As with “Fruitvale Station,” which chronicled the last day in the life of Oscar Grant before he was killed by a transit police officer on an Oakland BART platform, Coogler does something exceptionally rare in American movies: he takes a violent subject and uses it as an opportunity to celebrate tenderness and vulnerability in men. Adonis, called Don by most of the characters in the movie, can throw a wicked punch. But he’s also the sort of person who convinces Rocky to train him by unloading the aging ex-fighter’s delivery truck at the restaurant Rocky named for his late wife, and who finds himself thrilled by the music his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) makes. Over the past several days, Stacia L. Brown and I discussed “Creed” via e-mail. Our conversation discusses some of the plot points of “Creed.”
I saw “Creed” on Saturday morning, because I wanted to add to Coogler’s opening weekend gross. That isn’t something that’s always important to me but it was really important here, given that so much was at stake for him as a filmmaker. It was his sophomore project, a bigger budget/mainstream film, and a sort of reboot of one of the country’s most beloved sports film franchises.
He really rose to the occasion. I thought “Creed” was excellent — and I say that as someone with no real knowledge of the original or its sequels, but I’ve talked to several die-hard “Rocky” fans who also thought the film was great.
For me, the strongest themes were family-making (the principal cast develops these incredible bonds with one another and no one is a blood relation) and mortality/fallibility. Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) has grown old, holding himself aloft from a community that adores him. But he’s also really willing to let Don (Michael B. Jordan) and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) into his inner sanctum. He makes some early noise about training Don, but it doesn’t take much to win him. After that, he treats them both like his kids and it’s so lovely to watch. Also complex and interesting is Don’s relationship with Apollo Creed’s widow (Phylicia Rashad). She’s raised him exactly as an heir should be raised and they’re so close, though they may not even have had occasion to meet, had Don’s mother not died.
I loved how nuanced Bianca was and how seamlessly she wove into both Don’s and Rocky’s lives. I loved that she had a disability* — and that it heightened the stakes on her career goals (something a sequel would be able to explore really well). I also found it curious that she wasn’t at all averse to boxing. She didn’t worry (or vocalize worry) that it was too brutal or that it could kill Don. She just encouraged his dream (in any other movie that would’ve been the obvious response, but in boxing films, women often seem pretty squeamish about bouts and their consequences).
At the moment Rocky is welcoming a return to training and the world of boxing, allowing himself to become a mentor and father figure to a fighter, he receives news that upends his sense of himself as a hero. At one point Don sees him in a moment of physical weakness and Rocky mumbles, “I’m sorry.” It’s a stunning moment. He’s apologizing for not being larger than life, apologizing for disrupting training, apologizing for not knowing what’s happening to him. And Don responds with shock that he’d even think an apology was necessary.
There’s just so, so much that’s wonderful and subtle and poignant about this film. What did you think?
I just got out of a screening of “Creed” and went right back to my computer to read your e-mail, because my heart was so full, and I wanted to talk to you about it immediately.
You mentioned family as a major theme of “Creed,” but embedded within that was something that struck me even harder: this is a great movie about male vulnerability and tenderness. There were so many wonderful variations on this idea. The moment when Alex Henderson, who plays a young Adonis, unclenches his fist. Rocky coming to visit Adrian, bringing her a rose and the paper. Adonis outside Bianca’s door. Rocky stumbling on the way to the bathroom, and breathing hard going up the steps. Adonis admitting that what he wants to prove is “That I wasn’t a mistake.” The lingering specter of Apollo’s death in the ring.
Ryan Coogler does something very special and open-hearted in “Creed.” He suggests that violence is a way that men respond to their own vulnerability without either condemning them for it or suggesting that the ability to go 12 rounds actually makes a man immortal. I loved that Adonis lost the title fight for that reason. The movie’s clear that he needs to heal himself, and no belt in the world can hold his unresolved feelings for his father in place.
But all that said, yes, let’s talk about Bianca! And Tessa Thompson more generally. I suspect we both have a lot of thoughts and feelings about her.
You’re so right about male vulnerability. Rocky’s illness and Adonis’s ongoing responses to it (and to the small betrayals of aging and sickness that precede it) give the movie as much heart as the rousing soundtrack and underdog boxing moments do. Coogler did so much of that so well, from Adonis helping Rocky spell “shadow” to Adonis blurting out that he needs his gloves cut off before his first big bout to Rocky walking Adonis to the ring for big fight, reassuring him, “I know you get nervous at times like this, but you can use that.” This film really is bursting with intimacy and tenderness.
I first encountered Tessa Thompson in the second season of “Veronica Mars.” I’ve always felt that she had a natural, comforting onscreen presence. She’s been around for a long time now, and I still find that to be true. I’m glad she’s getting bigger roles, and this one really seemed to suit her well.
I’ve seen criticism that the film somehow shortchanges her because she doesn’t appear much in the third act, but that had more to do with empowering her than silencing her. As beautifully rendered as their relationship was, Bianca was willing to let Adonis go after he nearly sabotaged a professional opportunity for her — and even a sincere apology wasn’t enough to immediately win her back. I admired the decision to leave her absent while Adonis trained for the biggest fight of his life. After offending her, he’d pleaded that he “needed her right now.”
A lesser film would’ve had her open the door. Bianca instead opts to let him figure out his own issues, teaching him just how seriously she’d taken his mistake in the process. As I mentioned before, I also think her subplot was intentionally left open-ended with sequels in mind.
I think that’s a great read on what happens between Bianca and Adonis. Given that she only has so much time to pursue her music before her hearing leaves her, her absence doesn’t mean she’s hanging around in suspended animation, but instead that she’s working. I actually wonder now if a director’s cut of the movie might feature a scene of Rocky tracking her down in some way and convincing her to come to the fight.
We’ve talked a lot about tenderness and vulnerability in “Creed,” especially in the relationship between Adonis and Rocky. But part of what really struck me about the film was the tenderness and equality between Adonis and Bianca. He’s courting her, and she gets to decide if she’s interested or not. While he’s pursuing boxing with great dedication, his drive is more about reconciling his internal conflict than achieving some sort of fame; Adonis doesn’t see his career as more important than hers, and he’s comfortable being her motivation if that’s what she wants.
But what really knocked me out was the scene in bed where he’s helping her do her hair. That struck me as a wonderfully intimate moment, equal in every way to the scenes where Adonis is helping Rocky through chemotherapy, and it reminded me of the viral photos of a gay couple doing their daughters’ hair. And it’s in keeping with the idea that Adonis’ capacity for gentleness in no way makes him a lesser fighter.
I agree about the equality in Bianca and Adonis’s relationship. There’s something very interesting about two people with unconventional, talent-based career goals finding love. How they feel about the work the other person does impacts their ability to move forward as a couple. It’s important for us to see that Don genuinely likes Bianca’s music (and was interested not just in seeing her perform but also observing her production process). And it’s important for us to see that Bianca is thrilled by boxing (as a daughter of Philly, where the sport is revered) and by Don’s skill as a boxer. When couples in these positions don’t respect, value, or enjoy the other person’s work, the relationship is harder to sustain. These two have already cleared a big hurdle there.
Back to the scene with Bianca’s hair. The conversation they’re having is just as intimate and vulnerable as the act of untangling her tresses. They’re talking about fears. Don specifically asks if Bianca is afraid of hearing loss. It’s something he needs to know about her, as it will inform how he helps her cope with it in the future. It was just as important for him to know how apprehensive Rocky felt about chemo (and why). It impacted their interaction later. But that scene with Bianca’s hair is the first where Don feels comfortable confessing that he’s afraid of not living up to his father’s name. That’s huge.
I’d love to see a deleted scene between Rocky and Bianca. Even though she came, it was clear it had taken some convincing. Rocky is super-charming in this film — and with her in particular — so I’m convinced that would’ve been a lovely, layered exchange.
I know everyone’s talking about the dirtbike scene, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it. On a personal note it reminds me of the dirtbike scene here in Baltimore and how significant it is to be surrounded by the love and respect of dirtbike boys — especially in a city where you aren’t a native son. But cutting to Rocky in the window was so poignant. Don had gathered so much possible reinforcements and adrenaline on that run and he was willing it up to Rocky who was too weak from treatment to come out. I teared up in the theater, and I’m tearing up just recalling it.
*Bianca has progressive hearing loss.