THE BLOG
12/29/2015 11:02 am ET Updated Dec 28, 2016

Creed: Learning About the Life of Men in America

Sometimes we can learn a great deal by going to the movies, which is why I encourage my students to see films. The recently released film, Creed, is a case in point.

Creed has received much critical praise. It is the seventh film of a series that details the mercurial saga of Philadelphia's Rocky Balboa, the folkloric "Italian Station," whose life becomes forever entwined with the great African American boxing champion, Apollo Creed. By the time we get to the seventh film, Creed, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) is a tired and lonely man who runs a restaurant named after his late wife. At the restaurant he meets and agrees--with great reluctance--to train the boxer, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan). As a child, Johnson was caught in the nowhere land of foster care. In time he is rescued by Apollo Creed's widow who reveals to him the identity of his father who had died in the ring before his love child was born. Given his father's fate, no one in Los Angeles will train Adonis Johnson. He eventually decides to travel to Philadelphia to seek out his father's former rival and friend, Rocky Balboa. As A.O. Scott wrote admiringly about Creed in his New York Times review:

The movie is also a Hollywood rarity: a boxing movie with a black hero. It is bizarre -- though hardly surprising -- that a sport dominated for decades by African-American and Latino athletes looks more like ice hockey on screen... but... Creed ...embeds its drama in the perils and pleasures of black life in America. Adonis is a complex character with a complex fate. He is at once a rich kid and a street kid, the proud carrier of an illustrious heritage and an invisible man.

Beyond its carnal portrait of boxing, Creed is also a film about the importance of boxing in African American social life, a significance that is poignantly captured in Loic Wacquant's 2004 book, Body and Soul. In the book, Wacquant uses personal narratives, including his own, to produce a detailed sociological analysis of boxing, the "manly art." Like the best writers, Wacquant is careful to connect his subject, boxing, to larger social issues: racism and poverty in the United States. Like Creed, Body and Soul presents the sensuous world of boxing with admirable detail.

From my anthropological vantage, Creed is much more than a boxing film that graphically depicts African American social life. It also portrays the boxing world as an arena of "manly men." It is a world in which men must routinely endure ongoing pain, marshal their inner strength, stretch the limits of their endurance, and display their courage. Ideal boxers are not supposed to express their fear or show their pain.

It's not easy to meet the physical and emotional challenges of the boxing life. By the same token, it's not easy to meet the emotional challenges of being a man in contemporary America. Like boxers, ideal American men are not supposed to openly express their emotions, admit that they need help, or show their fear of life and death. This cultural theme is powerfully expressed during one scene of Creed in which Rocky travels to the cemetery. There, he sits down at the gravestones of his wife and his best friend to read them the news. In Philadelphia, everybody knows Rocky Balboa and yet he is alone. Like many men, Rocky buffers his pain by shutting down his emotions. He is so profoundly shut down that he initially refuses chemotherapy treatment for Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Upon receiving his diagnosis, Rocky accepts and welcomes his fate, admitting that his life lies in the past. The development of his relationship with Adonis Johnson, however, wakes him up and compels him to reconnect with his life in the here and now.

Many American men are not as lucky as Rocky Balboa. They find themselves living alone--or "going solo," to borrow from the title of Eric Klinenberg's new book. Death, divorce or professional circumstance finds many middle-aged men, for example, alienated from the social mainstream. Some of these men, of course, flourish in these circumstances. But many of them, like Rocky Balboa in the early scenes of Creed, don't know how to cope with loneliness or with chronic emotional or physical pain.

In this emotional desert, many adult men often turn to alcohol and drug abuse. Many of them fill an emotional void with food. This explosive cocktail often leads to verbal bombast or worse yet, physical violence. In contemporary America there is no shortage of public verbal bombast. Consider Donald Trump or Ted Cruz: two political boxers for whom bombast has replaced the sober analysis of past and present. Consider the spate of holiday news stories about dysfunction families in which the potential for violence is an everyday reality.

This ever-developing cultural condition appears to have contributed to rising mortality rates for middle income and lower income American whites. In their widely circulated essay in the September 2015 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Anne Case and Angus Deaton concluded:

This change reversed decades of progress in mortality and was unique to the United States; no other rich country saw a similar turnaround. The midlife mortality reversal was confined to white non-Hispanics; black non-Hispanics and Hispanics at midlife, and those aged 65 and above in every racial and ethnic group, continued to see mortality rates fall. This increase for whites was largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis... Self-reported declines in health, mental health, and ability to conduct activities of daily living, and increases in chronic pain and
inability to work, as well as clinically measured deteriorations in liver function, all point to growing distress in this population.

But there is always light shimmering on the horizon. Creed does underscore the emotional alienation of being a man in an increasingly dysfunctional society. But it is also a film of hope and dreams, of people confronting their limitations and fears as they step out of the shadows of alienation and illness to engage powerfully with the challenges of contemporary social life.

I do hope my students will see Creed. It conveys a strong message of hope that carries us well into the New Year.