Just by knowing the plot alone to this “Rocky” spin-off, for anyone who was already a “Rocky” fan, then you were already sold by the premise of “Creed”: the rival-turned-friend of Rocky, Apollo Creed, has been dead for almost 30 years when his son, Adonis Johnson, decides to follow his father’s footsteps, and pursue a boxing career. After going 15-0 in underground fights in Mexico, he quits his high-paying day job in California, and moves to Philly in an attempt to be trained by the man who his father fought and trained for: Rocky Balboa.
Adonis was the son of Apollo’s extramarital affair, born shortly after his father died in the ring, and not soon after his mother passed away, too. He spent his early life in and out of foster homes and juvenile detention centers, until the actual widow of Creed takes Adonis in. The whole movie Adonis makes references to those early years, where he learned to fight–by himself, and by surviving extreme conditions.
Even if Creed never overtly mentions race, it is always present. From the opening scene to where Adonis is 10-years-old, in chains with other black youth in a juvy, the film is rooted in black reality. A world that many black youth face, or are destined to face: the incarceration state.
When he packs his bags and moves to Philly, it is not the Italian neighborhoods that dominated the early Rocky films, it is the black Philly we are familiar with, because that is what comprises Philly, a majority black city. The boxers he encounters are black and brown, his love interest is black, and all of his trainers, other than Rocky, are black.
Fictional boxing movies have never been reflective of reality, but rather what Hollywood has perceived the public wants to see. When the first Rocky movie came out, there had not been a white heavyweight champion since Rocky Marciano in 1956. Even still, the most well-known and critically acclaimed boxing movies have revolved around white protagonists. Movies like Rocky I-VI, Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull”, and then to real life biopics like “Cinderella Man”, and “Fighter,” to name a few, have all featured white leads. With the exception of Denzel Washington’s performance in “The Hurricane,” and Will Smith in “Ali,” the black narrative has never been taken seriously. Even if the images you see when you turn on actual boxing are black faces, that has never been the case for the big screen.
What these boxing films have represented was a longing to a time when a character like Rocky could have been the world’s greatest. Ever since Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, proclaimed himself as the world’s greatest–with his dating white women, and driving expensive cars, and choosing not to prescribe to what the world expected from black athletes–has the media placed the few white heavyweight contenders as “the White Hope.” For what they were hoping for was more than a boxing champ, but an ability to identify with that champion, and the only way the public could do so is if that athlete looked like them: white.
Adonis Johnson may be a fictional character, but perhaps that is what makes him so significant. Perhaps it is not the heroes we already have, but the heroes we chose to envision–and what they may look like, in contrast to how they have looked like in the past–that says something more. The black radicalism of “Creed” isn’t anything overt, but rather just in Adonis’s existence do we see this film for what is :”The Black Hope” we have always had in the ring, but never had the privilege of seeing on the screen–until now.