Critical dialogue:

by Michael Gallantz

from Jump Cut, no. 18, August 1978, pp. 33-34
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

Ira Shor's review, "ROCKY: Two Faces of the American Dream" (JUMP CUT, 14), is a stimulating and perceptive elucidation of the themes of this movie and of their relation to some of the realities of contemporary U.S. life. It is all the more remarkable then that Shor manages to join all the leading bourgeois film reviewers with the exception of the New York Times' Vincent Canby in ignoring one of ROCKY's most salient attributes - its racism. The racism of this film is as mysteriously invisible as it is systematic and vicious. It is a mixture of old-fashioned racism that has a long history in U.S. movies with racism of a new style, a particularly 1970s shade.

1976 was the year of the Bakke decision, the decision in which the Supreme Court of California accepted Alan Bakke's contention that the University of California's administration was discriminating against whites in favor of blacks and other Third World people in its medical school admissions policy. To many this decision represented official sanction to the long simmering backlash movement. Taking a variety of political forms, this movement sees the democratic gains that blacks have won through struggle since the late 1950s as privileges. It views blacks as having formed an alliance with part of the white bourgeoisie to squeeze out the ignored and neglected white, and particularly white ethnic working class and petty bourgeoisie. The Bakke decision puts the weight of judicial liberalism behind backlash. It shifts the label of racism from the backlash movements to their opponents. With a bitter irony, the opponents of black gains don the mantle of the Fourteenth Amendment to mask their own assault on equality.

ROCKY, 1976 Academy Award winner, is a product of this same backlash. Shor rightly points out how ROCKY "explodes some myths about working people" yet "traffics in other grand illusions." But he does not deal with this particular illusion that forms the background against which the "enchanting tale" of Rocky Balboa takes place.

Early in the movie an incident occurs that sets the tone for much that follows. It takes place in Mick's gym and begins in the locker room, a setting generally associated with athletics but one that is also part of the daily work environments of many blue collar working people. Blue-collar work places generally provide lockers for their employees. When the number of workers hired exceeds the number of lockers available, the temporary workers and the newer workers will not get lockers, which go to the permanent workers and those with higher seniority. In the movie, Rocky heads for his locker and finds that he can't open the lock. He breaks it open only to find that his gear has been removed and replaced by the photos and flashier outfit of a young black newcomer. Rocky is angry at his abrupt displacement and relegation to the second-class citizenship of a sack instead of a locker, and his anger might ring bells for white workers who fear that despite seniority their jobs may be in jeopardy to the supposed threat of affirmative action. Upset, Rocky goes to the gym floor to confront Mick. As he does so, the mostly black fighters working out stop training. They watch as Mick, calling Rocky a loser, ridicules him. We see the smug and contemptuous glance of the fighter who has replaced Rocky; then the humiliated Rocky leaves; and, even before he's out the door, he is forgotten as everyone begins training again.

In this scene Rocky gets ridiculed and humiliated, as happens over and over before his final moral victory. We learn that Rocky is a loser, and we learn to empathize with him. Still, this incident sets the tone of the movie in another way as well. It is a smug confident young black for whom Rocky has to make way. Nick, here the figure of power and authority, humiliates Rocky with the silent collaboration of a roomful of other confident young blacks. These young boxers appear before us as smooth and cold fighting machines in sharp contrast to the bumbling but warm-hearted Rocky.

This portrayal of blacks as displacers of whites, allies of power and authority, and strong but soulless, introduced in the early, realistic portion of the movie, reappears in the later "fable" portion of the film. Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is a smug and cynical heavyweight champion who knows how to look out for number one. He works closely with rich white promoters with one object - making money. To him, Rocky is not a man but a money making gimmick, and the joke is not just on Rocky but on the U.S. people, on whose patriotic sentiments he plays.

In ROCKY's white working class bar, the "real" Philadelphia residents watch on TV some slick figures of power and authority hand Creed the key to their city, a city linked with such symbols of U.S. heritage as Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Creed's Bicentennial extravaganza takes this theme much further. Creed parades as George Washington and Uncle Sam, showing a black taking over yet more symbols of the American Dream, while we, the audience, know that to Creed this display is all a joke and a hype. Implicitly the defense of the genuine values of the American Dream falls upon Rocky, who is not only a "working class hero" but a Great White Hope, redeeming the spirit of a land of opportunity in the face of Creed's cynical manipulation of its symbols.

In this fight between Creed and Rocky, Stallone himself manipulates some powerful symbols. The history of boxing has had many examples of "great fights" that have had heavy racial and ideological overtones. Many writers covering boxing write like Budd Schulberg, who views boxing "as metaphor in motion … a morality play." From the end of the 18th century when a Jew, Daniel Mendoza, fought and defeated the British champion, Richard Humphries, through the early 19th century fights of the U.S. freedman Tom Molineaux against the British Tom Cribb, the victories of Jack Johnson over Tommy Burns and "Great White Hope" Jim Jeffries in the early years of this century, to the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight of 1938, pitting an U.S. black against a German billed by the Nazis as the defender of white supremacy, a series of championship bouts have placed members of racial minorities, usually black, against whites, who, willingly or otherwise, became cast as the champions of their race against the democratic stirrings of the oppressed. In some of these contests, the "democratic" contender has won. In others like Molineaux vs. Cribb, his official defeat could still be claimed as a moral victory.

This history and the mythology around it comes to play in the Creed-Balboa fight, which takes on the aura of another such racial conflict with broad social and ideological overtones. Only this time, the underdog "democratic" contender who wins a moral victory is white, and the "establishment" contender black. Like the rest of the film, the "great fight" sequence bolsters the backlash mythology that identifies blacks with power and authority and tries to make the resistance to black democratic gains appear instead to be the paradoxical heir to a history of democratic struggle.

In its reevaluation of the myths and symbols of the past, ROCKY uses another element of boxing history, the characters of two leading boxers, Mohammed Ali and Rocky Marciano. For many, Ali's fights have had the same racial and ideological importance as those historic fights of the past. Although his opponents have also been black, Ali saw them as blacks subservient to whites. Malcolm X could call the then Cassius Clay's fight with Sonny Liston "a modern crusade." Clay-Ali's rise to prominence came during the period when the civil rights movement's militancy was quickening to the point that part of it was changing into what became known as the "black power" movement. Liberals who had previously supported "civil rights" found themselves hostile to black insistence on running their own movement. In the same way liberals who had felt comfortable with the peace movement stopped short at the new antiwar and anti-imperialist militancy largely initiated by SNCC's "hell no, we won't go" campaign and embraced by Ali:

"The Viet Cong don't call me nigger."

In retrospect, this development was the beginning of the transformation of liberal opinion from support of civil rights to endorsement of the backlash. This transformation was epitomized by the contrast between a liberal judiciary's banning de jure school segregation in the 1960s on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment, and another liberal court's upholding de facto segregation in the 1970s on that same basis. Insofar as Apollo Creed evokes the Clay and Ali of the 1960s, he recalls the beginnings of a black militancy that went beyond the bounds of liberal acceptability. The putdown of Ali implicit in Creed's characterization of reinforces the movie's backlash message. This caricature erases all traces of All's uphill battle against authority and leaves the apparent arrogance of a man at the top.

As Creed recalls Ali, Rocky recalls Rocky Marciano. The name is the most obvious but not the only connection. Rocky has Marciano's picture in his apartment, and his personality resembles what Marciano was said to be. Sportswriters described Marciano as gentle and nonviolent out of the ring; he married his childhood sweetheart and stayed with her his whole life.

Even Rocky's boxing style is similar to Marciano's, who emphasized aggressiveness and ability to withstand punishment in long exchanges rather than the clever footwork that is, for example, one of Ali's trademarks. Marciano, who won the heavyweight title by defeating "Jersey" Joe Walcott in 1952, was the first white heavyweight champion since 1937 and, except for the fleeting reign of Ingemar Johansson in 1959, the last ever. Marciano retired undefeated in April, 1956, about four months after Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery bus boycott and with it the Southern freedom movement. His resignation coincided with the end of an era, and the film ROCKY uses his image to recall that era with nostalgia.

Like the more endearing aspects of the movie that Shor discusses, its racism is both "simple and complex, obvious and intricate at the same time." In a curious way the film plays against traditional cinematic racial stereotypes. We see blacks on various levels of society, not just the young boxers fresh off the streets or Creed and his entourage at the pinnacle of the sports world, but also the black newswoman, competent, successful and apparently no different from her white counterparts.

Creed himself defies traditional stereotypes. U.S. movies have often typed blacks as selfless people denying their own personal needs to serve the implicitly more important needs of whites. This stereotype is certainly no problem in ROCKY. Creed is unabashedly and successfully out for himself. Neither is Creed stupid, brutish, irresponsible, or lacking in self-control. While we learn to dislike him, no one accuses him of not having achieved his success legitimately as a result of superior skill, and he is comfortable with success and quite capable of handling both fame and fortune. Even the one traditional stereotype that Creed seems to fit best, the natural athlete, is qualified by our seeing that Creed is a clever and successful businessman as well as a good fighter. The initiatives and ideas in this area come from him rather than from the white promoter, who, in fact, takes his lead from Apollo.

In spite of this, the net effect of the treatment of blacks in the film is racist, even if not in a completely traditional way. While the black newswoman is herself devoid of any racial stereotyping, her scene with Rocky in the meat locker contributes to the development of the backlash ideology that began with the early gym scene. The black newswoman is a slick, successful part of the news media establishment that sees Rocky as a figure of fun. A figure of authority, she tells Rocky and Paulie where to stand and what to do. Her attitude to them is cool, detached and patronizing, devoid of the human warmth and failings that characterize Rocky and company. Indeed she is an intruder upon the privacy of Rocky's training and a usurper of authority in Paulie's workplace. The movie emphasizes this point, as Paulie tries to get into the picture, only to be ordered out of it by the newswoman, who finds him superfluous, in spite of the fact that as the one who works there, he has more of a right to be there than anyone else.

Creed's characterization may also not be in accord with traditional racial stereotypes, but in a curious way it too affirms some of them. He knows that Rocky is a southpaw and that he's especially vulnerable to lefties, and television has shown how hard Rocky has been training and how much his opponent has improved. Nevertheless, Creed ignores his manager's warnings and continues to regard Rocky as no threat. Either Creed is just lazy, in accordance with the stereotype of blacks as lazy and shiftless, or he is not so bright after all, in a way that is unrealistic and out of character. Whether a mistake of stupidity or of laziness, his refusal to take Rocky seriously is what does him in.

In this light, we can see Creed's Bicentennial act not just as cynical hype but also as self-deceiving hubris. Strutting and prancing in his pseudo-patriotic garb, Creed seems a self-important and self-deceiving fool who deserves the taking down that's about to befall him. One of the standard images through which movies have used black performers to get laughs is that of the black who is too big for his britches, who overreaches himself with delusions of self-importance that are ultimately comical. Creed and his Bicentennial act are part of this tradition. If the characterization of Creed does make use of old racial stereotypes, it also plays with a new one, the superhero, and then punctures the superhero balloon. It is as if it is saying to the real life black superheroes like Mohammed Ali and also to the cinematic Shafts:

"You guys think you're so great, but here we see what you're really made of."

ROCKY pours old wine into new bottles but - the hand is quicker than the eye - we hardly notice what has happened. One reason for the curious invisibility of ROCKY's racism is that Rocky himself and all his circle of friends show not a tinge of racism. Creed refers derisively to the "Eye-talian Stallion" and ribs Rocky about his ethnic background. But although the film shows Rocky ridiculed and shoved around by blacks, not even the faintest racial slur escapes either Rocky's mouth or those of his friends and acquaintances. In fact, Rocky usually refers to Creed with respect and even with some reverence. While we never see enough to know whether Creed is really a great fighter or just a show business trickster, it is Rocky himself who tells us that he's the greatest.

The portrayal of Rocky and of his urban working class community seems generally realistic, but this complete absence of any racial antagonism, especially in the context of the building tension around Rocky's encounter with Creed, seems totally implausible. In his screenplay, Sylvester Stallone takes the racial feeling that would be part of a real urban community and externalizes it in his portrayal of blacks. Black characters take on the attributes and social role that some real life whites impute to them, while whites are purified of the racial fantasies which in the film appear as "realities." In this way Stallone heightens our sympathy for Rocky and both masks and intensifies his movies racial attack.

"Our wish to have the best rescued from depravity comes true in the enchanting role of Rocky Balboa."

The reading of ROCKY presented here seems to differ considerably from this assessment by Shor, but it means to complement rather than contradict Shor's interpretation. The link between the two perspectives is the ambiguous character of a real social phenomenon, the discontent and anger of white working class communities. When mobilized, that anger can take the form of a populist style rebellion. Flawed by individualism, loyalty to the prevailing system, and a limited strategic analysis, such rebellion nonetheless arouses deserved critical sympathy from most progressives and leftists. At other times, this same discontent erupts in blatantly racist forms that only the most misguided can find reasons to support. ROCKY fuses an assertion of the potential dignity of working class people even in a corrupt society with a dishonest and itself corrupt message of racist backlash.