White “Creed” fans, pay attention: This is not just another feel-good, underdog sports movie

Like Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan's "Fruitvale Station," it's an invitation to learn that black lives matter

Published December 9, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

Michael B. Jordan  (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
Michael B. Jordan (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Mookie: Sounds funny to me. As much as you say n*gger this and n*gger that, all your favorite people are "n*ggers."                                                                                        

Pino: It's different. Magic, Eddie, Prince are not n*ggers, I mean, are not Black. I mean, they're Black but not really Black. They're more than Black. It's different.

If a film is very good, you might find yourself behaving uncharacteristically in a theater. As a black film critic, it’s important that I never yell at the screen, or laugh too loudly, or noticeably bop my head if a certain kind of song plays. As a woman, it’s important that I resist the urge to cry. But every once in a while, I forget the rules and the respectability politics, and I let myself be me. This happened multiple times during my first viewing of Ryan Coogler’s “Creed.” I yelled, I gasped, I laughed loudly and let a few tears slip out somewhere around the last act. And it was nice to know that I wasn’t alone. The white woman sitting next to me, who was old enough to be my grandmother, yelled louder, cried more, and bobbed and weaved with more energy than me during the scenes that called for it. For most of the movie, we were on one accord. But when Adonis Johnson Creed came out to the ring to “Hail Mary,” I was the lone person in the theater, it seemed, head-nodding and rapping along with Tupac, unashamed and unbothered by how it might have looked, mostly because I just couldn’t help myself. A great film experience makes you forget yourself, and can also align you closely with a complete stranger. This is why we love The Movies.

But what happens when forgetting yourself—as in, your own politics, beliefs and tendencies—is a reflection of greater social problems, like an inability to see the cultural “other” as human? In other words, are the many white people who have been cheering on the fictional Adonis Johnson Creed as supportive of real-life black men who might come from a similarly difficult past?

Of all the ways “Creed” might have introduced us to its main character, played by Michael B. Jordan, it’s incredibly significant that Coogler and his co-writer Aaron Covington chose a juvenile detention center as our first look at the film’s hero. The first shot of young Adonis presents the audience with a violent, uncouth and uncaring child, engaged in a vicious fight with another such child. His first lines, spoken to Phylicia Rashad’s Mary Anne Creed, tell us more of the same: “I’m not going to another group home... Nigga said something ‘bout my mom, so I beat his ass.”

These are not the typical opening lines of a hero in most films, let alone a box office success. And even as we get to know Adonis and all his nuances, “Creed” is filled with similar scenes and language. Adonis is a complex character because he has privilege, but he does not come from it. Part of his battle in the film is fighting against those black guys at the boxing gyms who call him “Hollywood.” Although his stepmother saved him in many ways, and offered him a life where he didn't have to fight (to survive in the street, or to eat, as the film suggests many other black men have), Adonis cannot shake off his past. He may have spent the better part of his life in a mansion, but he's also an orphan who spent his early childhood in the system.

Where was you when I was in group home? Did you miss any meals, homie? He shouts at onlookers in one memorable scene, after furiously knocking an opponent out. For Coogler and Covington, it’s not just important that Adonis hold onto his past—it’s paramount that the viewer remember it, too.

Throughout most of the film, Adonis' fighting is relegated to the ring. But some devastating news brings out his more reactive side, and a backstage fight lands him in jail. Unlike real-life blacks who've broken the law in recent years (or were targeted by police even when they didn’t) and were killed, Creed is taken to jail. It's a moment in the film meant to inspire empathy, because we know how he ended up there and we know he's not a criminal, but a talented, caring person struggling with certain realities. In other words, he's a human. And every moviegoer, regardless of race, is able to see that clearly in this fictional character.

But in the real world, how would the white America that cheered on Adonis respond to news about a young black fighter getting locked up? If someone like Adonis were to be killed in, say, a misunderstanding with police officers, how much support would his story garner? A rising young boxer with a history of violence and a childhood in juvenile homes gets arrested—what’s the dominant reaction? In the film, Adonis is separated from the other prisoners because he keeps fighting. What would the headlines make of such a person in our current reality, especially if that person were later found dead in a cell? Or, if police claimed to have killed him out of reasonable fear for their lives? Wouldn't much of white America—and, indeed, some of black America—find this acceptable, especially given the criminal's violent past?

Still, white people cheered for Adonis. They rooted for him and they shed tears for him. Aside from the fact that he is a fictional character, Adonis’ status as an athlete and an entertainer in the film also speaks to a double standard that exists in these situations. Spike Lee explained the phenomenon back in 1989 with one of the quietest scenes in “Do the Right Thing.” Mookie tries to show his racist co-worker Pino that he has all of the admiration and respect for black Americans—as long as they’re performing on some kind of stage, or in an arena. Pino makes a powerful distinction between those he sees as “n*ggers”—Mookie and the black members of the Bed-Stuy community where Sal’s Famous is located—and blacks who aren’t really black, like Magic Johnson and Eddie Murphy.

Oddly enough, this exchange brings to mind another film that dealt with race, though in a very different manner. In Quentin Tarantino's “Django Unchained,” Leonardo DiCaprio, playing slave owner and Mandingo fighting fan Calvin Candie, speaks frequently of those “exceptional n*ggers”—those blacks who are worth the extra dollar (or hundreds of dollars), because their strength or intelligence is considered above average for their kind. Few would admit to thinking along these lines today, but there’s a direct line from the “exceptional n*gger,” to “not n*ggers,” and “not really black,” to where we are today.

Much of white America suffers from a version of Pino-ism or Candie-ism, where black Americans on TV or on a stage, or on a big screen, aren’t really black, or are exceptional blacks. Beyoncé’s not a black girl from Texas, otherwise many of them wouldn’t blink an eye if a cop tackled her and her friends and pulled guns on them at a pool party. When Nicki Minaj drives, she isn’t a real black woman in a car, otherwise no one would wonder why if a police officer dragged her from her vehicle. Jay Z isn’t a drug dealer from Brooklyn, or else it wouldn’t be a public outrage if he were shot to death on the day of his wedding. Celebrity status and class differentiate them from a teenager in McKinney, Texas, a Sandra Bland or a Sean Bell. Similarly, Adonis Johnson Creed might not be really black to the “Creed” audience; they might choose to see him as entirely different from another character brought to the big screen by Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan—Oscar Grant.

As I sat in my seat and watched the credits roll, I overheard those murmurs that signaled to me that “Creed” was a success. And I couldn’t help hoping that every white person around me who’d just cheered on Adonis would go home and decide to seek out other movies by this director. And they’d see that “Fruitvale Station” was streaming on Netflix, so they sit down and meet a character not unlike Adonis, except that he is based on an actual black man, and his story is one of true events and—most important—he does not live to the end of the film. He is robbed of the chance that Adonis had—to be resurrected or born again, like the Greek for which he’s named—to transition from Adonis Johnson to Adonis Johnson Creed. But, given the back story Coogler provides us with, it’s clear that without a talent for boxing and a wealthy mother-figure to save him, Adonis Johnson Creed could have easily been the victim of police brutality at a young age, and could have lost any shot at second chances altogether.

In “Fruitvale Station,” Coogler worked to humanize Grant, who was often portrayed in the media as either sinner or saint, following his murder at the hands of a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer in 2009. The director takes a similar approach with “Creed,” for much of the same reason—a black kid who got his start in a juvenile detention center might not be given such nuance otherwise. These two films alongside each other ask the audience to do more than just accept the stories before them. Coogler’s projects demand that the young black men who find themselves in trouble with the law, or turning to drugs or violence as a means of survival—those young black men who, like most humans, are products of environments that they neither created nor chose—are given the narratives they deserve. It’s not a narrative that sugarcoats things, or sanctifies the protagonists. But it’s a narrative that goes far beyond encouraging the audience to route for society’s underdog.

Coogler’s men—whether they are achieving glory in the ring to the tune of “Hail Mary,” after struggling to break out of a famous father’s shadow, or buying crabs for their mother’s birthday celebration, hours before they are shot in the back and killed—compel the audience to consider a fact they may have chosen to ignore in the past: All black lives deserve a nuanced treatment, on-screen, in the news and especially in the minds of those white Americans who still think in terms of those “exceptions” to their rules about black Americans.

“Creed” has become so popular, it will easily get reduced to a feel-good movie of the season, a box office success and a strong tribute to the “Rocky” franchise. Indeed, it is all of these things. But it must also be viewed as an invitation—or a lightly veiled demand—for white America to critique its own double standards and hypocrisies. Will you cheer for Adonis, but ignore the incarceration rate for children in America? Will you throw your fists up for his fights, but turn away from the men like those in the Philly hoods, who trained him? Will you applaud as he runs through the streets, but blur out those black boys on the bikes behind him? Will you find yourself emotional, over his fictional glories, but emotionless and actionless over real tragedies that befall others like him? If so, there is a very good chance that we didn’t watch the same movie. Because the “Creed” that I saw demands a much more nuanced and intelligent response from its audience. The “Creed” that I saw demands that we show interest in not only a sequel (and, perhaps, a sequel for the fascinating woman whose own narrative stood out from the usual tropes), but also for more stories about those children who survive the flawed and troubling systems that helped mold Adonis. Whether those stories end in glory or violence, or both, Ryan Coogler has shown us that American cinema and American history is incomplete without them.

By Shannon M. Houston

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor and a film critic at Paste Magazine, and a writer for Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter @shannonmhouston

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Black Lives Matter Creed Fruitvale Station Michael B. Jordan Movies Race Rocky Ryan Coogler