As I get older I find it harder and harder to enjoy media without seeing the problematic messages. I don’t know if in my maturity I’m able to read them easier or if the massaging is becoming more blatant. Maybe both.
I first became aware of Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan with Fruitvale Station, a powerful film based on a true story of a tragic police shooting. As a kid of the 80’s I was a fan of the Rocky movies. So when I heard Couglar was responsible for the writing in Creed 3, I was pretty interested in seeing it.
In my opinion, two of the actors on the bill are some of the most underrated actors of all time in Wood Harris and Jonathan Majors. As America’s beautiful and sophisticated mom, Phylicia Rashad, is always a welcomed addition to any film. So I was well prepared to love the third installation of Creed. However I found myself kissing my teeth and rolling my eyes early on in the movie.
But even before the film started, a preview that served as a stark juxtaposition caught my attention. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a soldier facing capture in a new Guy Ritchie film. His native interpreter saves his life and drags him over a mountain to safety. Gyllenhaal’s character finds himself stateside while his hero is hiding for his life back in the war zone. He honorably decides he must go back and extract his interpreter to honor his debt which informs the films title.
However, in Creed, the opposite becomes the case. The film opens up with Dr. Dre’s classic “The Watcher” which is a song about Dre lamenting the criticism of him becoming a success and leaving the troublesome lifestyle and neighborhood of his youth behind, a telegraph of the theme of the film. The set up begins with an older kid who Adonis came up in the group home named Dame. The freind protected him from an abusive caretaker and taught him how to fight. The flashback shows Dame, Adonis’ mentor, as an up and coming boxer who is well on his way to success and sharing the fruits freely with Adonis. However Adonis gets himself into trouble and Dame is there to save him. But this is where their paths diverge. The police show up and despite their bond, Adonis runs away leaving Dame to face the music alone. He ends up serving 18 years in prison.
Adonis goes on to his success and the explanation for us never hearing about Dame until now is Mrs. Creed inexplicably keeping all of the letters he sent hidden from Adonis, and out of guilt (but more implied survivor’s guilt) Adonis pretends to forget about Dame in order to live with his decision. But Dame returns to reunite with Adonis unexpectedly, still hungry to fulfill his dream of becoming champ. The guilt is apparent with Adonis, but it is tempered with a mixture of compassion and condescension. They reminisce about Dame knocking Adonis down as he taught him to fight, but Dame reminds him consistently that he was always there to help him up.
This is where the script fails for me. Through some rather predictable turns the film attempts to paint Dame as the bad guy. The past that a successful and now mature Adonis has outgrown threatens his peaceful life reflecting on the guilt old company proliferates for the maturation and seeming abandonment of those who ‘made it out’. However, Dame was never adequately justified as the villain. He used a shady prison acquaintance to assault and sideline a title contender after not being taken seriously by Adonis in his request to be put into postition to win the title. After this was discovered by Creed his true anger and jealousy towards Adonis was revealed in an excellent on screen conflict. Majors is such a talented actor who can play the innocent with skill, but plays the villain with such verve and depth it’s almost the best fit for him. But even in this turn he did not fully embody a villain due to the betrayal of Adonis. He was so convincing you could feel the hurt and abandonment even above the anger of the character which was no doubt the intended focal point. This only served to make Dame’s feelings seem even more valid and his actions understandable. Who could fault a desperate and aging man whose window of opportunity was closing, for creating his own fortune? He was betrayed and ignored by someone he loved and protected from abuse as a child, and was left abandoned in that very act. 18 years later but still in shape he had no time to wait for a favor from a friend who ignored him and went on to live the very life he was on the cusp of attaining himself. It was hard not to fall into the trap of rooting for Dame, which was obviously setting yourself up for failure. He was the true underdog, not the retired champ with more time and money than he knew what to do with softened by rooms of celebrities and wealth. Even when Dame convincingly won the title Adonis was more concerned for his fighter (his cash cow) than his old friend, who he once considered family who just executed an impossible comeback and fulfilled his dream.
Inevitably the showdown between the two is set up in an all too predictable fashion. Instantly Adonis’ edge up faded and his hair became scruffy ad he trained for the showdown with Dame. The eye rolling visual of Adonis in white as the hero and Dame in black Ala Tyson signaled exactly how the film would end. The all too familar trope of black a evil and white as good was a lazy stereotypical visual. Even the Nipsy Huslte soundtrack Adonisn walked in to attempted to subconsciously shove you into Adonis’ corner. Nipsey who was a success but stubbornly stayed in his hood and was eventually killed, could serve as a cautionary tale, was the ideal artist to frame the message of the moment with. And of course, Adonis’ mother dies giving him that extra gas…Yet I could not help but root for Dame.
But here came the best part of the film. The fight was a visual masterpiece especially when the crowd and officials disappeared and only the two remained as if fighting in an empty room settling their differences. The choreography was the best and most beleivable of any of the Rocky, or Creed films. The fight was close but not in a cartoonish way as with most Rocky/Creed fight scenes. But inevitably “good” triumphs over evil.
The writing for the subsequent scene was only surpassed by the acting. The respect after a physical altercation was captured perfectly by Majors and Jordan. Adonis apologizes and Dame for abandoning him all those years ago. Dame graciously deflects saying “We were kids, it’s not on you.” He tells Adonis to go to his family, but instead of completing the reconciliation and insisting Dame is still family Adonis condescendingly yet again and says “if you need me, you know where to find me…”
No doubt Couglar like Dr. Dre had friends who felt left behind by his success. I imagine this informed his choice for the theme of the movie. However it reinforces some problematic stereotypes and sends a disingenuous message, hopefully unknowingly. Firstly the crabs in a barrel metaphor that is too often attributed to black people specifically. This mentality is not Germain to a race of people as it is demonstrated in people of all walks of life in varying conditions. Poverty is an ugly condition that often brings out the worst in people. However it also brings out the best in people as demonstrated with Dame who shielded Adonis from abuse and taught him how to fight.
Secondly, you may outgrow certain company in your walk and there should be no guilt in that. But you never should forget those that meant the world to you and helped you while you were there. Ignoring who you were serves you no good and cheapens your story.
Thirdly, being young is not an excuse for lack of character. Too many blame mistakes that are of weak character on youth. In the news currently is Jah Morant who is actively trying to make it out the NBA with an array of idiotic behavior. But many seek to excuse him because he is young. But many atheletes before him at younger ages and with more disadvantages were able to make wiser choices.
Lastly, code. What is a man of he has no code or loyalty. Something bigger than himself he would willingly sacrifice himself for? These days not even money is more important than fame for so many. People are selling themselves for fame and influence. Driven by public opinion people abandon their morals and sense of self to what end? This film not only justifies it but glorifies the lack of honor and loyalty. Dame excusing his former mentee for his lack of loyalty is not only unrealistic but wrong.
The movie would have been amazing if it were told from Dame’s perspective. Him winning the title after years in prison was a much more stunning feat than even Adonis coming out of retirement of 3 years to take the belt back. It was also a missed opportunity for complete reconciliation between the two. But instead he turned his back again and left Dame by himself and returned to the warmth of his new family, leaving his past behind him.
But, we stand in the shoulders of those that came before us. Never forget your past. It helped make you who you are today even if you are far from it.