels emblematic of Ryan Coogler’s career thus far: the struggle between legacy and how one grapples with the many facets of it, but the scene also gets at the heart of what makes the return to a dormant franchise so compelling.
The concept of legacy can be traced back to Coogler’s early days at the University of Southern California where in his student film, Locks, he begins to hint at its greater nuances and facets that more predominantly play out in his later, larger features.
Locks follows a young black male on an afternoon-long quest. We first meet him examining his hair in the mirror before he sets out. There is an immediate hesitancy in his demeanor and step — a quality that recedes a bit when he passes a group of other black individuals that are hanging around the neighborhood.
He stops and briefly engages with them — following what seems like societal norms of interaction, which feels in contrast with his initial attitude, but also doesn’t signal any internal strife to the group of his peers.
He continues walking and stops in a barbershop where the barber cuts off, as you can guess from the film’s title, his locks. There is an identity tied to these locks — a subject I am far less equipped to talk about than these black writers are — and that is understood when the man leaves the barber shop and appears back at his home where he reveals his new hairstyle to a younger boy, who bears the same shaven look.
The camera passes by a few drawings the young boy drew of himself and his brother — both sporting the same long hairstyle.
The film only lasts six minutes, but it hints at the aspirations of identity and legacy that Coogler seems so acutely fixated on interrogating. In his films, the idea of legacy is most closely tied to what defines masculinity in the 21st century. Maleness today still features many commonly associated qualities — physicality, self-assurance and high skill — but allows for emotion and introspection to play a role in self-improvement.
Personal improvement is never easy for Coogler’s characters, and that is very much on display in his next film, Fruitvale Station, and its lead character, Oscar Grant.
In this film, Grant (Jordan, again) has lost his job, a fact that he neglects to initially tell his girlfriend because he believes he can get it back. This plan doesn’t happen, and he is forced to answer for his negligence.
But it also isn’t simple for Grant. The film takes place on New Year’s Eve in 2008 — a little under a year after Barack Obama was elected President — and he, and a few friends, are headed into the city to ring in the new year. On their way back, they take the train, and someone instigates a fight with Oscar and his friends. The scuffle attracts the attention of local police, who descend on the next stop.
Oscar and his friends are pulled from the train by a white police officer, who with the help of another white male officer and a white female officer, begin to threaten the men with Tasers if they don’t comply with their commands. After they go back and forth, the officers begin to push Oscar and the others to the ground while one officer reaches for his holster.
A shot is fired and blood begins to trickle from Oscar’s mouth. As always, Ta-Nehisi Coates says it best: “Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.”
In Fruitvale Station, Coogler deals with legacy and its immediate impact on the person’s family and acquaintances, but expands to ask what it means to a larger community and society. Oscar Grant was never afforded the same opportunities other, typically white, counterparts were offered, and in his case, he was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and he paid with his life for it.
In an earlier scene, Oscar waits outside a store where his girlfriend and her friend are inside using the restroom. A white man and his pregnant wife rush up after they go in, and Oscar persuades the store owner to allow her in as well. Oscar strikes up a conversation with the man, who like Oscar, was struggling to make ends meet when he was first with his wife, but now owns a successful start-up business.
The man passes his card to Oscar, possibly signaling a job opportunity. The sequence displays how this man has been offered the opportunity to turn his fortune around — a luxury not afforded to Oscar or someone like him.
Fruitvale Station grapples with the concept of legacy in a post-Obama world that puts even more pressure on black individuals to follow societal guidelines while their white counterparts react in any way they see fit, but without the same repercussions.
Which brings us to Creed, an interesting entry not just because it carries the same themes as the two aforementioned films, but because it bears them in a unique fashion — not showing us yet another black man trying his best to make ends meet to get out of the wrong side of town, but a black man afforded every opportunity imaginable and who rejects it all in order to chase a profession that is an escape for every one of the men he faces.
In this way, Creed, and by extension Adonis, embodies every bit of privilege someone like Oscar Grant was not afforded, but is still someone, who based on his legendary heritage, is reticent to just concede and fulfill what he feels is right and safe. Adonis is escaping just like his opponents, but he is escaping from something much more foreign — complacency.
That is not something regularly attributed to a black character, or really a character of any race outside of white. Whiteness breeds complacency while blackness is never safe enough to even consider it.
Adonis pursues boxing because he can feel, deep down, it is calling to him. Is it because of his father? His anger? His regret? We don’t know, and I’m not sure the movie ever answers that for us.
Instead, it mirrors Adonis’ drive with the rejection of his own legacy by Rocky, a person so synonymous with masculine strength, power and perseverance. But Coogler sees the decay in this character, framing Rocky Balboa as more of a person trying to understand his new role in society — a society that still remembers his name and face, but doesn’t pay notice like it once did.
Stallone plays Balboa with this air of sadness. Everyone is gone (Mickey, Adrian, Apollo…) and he is left here, trying to make sense of it. In the film’s best scene, Balboa tries to explain himself to Adonis after the younger fighter barks at him for ignoring his diagnosis of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma:
Stallone fights back tears as his delivers the lines, and his character angers Adonis as he reads this admission of letting go as much a rejection of him as a person as it is the end of Rocky’s life.
In Creed, Coogler is rejecting this assumed idea that being masculine means letting yourself go when your time is up. Adonis admits as much in a later scene at Bianca's (Tessa Thompson) apartment where he tries to explain himself for his outburst at her concert the night before — a scene where he loses his cool and gets into a fight with the other act after he calls him “Little Creed.”
This direct response to the name-calling seems much more in line with traditional masculinity — you have to take down those who disrespect you or what you stand for, which was Oscar Grant and his friends' reaction when they were called out on the train.
What makes the following scene with Bianca even more tragic is how Adonis rebuts that traditional ideal and opens up — saying he isn’t doing it to gain her forgiveness, but to try and express his emotions in the moment.
In the moment, Adonis learns that exposing your emotions also exposes you to emotional pain — something society teaches men to guard themselves from, and was what was creating so much pain when Rocky delivered his monolouge in the scene before.
In what seems like a conclusion to the loop opened by Fruitvale Station, Creed not only grapples with having to mourn for those whose legacies are cut short, but also shows the triumph that can come when it isn’t.
The revolutionary part of the film is that it exposes the haunting nature of society’s expectations for men, and opens a dialogue of what that means, rather than doing anything to “solve” or “fix” it. Manhood is no longer measured by strength and power, rather, it requires a degree of vulnerability never exhibited by men before in popular culture.
Coogler’s films function as a rallying cry for millennial-age masculinity — displaying that legacy can still carry the machismo pleasures of generations past (such as boxing), but at the same time, still allow for a more whole and emotionally aware self.
In this, his films find their greatest strength — that legacy is defined less by performative merits and more by the positive impact you make on others with the opportunities afforded to you.