The Great White Hope: Race, Poverty and the Power of Love in John G. Avildsen’s Rocky

It’s rocky roads and racial disputes in John G Avildsen’s Oscar winning underdog story


The first thing that struck me while re-watching Rocky this past week was just how authentic it all is. After all, the movie is essentially fantasy wish-fulfilment, a rags-to-riches tale that sees Sylvester Stallone’s gentle everyman conjure the heart to go fifteen rounds with undisputed champion of the world Apollo Creed, a glitz and glam thoroughbred who didn’t give “Rock” a fighting chance. The climactic, in-ring action may be a tad dated by today’s standards, but you feel every last blow based on our affection for the characters, and boxing is ultimately peripheral to a movie that thrives on its underdog narrative and sense of human spirit. It is somewhat ironic that Rocky would go on to forge a decades-long, billion-dollar franchise.

Rock would punch his way into the realms of blockbuster makebelieve as the saga dragged on, swinging like a wet and weary veteran looking for a final payday by the time Rocky V plunged the character to new depths with some hokey, bare-knuckle street fighting. In a transparently cheap move, the film’s finale would even echo the real-life relationship between high-profile boxing phenomenon Mike Tyson and corrupt promoter Don King, a thinly-veiled parody of King sent crashing onto the bonnet of a nearby car after threatening to sue. The difference between the fifth instalment and the original Rocky is enormous. It features the same against-all-odds story, but it resembles a dozen other late-80s Stallone vehicles that placed an emphasis on brawn over brains (most of which were handled much better by the way). By 1990, Rocky was just another commercial deadbeat struggling to make it through the first round.

As depleting an end as it was for long-time fans, Rocky’s franchise journey is generally pretty authentic, particularly since the addition of the fantastic Creed series, which gave Rocky a prominent role without overshadowing Apollo’s illegitimate child and unlikely champion Adonis. Polemical, Cold War pandering and kitsch robotics aside, Balboa’s in-ring career reflects that of many real-life sports stars thrust into the spotlight: the initial breakthrough and tabloid furore, a spell of dominance swallowed by ego, all of it topped off with a tragic sports-related illness. In the 21st century, such sagas are less common thanks to the micromanaged machine of corporate sponsorship, but it still happens. Of course, all of this was wrapped in a cute, commercial package that failed to throw up any surprises. Rocky had become a formula in its own right, everything building to a crowd-pleasing pop that sensationalised a character with distinctly humble beginnings.

Adrian : Why do you wanna fight?

Rocky : Because I can’t sing or dance.

Rocky‘s true sense of magic is forged not between the ropes, but in a rough and tumble neighbourhood where wasted life is almost a birthright. The Philadelphia slum Balboa inhabits is an industrial throwback facing obsolescence in the face of Reagan’s burgeoning global model, and for the poor and uneducated opportunities were becoming few and far between. During the 1970s, the Philadelphia suburbs were marred by harsh poverty and territorial violence, gang and mafia warfare plaguing a city that had experienced an exodus of white, middle-class families just two decades prior. Those families were replaced by an influx of African Americans, who would vacate the South in search of work in urban areas. Add to this the fact that Philadelphia has the second-largest Irish and Italian populations in the United States after New York City, and you’re in for something of a cultural stew.

Race has always been something of an elephant in the room when it comes to Rocky. Many felt the film attempted to re-write history and wipe out black dominance in professional boxing. Such sentiments were instigated by Ali himself, who after watching the original movie took a thinly-veiled dig at Hollywood by correctly pointing out that Balboa’s original arc was a transparent imitation of great white hope Chuck Wepner’s real-life, against-the-odds fairytale. Wepner was a white underdog defeated by Ali via TKO after 15 rounds having knocked the World Champion off his feet in the ninth. Speaking at the time, Ali would say, “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.”

Ali’s words are hard to dispute. African Americans have always been the victims of institutional racism, and for the majority of the 20th century that kind of prejudice translated to the silver screen. Even in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement when, while achieving higher billing, the majority of black actors were almost exclusively resigned to playing second fiddle. As always, the champ had a point, a bold and pertinent one, and was familiar with the influence of white power first-hand. Ali was a trailblazer for civil rights, a fact that almost cost him his legacy in the eyes of millions of American patriots. Having turned his back on an unjustifiable war that sent millions of low-income minorities to their deaths, he was stripped of the world title and reduced to showboat exhibitions in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, leading him to famously proclaim, “I am not allowed to work in America and I’m not allowed to leave America. I’m just about broke.” One of the greatest athletes the world has ever known was reduced to a sideshow for taking a just and vital stand against government oppression.

Still, it’s hard to write Rocky off as a racial slur. Movies, like any art form, are almost always a reflection of real-life events, and Ali was professional boxing back then. He may have shown displeasure over the fact that Apollo Creed was portrayed as the arrogant, cocksure antagonist, but was that really so far from the truth, and how much of this was Ali the showman capitalising on modern, mainstream events in a way that only he could? The great man never missed an opportunity to indulge in the kind of shameless self-promotion that endeared him to the mainstream at a time when many were unwilling to support a black champion, or an African-American Hollywood lead. Like Ali, Creed has heelish tendencies, but the people love him for it.

Creed is also portrayed as the superior fighter, one who takes his eye off the prize just long enough for Balboa to test his limits. He is also as smart as they come, while Rocky gets by on heart alone. Weathers would descend into the dubious realms of black sidekick as the Balboa saga continued, but that was a reflection of the movie business in general, and it is somewhat unfair to dismiss Rocky based on the attitudes of the industry at large. Fortunately, that kind of widespread ignorance is no longer tolerated.

For me, Rocky isn’t about race. It may have racial overtones that are a reflection of its time and place, but it’s an underdog story we can all relate to, regardless of colour of creed. The film is more concerned with poverty and the lack of opportunity facing working class families existing on the fringes of society as modernity threatened to make a generation obsolete. In areas of low opportunity, a lack of self-worth afflicts even the most cheerful, proud or outwardly tough of characters; you only have to look at film’s protagonist to see that. Rocky is a natural-born fighter punching his way through shoe box venues for a bit of extra scratch — an aside to his job as a hired tough for a local loan shark. He is a hugely popular figure, even with the desperate, debt-ridden locals he is supposed to smack around. Balboa is too goodhearted for that kind of thing, often letting things slide at the expense of himself. Each night he returns home battered and half-cooked, rambling to a collection of low-maintenance pets who offer us our first window into Rocky’s true desire, and ultimately his salvation.

Paulie : [talking about Adrian] You like her?

Rocky : Sure, I like her.

Paulie : What’s the attraction?

Rocky : I dunno… she fills gaps.

Paulie : What’s ‘gaps’?

Rocky : I dunno, she’s got gaps, I got gaps, together we fill gaps.

That salvation comes in the form of another hopelessly unfulfilled figure, a local pet shop clerk who drapes her beauty in rags and evades eye contact like the plague. Played with a shrewd sense of fragility by The Godfather‘s Talia Shire, Adrian is a trampled flower aching to blossom through the concrete slums of Philadelphia, a woman weaned under the oppressive rule of her alcoholic brother, Paulie (Burt Young), and before that a mother who once told her, “you wasn’t born with much of a body, so you better develop your brain.” Rocky is the complete opposite of that assertion. He doesn’t have much in the way of conventional education, but if true wisdom comes from the heart then he has it in abundance. They say opposites attract, and on the surface at least, the two couldn’t be any further apart, but as Rocky later explains in a conversation with Paulie, together people, “fill gaps”, and in the case of Rocky and Adrian, all the pieces fit.

As with everything else in this movie, their union doesn’t come easy. While Rocky is persistent, Adrian is resistant. While he combats his own shyness with ceaseless monologuing, Adrian quietly retreats into her shell, but eventually her resistance is broken. This is a beautifully crafted love story, one devoid of sentimentality that plays out so authentically it is often excruciating to behold. Their first date on a deserted ice rink is a masterful unravelling of two tightly wound souls who long for the kind of freedom that can only be found in the love and compassion of another, and when the two finally embrace on the floor of Balboa’s dilapidated apartment, the release is palpable.

After that moment, all Rocky sees is Adrian, even when the exploitative world champion and his camera-hungry entourage come calling with the opportunity of a lifetime. Creed is all flamboyance and ego, concerned more with public image than in-ring performance, particularly when he brightens the existence of a relative no-mark in the name of American democracy. That’s his pitch to the public arena, but in reality the Italian Stallion is a chance for Creed to exert his superiority in a white-dominated society. From the very outset, he is little more than a pawn.

Based on this sentiment, it’s easy to see why Ali was so vocal about Creed’s role in the film. Finally the black community had taken steps to overcome their white oppressors and Creed was being painted as the cocksure antagonist who had bitten off more than he could chew. Of course, the Ali-Wepner fight reflected this. Ali was as brash and impervious as ever going into the bout, and people weren’t expecting arguably the greatest fighter there ever was to get knocked down by the likes of Wepner, even if his best years were behind him. So confident were they of Ali’s infallibility that the fight was billed as ‘Give the White Guy a Break’. I’m sure many saw Wepner’s feat as some sort of racial victory, but that’s their problem.

By contrast, Rocky is the personification of humility. When he’s given the podium during another worthless publicity stunt, all he wants to do is give a shout-out to his beloved Adrian, whose importance transcends even the grandest of opportunities. After Paulie attempts to exploit his friend’s name for profit, Rocky is uninterested but ultimately relents for the sake of his friend. Paulie is arguably the movie’s most tragic figure. He bemoans his sister’s self-imposed isolation, blames her for his own predicament, but in reality the opposite is true. When Adrian and Rocky grow close, Paulie becomes jealous, realising he is about to lose the only person in the world that gives his life meaning. A lesser film may have portrayed Paulie as the bad guy, but instead he is a real person with real problems, a character we can sympathise with who is never far from redemption.

Director Avildsen, who would later give us another classic underdog story in the more child-friendly The Karate Kid, is a master at putting actors front and centre and allowing their onscreen relationships to blossom organically. He creates timeless characters and sacred bonds, the kind that would come to define both movies. Tonally, the two films are very different, but the strength of those characters and their relationships are what resonate, and nobody could project boyish charm quite like Stallone, not even Ralph Macchio as the impetuous but well-meaning Daniel LaRusso. For all his status as a hypermasuline action star, Sly is capable of human relatability on an intimate level, and as Rocky he gives the performance of a lifetime, forging a character who is a victim of his environment and all that it breeds.

Away from its romance narrative, Rocky is about reaching one’s potential, a fact broached early on by local trainer Mickey, who takes away Rocky’s locker and tells him in no uncertain terms exactly what he thinks of his lifestyle and descent into street thuggery. For ten years he has been ignored by Mickey, a curmudgeon boxing coach who resents Balboa’s wasted talent, but it is less a lack of drive on Rocky’s part, more a lack of self-worth that inhibits his progress, and Rocky is hurt by Mickey’s analysis because he knows that his brutally honest assessment is nothing short of the truth. The late Burgess Meredith is exceptional as the gravel-voiced Mickey, the personification of poverty’s constant struggle. When Rocky finally gets his act together, Mickey gets a glimpse of the potential he has always lamented, but there’s no soppy reunion in sight. He wants to train Balboa for the big fight for selfish reasons, seeing the title fight with Creed as his last shot at the big time, a dream that has so far eluded him. Rocky sees through his former trainer’s pandering but ultimately relents. Mickey may be hard-nosed and largely in it for himself, but he’s the only one who ever saw anything in ‘Rock’, a shot of validation that is worth its weight in gold.

There are parallels to be drawn between trainer and trainee, but there are parallels everywhere in this movie. The colourful, yet grey suburban dwellers of Philadelphia’s ravaged industrial landscape are all walking the same path. Earlier in the movie, Balboa attempts to take a young hood under his wing almost as a reaction to Mickey’s rejection. The girl in question can’t be more than thirteen, but she’s already taking baby steps along Rocky’s doomed path. She drinks, smokes, hangs around with a group of older boys who are only after one thing, and Rocky warns her about the importance of having respect for oneself, though on some level he seems to be lecturing himself. Rocky’s triumphant rise may provide cinematic wish-fulfilment, but this isn’t mawkish storytelling. Though Rocky is a Cinderella story underscored by crowd-pleasing romance, this is no fairy tale environment. The characters and environments we’re faced with are all-too-real.

Rocky : I been comin’ here for six years, and for six years ya been stickin’ it to me, an’ I wanna know how come!

Mickey : Ya don’t wanna know!

Rocky : I wanna know how come!

Mickey : Ya wanna know?

Rocky : I WANNA KNOW HOW!

Mickey : OK, I’m gonna tell ya! You had the talent to become a good fighter, but instead of that, you become a legbreaker to some cheap, second rate loanshark!

Rocky : It’s a living.

Mickey : IT’S A WASTE OF LIFE!

A cash-strapped Stallone would turn down big money from producers who weren’t keen on casting him in the lead role, and his perseverance would pay dividends. Like a true underdog story, Rocky would storm the 49th Academy Awards, claiming three Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing, managing a further seven nominations. Of all of those nominations most deserving of a gong — and many of them were — it was Bill Conti’s nomination for Best Music (Original Song) “Gonna Fly Now”, which is still one of the most memorable and iconic themes in all of cinema, perfectly capturing Rocky’s unlikely rise from lowly has-been to undisputed people’s champion. From those first creeping notes early in the movie, subdued and melancholy, to the triumphant burst that sees Rocky scale the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a fist-pumping scene that still makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, we’re with him every last step of the way. We grow as he does.

Avildsen’s decision to not have underdog Rocky win the title may have gone against our primal desires, but it was unquestionably the correct decision. Anything more would have detracted from the movie’s true purpose. After ignoring videos of his hungry challenger smashing the ribs of a carcass at the local abattoir, Creed receives the beating of his life, and with both men still standing at the end of their epic battle the arrogant champion promises there’ll be no rematch. This sits fine with Balboa. He’s proven all he’ll ever have to prove, and in Adrian he has already claimed the only prize that truly matters. It is testament to the movie that, as an audience, we leave the battle-scarred arena even more fulfilled for Rocky having come up short.

Ali, who would watch Rocky II with legendary film critic Roger Ebert, would eventually admit to liking the original Rocky, and had just as many positive things to say about the sequel, a movie in which the black champion is finally defeated by Hollywood’s great white hope. Watching Carl Weathers relish in his role as Rocky II‘s pantomime villain, the former heavyweight champion would openly proclaim, “Rocky Part Two, starring Apollo Creed as Muhammad AliThat’s me, all right. Apollo sounds like me. Insulting the opponent in the press, to get him psyched out. That’s me exactly.” And very proud he was too.

Director: John G. Avildsen
Screenplay: Sylvester Stallone
Music: Bill Conti
Cinematography: James Crabe
Editing: Richard Halsey &
Scott Conrad

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