Aaron Stewart-Ahn Talks Ryan Coogler’s Creed

This miraculous continuation and reimagining of one of the great cinematic sagas marks a significant moment in American filmmaking.

“To succeed or fail, one time, just give me a shot… If I fail, I get it, OK. But that lack of opportunity is what’s so debilitating, so degrading, fatiguing, makes you world weary… And that’s what Rocky was all about.” – Sylvester Stallone

Creed is a miracle. I say that because I’m sort of in disbelief that it exists. It’s like a photograph of an animal like a Siberian Tiger, of which there are only about 500 left in the world, and who sometimes stumble into Russian dash cam videos to remind us of the primeval glory that preceded our gadget-infested world. Creed is a very rare example of an endangered species, the Hollywood melodrama, and it is so finely wrought, so electrically and smartly directed and acted, that I feel the need to see it again before everything it stands for in movies is gone for good. And yet the movie gives me hope that Ryan Coogler’s vision and the undercurrents in his filmmaking are a flag, a rallying cry, a bastion of things to come.

A funny thing has happened since the release of that first Rocky movie in 1976. The nerds won culture, and their mythologies dominate, and it’s a landscape far more troubling than we could have foreseen (though the signs were there given how much 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds is centered on non-consensual sexual predation). We never knew how good we had it with our old heroes, and as for the athlete, despite the success afforded a rarefied few, the pressures and institutions that they maneuver in have created a world of brutal compromise, comprising debilitating personal injury, steroids, match-fixing, sex-abuse scandals, exploitation by colleges and, most pointedly brought back to the fore again in America in 2015, the never-ending specter of institutional racism in sports. Look no further than the double standard by which the paper of record writes disparagingly about Serena Williams, the most accomplished athlete in America today. As our society becomes ever more digitized, we continue to devalue individuals who build lives and livelihoods out of their bodies.

There is a distinct parallel with cinema history: as Leos Carax (who once wrote a rave review of Paradise Alley in Cahiers du Cinéma) has noted, the history of cinema is a record of the pleasure of viewing the human body in motion. That has become obsolete, and now in movie theaters we increasingly watch digital bodies performing digital actions, heroic feats replaced by superheroic ones. In the best of those movies, the drama is still potent, but we always know that the bodies aren’t real.

And that brings us to the bodies in Creed. The record of cinema is also a record of the human body over time, and in its entirety the Rocky saga has inadvertently come to have a more profound emotional effect on me than, say, Boyhood. For all the attempts by the post-Vietnam titans of macho cinema to return to our screens, none have accepted the dissolution of their vanity, their mortality, as daringly as Stallone ultimately does in this movie. Let me admit something: it’s fucking hard to get through scenes in this movie without feeling like you’re going to cry just from seeing that Stallone’s physicality cannot lie any more. There’s a particular scene that instantly reminded me of the loss of his cinematically devoted son Sage, and it did not rip me out of the movie. It became complementary grief, a special effect that only a human life can create, an acknowledgement of the harshest truth of our existence. There are so many of these layers going on in Creed, an interplay between the legacies being handed down both in its story and off-screen, and that the film isn’t weighed down by them but made stronger is remarkable.

In comparison to the Expendables movies, which only deal with mortality intellectually and ironically, here Stallone attains a grace he’s never had before simply by acting his age. It’s a generous performance, because as great as Stallone’s acting is (and I cannot stress enough the importance of this in an age when directors are becoming increasingly devalued) he gives his trust and faith to a prodigiously talented director, and serves the movie with respect. How many movie stars would be so willing to hand over an icon that’s an actual statue in the city of Philadelphia?

The body of work crafted by Ryan Coogler and his collaborators is strong enough to earn it. From the first lengthy tracking shot, I knew this director had it, and not just for his technical assurance and skilled visual grammar. Coogler is a natural at understanding exactly how little you need to sense an emotion, how a few cinematic images given the right amount of devotion have a solid power that 10 aimless ones don’t. Studio movies seem to have become so needlessly complicated, both narratively and technically, I could barely remember they once had nimble grace like this, simple on the surface but emotionally rich. The script, co-written by Aaron Covington, is deft; seemingly reductive lines have multiple weighty meanings which I’m only catching days later. The emotional direction combined with those words leaves me punch-drunk; it’s all footwork and fundamentals, the thing that most people don’t observe in boxing but you can’t win a fight without. Not that I’m saying Creed is a perfect movie – there’s a narrative leap to a rivals’ plot that is wholly unnecessary and, most disconcertingly for me, the complete absence of Punchy, the dog Rocky adopts in the previous movie.

But let’s return to the first shot of the movie. The bodies of young Black children, incarcerated; the first emotion we experience during a moment of violence is their human fear. That fear is the key to what is tremendous about Coogler’s work in this film, the broad emotional spectrum he crafts. Although it’s an old-fashioned sports melodrama with a formulaic structure, something really interesting is going on underneath its plot, images and sounds. Coogler gives those cinematic bodies souls, for the true heart of the movie is the performances of Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson, who not only hold their own against a genuine icon, they manage to create their own story, a story about the intoxication of young people dreaming with each other. Jordan has to be the audience’s vessel while also having his own emotional interiority, and he’s so good he tricks you into thinking it’s effortless and not staggeringly hard. Thompson is so exceptional and forthright in her role that I’ve no doubt her character could carry a whole movie. As Richard Brody points out, Bianca’s story might even be more heroic than Adonis’ (her backstory causes me to daydream a scenario like Carax’s own The Lovers on the Bridge, in which Juliette Binoche’s painter wants to see everything before she goes blind).

Coogler earns a love story because he repeatedly lets us in on Adonis and Bianca’s fear, insecurity, rage, pride. Their story is iconic, but their characters are complex. Something lacking in many movies today (best expressed by Chris Pratt’s character in Jurassic World) is a fundamental understanding of masculinity. Coogler displays how much fear is part of that identity, even for a man who wants to fight, and also finds the humor in it. In some ways (and there are those undercurrents again), it’s a radical cinematic reclamation; Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work continually reminds us that in America we continually discuss violence wrought upon Black bodies without permitting Black people to express fear. Creed lets us experience the fear without which heroism would not exist.

In one of the most sublimely ecstatic moments in the movie, Adonis trains in the streets with a Philadelphia motorbike gang, reminiscent of the city’s real Hang Gang or Baltimore’s 12 O’Clock Boys. As the soundtrack reprised Bill Conti’s original theme with the addition of Philly rapper Meek Mill, the sold-out NYC audience I saw it with burst into applause. Coogler wordlessly offers that young Black people, be they inner city kids who love motorcycles, or boxers with inheritances, or women who want to make art, are all in search of one and the same thing: the sensation of being alive on their own terms. I cannot remember the last time I saw such a conventional studio movie that was so unapologetic, so humanizing about the pursuit of Black excellence, and the liberation that follows that pursuit. Another scene that drew a gigantic reaction from the audience (as much as the virtuosic one-take shots in the boxing ring) was a prosaic, intimate shot of Adonis and Bianca in bed, casually conversing as Adonis takes down Bianca’s braids. That this sense memory and humanity about the Black experience has been carried into the saga of one of the most iconic figures in post-war American pop culture, for audiences all across America to witness is, again, a miracle.

As Junot Díaz says, “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” Something extraordinary that happened was that Stallone’s post-war immigrant aspirations fed the dreams of Coogler. We desperately seek representation in what we watch on screen. (I still wonder to this day, is Nien Nunb in Return of the Jedi supposed to be Asian?) To Coogler, and his movie, Apollo was just as much the early hero of the Rocky movies as Balboa. And that’s the real legacy that gives birth to Adonis Creed.

I leave you with an image then, an image of a world-class director and cinematographer making a movie in 2015, a year when only 5 percent of movies were shot by women, and a only handful of theatrically distributed releases were by Black directors. It’s a funny thing about the movies, that in the past decade audiences have embraced countless dystopian movies about freedom fighters rising up against oppressive orders, while our media is suspicious and dismissive of the Black Americans who are doing that in reality. That one of the best movies I’ve seen in years comes from filmmakers like these is a testament to everything they put into their movie. Creed is (and I am surprised to be saying this with so much sincerity, but I mean every word) America at its best, a cinematic passing of the torch to who will now tell us the story of our most idealistic, grounded, truthful dreams.

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Aaron Stewart-Ahn lives in NYC. His next projects are a feature he co-wrote for Panos Cosmatos, a documentary about Eric Garner’s daughter, and a story for Ales Kot’s comic series, Wolf. In between making films he works in a bicycle shop.