Chris Rock, during his opening Oscars monologue last night:
But things are changing. Things are changing.
We got a black Rocky this year. Some people call it “Creed.” I call it “Black Rocky.”
And that’s a big, that’s an unbelievable statement. I mean, cause “Rocky” takes place in a world where white athletes are as good as black athletes.
“Rocky” is a science fiction movie. There’s things that happened in “Star Wars” that are more believable than things that happened in “Rocky,” O.K.?
This is probably correct about most of the Rocky movies– I mean, as Muhammad Ali said to Roger Ebert when they watched “Rocky II” together,
“A great movie,” he said. “A big hit. It has all the ingredients. Love, violence, emotion. The excitement never dulled.”
What do you think about the way the fight turned out?
“For the black man to come out superior,” Ali said, “would be against America’s teachings. I have been so great in boxing they had to create an image like Rocky, a white image on the screen, to counteract my image in the ring. America has to have its white images, no matter where it gets them. Jesus, Wonder Woman, Tarzan and Rocky.”
But this is not exactly right about the first movie, the original 1976 “Rocky.” Most obviously, Rocky loses to Creed, and is clearly not as talented a fighter. But more importantly, the whole thrust of the movie is about a reversed racial consciousness, a Bizarro America and Bizarro Philadelphia where white is black and black is white. All the white people in the film, pretty much, are oppressed by poverty, dissolute with age or drink; Rocky, though gentle and kind, is drawn into a career as a petty criminal breaking thumbs for a low-life loan shark; there’s even a scene of young white guys gathered around a flaming barrel singing soul music.
The black characters, on the other hand, are all upwardly mobile, unsullied by poverty. Apollo Creed is the epitome of the successful businessman– at home in the world, articulate, confident and ebullient, a master with the media, while Rocky can barely mumble a sentence. At Rocky’s lowest point, his gym locker is given away to a younger, fitter black fighter. It is the black characters who are in possession of the American Dream, as is made so clear in the scene immediately before the fight where Apollo Creed appears as George Washington for the Philadelphia 1976 Bicentennial:
Sports movies often use race as a metaphor for struggle against obstacles, or the need for self-discipline, perseverance, or teamwork . “The Karate Kid” is, for example, about a kid who is white in Newark but is suddenly no longer white when he moves to blonde-filled California. But while the training scenes are really the heart of “The Karate Kid”- along with the connection Daniel forges with Miyagi- in “Rocky,” the center of the film is always Rocky himself and his ability to rise above circumstance, literally climbing in the famous scene climbing up the Philadelphia museum steps:
Note that in the original, Rocky is by himself. In the sequel (which Ali watched with Ebert, he’s followed by hordes of young fans):
Future Republican primary voters, all of them.
Rocky is fantasy, but it wasn’t solely fantasy: the 70s were both a time when black incomes made some progress, and in which black neighborhoods in great American cities reached a new state of physical abandonment and decay. So, for example, Philadelphia in 1973:
The stories we tell about race in America often hypothesize a gradual but relentless uplift, escaping from the darkness of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow, rising with the civil rights movement, and culminating in the election of the first black President. But the truth is more inconsistent and unyielding to effort or hope.
Of course, white American fortunes have also been, in some ways, less amenable to wide-eyed optimism in recent years. And the combination of multiple disappointments for whites as well as black is probably part of what has made our current civic discourse so vitriolic.
My first grown-up job was organizing community service projects for schools in the South Philadelphia neighborhoods where Rocky largely takes place. The kids were low-income though racially mixed, and they got along well with each other, with few social divisions among them. I would have been sure at the time that as many problems as those kids would face in life, overt and explicit racial animus would be a relatively small part of them. I’m less sure now.