Halfway through Creed, the film’s protagonist, Donny, has his last significant exchange with another Black man. Fraught from the start with emasculating antagonism emanating from local rap star Tone Trump, the verbal exchange quickly escalates to violence. The interaction is notable only because Creed’s antagonist gets more lines and screen time than most of the Black males in the script, but it follows a familiar and consistent pattern that repeats throughout the film. It’s Creed’s last chance to give Donny and another Black man a well-developed narrative beat, but it is as negative and charged with threat and violence as every other scene in which Donny shares screentime with another Black male*.
We first find Donny, for example, in a youth detention facility where he is fighting with another Black teen. The next time Creed shares screen time with another Black male, it is with the son of his father’s former trainer, who now runs the Creed family gym. While the scene could have been an opportunity to add a Black mentor character to Creed, given the way Donny’s father died in the ring, it is relentlessly antagonistic and mean-spirited. This prompts the next two exchanges with Black fighters in the gym, which end in bouts in which the sole motivation of Donny’s opponents is to win his Mustang and humiliate him.
There’s little doubt Ryan Coogler is a gifted filmmaker, nor that Michael B. Jordan is as charismatic a leading man as any director could hope for—and even Sylvester Stallone is shockingly tolerable as an aging Rocky Balboa, despite his odd combo of barnacles and plastic surgery.
Still, Creed is a poor cousin to Coogler’s earlier effort in Fruitvale Station. Coogler’s earlier work is conspicuous by comparison in its consistent efforts at creating a Black milieu in Oakland with Oscar Grant’s life-long close friends, his family, both male and female, all of it exposed through an eloquent street pentameter. Creed is no Fruitvale Station, but Creed even suffers in comparison to earlier Rocky films when it comes to creating a holistic Black world of social relationships. **
No doubt Rocky 1 and Rocky 2 had deep pockets of ambient racism. Rocky’s Philadelphia is happily segregated, and while surely Black Philadepelphians were as charmingly Dickensian as the denizens of the Italian Stallion’s own hood, not much energy or attention is wasted on depicting their world. This dynamic is even more acute when the Apollo Creed character’s well-known genesis as a homage to Muhammad Ali is taken into account. Ali’s outspoken anti-white supremacist rhetoric and political stands were part and parcel of the bravado that made him an icon. Apollo Creed has only arrogance, lacking political subtext, and to add insult to that injury, he is repeatedly portrayed as the American gatekeeper mocking Rocky’s poor immigrant community and background. And all of this is not to ignore Rocky 3’s Clubber Lang, worthy of several hundred essays all by that character’s self.
All of this is true, and yet it’s still surprising to note that Apollo Creed enjoys far more development as a social subject in R1 and R2 than his namesake in the current reboot. Apollo and his Black friends and associates get good screentime. He and his best friend and trainer have several exchanges throughout both of the first two films. Apollo’s coterie of advisors and staff are all Black, they are talked at and talk back.
The big difference in these three iterations of Black protagonists, is that Creed is a cross-over film, not an art house indie [that made good] like Fruitvale Station, and not an essentially white-targeted film with a relatively, for the time, well-developed Black antagonist, like Rocky. Rather, Creed, is a film with a Black protagonist meant to appeal to a majority white audience and there are tell-tale notes throughout the film to attest to it. Almost all of Donny’s social needs are met by Creed’s Rocky—Donny has no friends, certainly no Black friends and he rejects his mother completely. Even his girlfriend is not a source of stability or emotional support. Rocky, the quintessential white protagonist, fulfills all these functions to such an extent that the character’s son had to be written out of the narrative so that Donny Creed could remain his primary emotional focus.
It’s not difficult to understand the logic that drove Coogler—and perhaps drive is exactly the right word, given his Big Hollywood aspirations [he brought the treatment for Creed to Stallone, and is on deck with a Black Panther adaptation]. As Aziz Ansarri, in his hit and miss Netflix series Master of None, astutely notes in an episode entitled “Indians on TV, one South Asian on a sitcom is diversity, two South Asians is a South Asian sitcom. This persistent Hollywood Rule of Ones that we now seem years from dissolving would be bad enough, but there is also an ugly corollary to it, a stubborn and inflexible “Chekov’s Gun” theory of race.
Even in a crappily written drama, each scene and character is ostensibly written to move the plot forward. Each moment of screen time is accounted for, and none is wasted. Thus, If screentime is precious, and primary roles are reserved for white actors to avoid alienating white audiences, then there are only a few roles Black people can play and for the most part they are going to be negative—Chekov’s gun permutated as the white supremacist filter that keeps movies rated W , as suitable for all white audiences. This leaves little but fighters, challengers and obstacles as the only possible roles for Creed’s Black characters and no Black milieu for Donny.
Its an endemic problem in today’s Hollywood, and in many ways, as I noted earlier in comparing the earlier Rocky films to Creed, it sometimes leads to the inescapable, if odd, conclusion that Hollywood was better at creating Black characters in the late century’s Conservative-era racism than it is in this supposed post-racial one. The well-regarded, and ostensibly feminist, Netflix series Jessica Jones is another very obvious case in point. Jones, a tragi-comic heroine in the Buffy mold lives in a fanciful New York where the majority of the people who populate its poorest neighborhood are colorful White people able to get by without roommates or jobs—fantastical enough concepts before we even get to the accident that gave Jones superhuman strength and her arch villain virus-driven mind control powers.
There are two Black men in Jones’ life, but they don’t know each other, and when they meet, they do not become friends—and neither has any Black friends or significant community roots in the city. All this could be forgiven, perhaps, along with many, many other tone-deaf representations of Hollywood’s most narrated metropolis.
But a thousand claims of comic book fun and fantasy can’t alter the depictions of women of color in Jessica Jones’ New York—they are simply horrifying. The sum total of women representing New York’s astounding racial diversity by the last two episodes of the run, are a drug dealer, a prison inmate, a fedex delivery driver and Cage’s wife, who is killed by Jones in flashbacks repeatedly throughout the run and has no lines. Without the inscrutable intervention of Rosario Dawson in the show’s last two installments, a character on loan from Netflix’s Daredevil narrative, there would not be one substantive role for a woman of color in the entire run of this supposedly feminist program.
It’s surprising to note that Daredevil, which has no political pretensions, besides dabbling in anti-gentrification rhetoric from time to time, has several ongoing characters of color, male and female—underdeveloped, grating and under-acted to be sure, but there nonetheless. But its disturbing when we observe that almost all of Jessica Jones’ WOC—with one or two exceptions—are victims of both violence and verbal abuse from Jones.
Cage’s character is much more problematic than the actual comic source material—a surprise, because the comics are so incredibly problematic. Again, the Blaxploitation derived comic-book character, much like the original Apollo Creed, is far more multi-dimensional than his on-screen reboot in Jessica Jones. His entire discourse on race reduced to a feeble wondering out loud if Jones could be reacting to the fact he is Black early on in their first sexual encounter—a far cry from the Black militant character created in the 70’s.
In both Creed and Jessica Jones, both gender and race constructs are incapable of juggling more than one ball at a time. We can have a powerful, engaging Black male character like Creed’s Donny, but he must exist as an anomaly. Donny’s Black narrative arc is the shaking off of economic privilege, and the search to violently win the respect of other white and Black men who do not regard his masculinity as worthy. To do this, he must literally beat and alienate every Black man he knows and meets throughout the film. Creed has much more in common with Tarantino’s more sullied hero Django—who goes about subjugating and bullying every Black person he meets throughout the film—than he does with Fruitvale Station’s Grant or Apollo Creed’s progenitor, Muhammud Ali.
A similar dynamic is found in Jessica Jones. But it seems the creators, didn’t fear making a POC film [about women], as much as they did accepting the burden of intersectionality, and all that would entail about the privileged position of white women in Hollywood feminist narratives. The carving off of womanhood as a white domain, and leading man status as a singular Black achievement that eschews culture and social relations, is by and far the most consistent subtext of today’s “breakthrough” gender and race conscious media.
Chekov’s Gun rubric interpreted in a white supremacist society leaves Black people, and other POC, with an unattractive cinematic destiny that doesn’t seem likely to change soon. No doubt, John Boyega’s character in the Star Wars reboot will be short on Black friends, a family story or culture—certainly, he can’t have inherited midiclorians unless his grandfather was the universe’s only Black Jedi, Mace Windu. He probably won’t have a guy’s night out with other Black stormtroopers he’s met on the job, come Jedi Sabbath s as he’s likely to be the only Black Stormtrooper in the Empire. He will probably fall short as a hero with a thousand faces narrative in the Luke Skywalker vein, because he will lack the historic pedigree, like Creed, like Jessica Jones’ unheroic women of color that populate NYC.
Because Star Wars protagonists, like super-heroes, like Rocky, are meant for white people, and letting Black and POC actors star in those stories is not supposed to change that.
*There’s one scene where Donny has a 2 second interaction with an unnamed Black youth that’s arguably neutral, but its so insubstantial as to not have occurred.
**Not to oversell Fruitvale Station, though. There are several scenes in which the Grant character instantly bonds with white strangers, no doubt as a way of demonstrating that this Black world is not anti-white simply because it lacks white people.