Updated at 11:33 a.m.
Rocky Balboa sits in a Philly bar as Apollo Creed, in a three-piece suit, holds forth on a grainy black-and-white TV screen. The bartender complains about the “jig clown” on the screen, and asks where the “real fighters” have gone. Rocky scolds the bartender not for his racism, but for questioning the champ, and walks off.
Had the Rocky franchise never existed, that scene, which took place in the original 1976 film, might have simply been a poignant acknowledgment of a persistent wound in the ego of certain white sports fans: the absence of a white American heavyweight boxing champion. Instead that wound became the fuel for the Rocky series, which sees a black boxer humbled by a white challenger in every single movie.
Every single movie, that is, until Creed. The director Ryan Coogler’s 2015 film, which features Apollo’s son Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) as its protagonist, completely refashioned the iconic American sports-film series, one that has been unendingly imitated in style and content. Creed was an act of subversion by Coogler and his co-writer Aaron Covington, and an oddly moving act of humility by Sylvester Stallone, who allowed his career-defining character, an avatar of white masculinity, to be transformed into a vehicle of redemption for Creed’s black protagonist—a role traditionally played by black actors.
Steven Caple Jr.’s sequel, Creed II, which extends the story arc of Coogler’s resurrection of the Rocky series, was released last week to box-office success, as my colleague David Sims writes. Like its predecessor, the movie mines the material of the original Rocky films for its story line. But it is Coogler’s original reimagining that made such a sequel possible.
Creed profoundly altered the character of Apollo Creed, a barely concealed stand-in for Muhammad Ali, whose hubris was too comic for pathos until his legacy was passed on to Coogler. In the first Rocky, Apollo seeks a “snow white” challenger to beat in the ring; he ends up fighting for his life against Rocky and prevailing only by decision. In the second film, Apollo is drawn back into the ring with Rocky to prove that the first fight was a fluke—an act of pride that loses him his title. Apollo is there, in all his bombast and glory (“The Master of Disaster! The King of Sting!”), to give a resentful white audience the catharsis of seeing a white boxer humble Ali. As the critic Alison Willmore wrote, Apollo’s American-flag pageantry shows him daring to “lay claim to the identity of the all-American hero,” and subsequently being “schooled for his assurance that the world belongs to him.”
But of course, Ali himself said it best. “For the black man to come out superior,” Ali once told Roger Ebert, “would be against America’s teachings. I have been so great in boxing they had to create an image like Rocky, a white image on the screen, to counteract my image in the ring. America has to have its white images, no matter where it gets them. Jesus, Wonder Woman, Tarzan, and Rocky.”
Particularly when it comes to boxing, Ali’s analysis is hard to dismiss—films about working-class, white-ethnic boxers beating the odds have been reliable Oscar bait for decades. Boxing’s stature in American public consciousness has declined significantly since the era when Rocky was first made, but at one point, its symbolic importance to white American masculinity was unparalleled. In 1908, when Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, defeated the reigning champion, the Canadian Tommy Burns, the celebrated novelist Jack London wrote that Jim Jeffries, a retired American champion, “must now emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you. The white man must be rescued.” London described Jeffries as “a Germanic tribesman and warrior of two thousand years ago,” echoing the prevailing race pseudo-science of the era that true Americans were descended from “teutons,” while the “Ethiopian” Johnson was “happy-go-lucky.”
Johnson easily humiliated Jeffries during their bout in Reno, Nevada, in 1910, toying with him for 15 rounds—as a writer for the New York Daily Tribune wrote, “There was only one side to it.” In their wounded pride, white Americans responded with pogroms against black Americans in a dozen cities, North and South, that killed more than a dozen people. Although Philadelphia produced a genuine boxing champion in Joe Frazier, the city has a statue in the likeness of Rocky Balboa, an Italian-American fighter who never actually existed.
When Philadelphia finally erected a Frazier statue in 2015, it was in part an acknowledgement of this strange discrepancy. “This is the statue that you should be taking your picture next to,” then-Mayor Michael Nutter said at its unveiling, “a real fighter and a real person.”
The Rocky films are a product of a sense of white pride and humiliation, and the desire to overcome it by restoring the proper order of things. By the third film, Creed’s contribution is infusing Rocky with the essence of blackness so that the white champion can defeat his Scary Black Man challenger Clubber Lang, a successful professional boxer who nevertheless lives in an apartment that looks as if he’s squatting in it. Lang hates Rocky because he correctly guesses that Rocky’s manager has been deliberately blocking Lang from the title fight he deserves. (Lang has no grievance that is not justified, but the film treats them all as absurd complaints.) “You can’t train him like a colored boxer,” Rocky’s brother-in-law Paulie explains to Apollo after the former champ introduces Rocky to his run-down Los Angeles gym. “He ain’t got no rhythm.”
Oh, but Apollo can and he does, even lending his former rival his iconic American-flag trunks for a showdown with Lang, during which the announcers note that Rocky is “fighting like Apollo Creed.” Rocky dances, swaggers, talks trash, and ultimately tells Lang “you ain’t so bad” before knocking him to the canvas, and it feels like Anthony Mackie going silent as Eminem verbally decimates his character during a freestyle battle in the Rocky-inspired hip-hop film 8 Mile. See, Rocky can even be a better black boxer than Apollo himself.
At the end of Rocky III, Creed and Rocky have one last private showdown, but we don’t learn the outcome until Creed. Rocky IV begins with Creed fighting an “exhibition” match against the Soviet boxer Ivan Drago, who is meant to evoke the Nazis (at one point, Drago’s trainer comments that Rocky lacks the “genetics” to defeat Drago). Creed is elevated into the ring wearing an Uncle Sam outfit as James Brown performs in the background; a literal golden calf towers over the boxer’s head, marking him as a false god. Drago then promptly murders him in the ring. After three films in which he functions as little more than a means to illustrate Rocky’s greatness, Apollo is offered the highest of honors: He dies to provide the franchise’s white protagonist with motivation and character development. In almost every sense the movies can communicate, Apollo is deemed a fraudulent champion.
Creed then, had a difficult task. To make Apollo Creed a character worthy of having a successor, it first had to redeem him, to make him great, a quality that the previous Rocky movies consistently denied him. Coogler did this in several ways: through cameos from sports reporters discussing Creed as one of the greatest boxers ever, through the casual manner in which Philly’s denizens recognize and revere the name, and through Rocky, who acknowledges that Creed defeated him in their final, secret fight. When Adonis asks Rocky how he defeated Apollo, Rocky says he didn’t—time did. “It’s undefeated,” Rocky says.
Time defeated Ali, too—it gave him a similarly humiliating end in the ring against Larry Holmes—but his greatness is unquestioned. And with Creed, for the first time in any Rocky film, so is Apollo’s. This is how the meaning of the series itself, particularly the first four films, changed: from the story of an indomitable white boxer, to one about the roots of a friendship that created a debt Rocky must repay.
There are, of course, a lot of other things to say about Coogler’s Creed: the way it lingers and gives life to black Philly in a way that Rocky never did, even for Italian Philly; the camera that moves like a boxer, weaving and sliding around a focused point the way fighters would circle each other before striking. The movie is not just thematically but also technically impressive. Its transformation of the Rocky series, though, is what makes it a great film rather than simply a good one.
Sylvester Stallone earned an Oscar nod in 2016 for his performance in Creed. The fact that he was the only part of the movie the Academy decided to recognize shows that, whatever brought him to this point, the film industry itself remains most enamored of stories of white athletes beating the odds while rarely recognizing, as the critic Aisha Harris put it, films with black people that are not about black struggle.
Stallone’s decision to accede to fundamentally altering the most important fictional creation of his career, to elevate Apollo above Rocky as a fighter, and to make his journey subordinate to that of the young black man on the screen, is worthy of recognition. But it is Coogler who, with Creed, as he did later with Black Panther, deftly subverted a cherished American cinematic tradition, placing black communities at the center of genres in which they were never meant to be more than plot devices, mere stepping stones for white protagonists on a journey to greatness.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the author’s newsletter, Worst Behavior.