Ryan Coogler’s CREED And The Importance Of Black Representation In Narrative Cinema
The problem with black representation in cinema is multi-faceted. Most black characters in popular films usually aren’t representative of actual, contemporary black people; they’re scapegoats, villains, or stylized representatives of aesthetic stereotypes - reflections of institutionalized Western perceptions of black men and women that don’t ring true to actual black audiences. So when a movie like Creed comes along and showcases colored men and women who are fully developed and well dramatized, preconceptions about how audiences will react to minority characters, as well as the ingrained attitudes that are still informed by racism and prejudice in an unconscious way, are challenged directly through example of what happens when those misconceptions are ignored and absent.
Probably the most recognizable Hollywood trope with regards to Black characters is what Roger Ebert once referred to as the Brother Always Dies First (BADF) rule, which kills off the movie’s black character as a way to introduce deadly threats. This trope goes as far back as Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, which killed off Jim Kelly’s character William (which allegedly wasn’t Lee’s choice, but his studio’s), an afro-toting black martial artist, to establish the villain’s antagonism. And the trope remains today; from children’s movies like the first two Kung-fu Pandas, whose villains kill off the Rhinos that are anthropomorphized with stereotypical black mannerisms, to modern blockbusters like X-Men: First Class, which stylistically kills off Edi Gathegi’s character Armando. The reasoning for dramatizing a black character’s death is rooted in the institutional perceptions of black virility. If a villain can take down the on-screen representative of what an audience-member would associate with a virile, hyper-sexual, physically tough black man or woman, then the sense of danger for a humbler white hero rises.
What’s notable about the movies I listed is that they’re all good movies. Movies that a black man or woman would excitedly go to see. Black people, like anyone else, recognize good drama and characterization, and love to see well-written and well-directed movies play out, even at the risk of watching a character they may temporarily identify with be killed off as a way to raise the stakes.
When a white character’s killing of a black character is the effect of an in-movie relationship or context, it can take some of the sting out of the trope. Movies like John Wick, where Ms. Perkin’s murder of the black character Harry is a way for her to escape assassination from the other members of the Continental. Or Vernita Green’s death in Kill Bill, which is the first of many kills by The Bride on her quest for vengeance. But in movies like the more recent London Has Fallen, which kills off Angela Bassett’s character Lynne, the director of the US Secret Service, for no other discernible reason besides “three’s a crowd”, the trope can get pretty fucking grating.
As a young african-american man myself, watching characters that look like me die on-screen in movies that I otherwise enjoy has an unconscious effect not just on my own personal self-esteem, but also how others view me on a surface level. Movies are a powerful medium, and the way certain characters are depicted onscreen can affect attitudes towards similar people in real-life, a sentiment explained perfectly in Eddie Murphy’s stand-up special, Raw:
Murphy’s Italian character’s negative attitude towards black people was a result of Rocky’s win in Rocky III; Mr. T’s black character didn’t die but he was defeated. Now imagine how a white and black man’s attitude’s could be affected by repeatedly watching black characters die at the behest of white characters throughout popular cinema, oftentimes without the narrative strength of movies like Rocky or Kill Bill. As Murphy acted out, the attitudes towards certain groups in cinema has an affect on people’s attitudes towards those same groups in real life.
There are, of course, more positive representations of black characters in cinema’s history. As Priscilla recently covered, the blaxploitation films of the 1970s showcased black protagonists who were competent and motivated by the disproportionate state of their communities, while employing black actors, writers, directors and musicians. Furthermore, there have been a notable number of biopics that seek to express the influence of some of the most notable black figures in American history, while also showcasing the talent and range of fantastic actors like Chadwick Boseman who played both Jackie Robinson and James Brown within the past 3 years.
But these movies have their own problems too. Blaxploitation movies were uplifting and fun, but they also relied on and perpetuated stereotypes of Black hyper-sexuality and hyper-masculinity. And biopics, while inspirational, frame characters in black history who were in but not of their time. Like biblical prophets, the subjects of biopics are role models whose actions transcended the context of the times in which they lived. They’re inspiring, but they aren’t necessarily relatable. The James Brown biopic Get on Up is so focused on showing a summarized account of the highlights of Brown’s life that shortcomings like his narcissism and spousal abuse are briefly referenced but unexplored. The things that could potentially make him relatable to us fall to the wayside as the movie races from important moment to important moment. The same could be said for Straight Outta Compton’s treatment of Dr. Dre’s anger issues and spousal abuse, or how the focus on Ice Cube takes away from the reality of MC Ren’s involvement with the writing of NWA’s debut album. Biopics showcase the best and most powerful moments without truly linking those moments to a characters’ personal lives and developments. Some biopics with incredibly talented filmmakers like Ava DuVernay’s Selma and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X circumvent this flaw by making the community within the movie’s context its own character, with an emotional arc that runs parallel to that of the movie’s subject character, but even these movies still have to devote their time to the big historical moments. They eschew the relatability that could stem from the more harsh human truths of important black figures in favor of a kind of awe at their transcendent successes.
Similar, albeit more negative, sentiments inform the many slave narratives from Roots to 12 Years a Slave. Even the most well-realized stories must showcase the horrors of one of humanity’s darkest hours, and relatable characters still get overshadowed by the terrors and inherent sadness of slavery.
And while Tarantino’s films have featured well-developed black characters, they all have similar issues in regards to relatability and representation. Pulp Fiction’s black characters Jules and Marsellus are characters whose race doesn’t affect their lives in any significant way, a truth that also matches the black characters in Jackie Brown. The black protagonists in Tarantino’s last two films, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, are informed by the racism inherent in the settings of American Slavery and the Civil War, but these characters are purposely written to be independent of the suffering of black culture as a whole so they can cathartically avenge the horrors of history while also deal with their own personal psychologies and problems. Additionally, Tarantino’s love of homage makes his films a kind of extension of the blaxploitation movies of the ’70’s, following as well as expanding certain tropes within that genre.
All these movies have a side effect of boxing in black cinematic representation. There are the black characters who transcend great triumph, and there are black characters who suffer from the context of America’s racist history, and there black characters that are killed for emotional propulsion. None of these examples really showcase any middle ground, or offer relatable characters to everyday black men and women. If you’ve ever wondered why Tyler Perry can film whatever he wants and expect the eternal devotion of black audiences across America, or why cult classics like Friday and Boyz in the Hood are so widely renowned, or of the massive popularity of Shonda Rhimes’ productions Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, it’s because the creators of these programs at least attempt to offer colored characters who act like fucking human beings, who are able to fall victim to the same shortcomings as any other black person, and whose struggles as colored people are oftentimes explicitly stated and dramatized. Any competent attempt at showcasing the emotional range and context of African-Americans by African-Americans that reach beyond Hollywood tropes are greatly appreciated by a people who are reminded of the extreme highs and lows of their history with almost every cinematic outing. But there is a middle ground for people of color that is worth dramatizing on the silver screen. And movies like Creed, whose characters are fully formed as well as informed by social norms of black men and women, whose themes are informed by those social norms, and whose atmosphere is built around elements of black culture, act as a superb example of how a well-written, fully developed narrative film with black characters can have a positive effect on attitudes related to black people.
The difficulty of writing a protagonist that is relatable to both troubled black youth and those in more privileged socioeconomic statuses cannot be overstated, but Coogler successfully does so with Adonis. Coogler has served as a guidance counselor for incarcerated youth at San Francisco since he was 21, and the influence of those experiences informs Adonis’ character. Creed opens at a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles. Young Adonis is in a fist-fight yet again, fueled by the anger that stems from a lack of parental guidance or a sense of acceptance. When Mary Anne Creed comes to visit Donnie, the product of her late husband Apollo Creed’s extra-marital affair, she finds a frustrated kid who is angry but not unkind; he was fighting because the other kid talked about Adonis’ late birth mother. Fist aggressively clenched at his side, Adonis boldly declares “I don’t have no father”, a statement that both surprises and emboldens Mary Anne to let him know otherwise, that Apollo died before Adonis was born. Mary Anne sees that the angry boy in front of her who is denouncing his father, her husband, is ironically the most definitive proof of her husband’s existence and legacy. It would be easy for Mary Anne to let a sense of bitterness justify abandoning the product of her husband’s betrayal, especially after he discredits the man she loved. But Mary Anne realizes that Adonis’ negative emotions come from a longing for empathy and care, so she offers to raise him herself. To Adonis, learning that the woman who was married to his father has not only sought him out but offered to raise him opens him up. Adonis unclenches his fist, and asks Mary Anne who his father really is. The answer gives a face and figure to Adonis’ paternal heritage, a heritage that he chases both internally and externally from that point on.
Mary Anne is successful at opening up opportunities for her son. Adonis, now an adult, is a college graduate who has been recently promoted at a securities firm. However, Adonis also spends his off time boxing in Mexico, to Mary Anne’s disapproval. Boxing serves as an emotional outlet for Adonis, allowing him to focus his anger but also connecting him to the source of that anger, Apollo Creed, Adonis’ father and the man widely considered to be the best pound for pound boxer of all time. A great scene early on in the movie takes place in a projection room, where Adonis plays footage of his father’s fight against Rocky. As Adonis shadowboxes in front of the screen, Rocky’s projection imposes on Adonis, and within the frame it looks like Adonis fights the projection of his father. This simultaneously dramatizes Adonis’ frustration with his father while also foreshadowing his kinship with Rocky. Even though he still blames Apollo for being absent from his life, Adonis is driven to box as a way to connect to his absent father. So driven, in fact, that Adonis moves to Philadelphia to train as a professional boxer despite Mary Anne’s insistence that Adonis doesn’t have to be Apollo to connect to him. Mary Anne is Adonis’ only family member as well as his only connection to his father, but Mary Anne views Apollo’s choices as mistakes and dismisses her late husband’s past in favor of helping guide Adonis towards her perception of a brighter future. Despite the prospects his education opens up for his future, Adonis is drawn to his father’s legacy, driven by a need to prove he’s not an accident who stumbled into his father’s legacy, but a someone who earned it.