Monday, January 18, 2016

The disservice I did to Creed

I gave Creed a perfect 10/10 score when I reviewed it for ReelGood, and I've just named it my second favorite film of 2015, behind only Inside Out. That's out of 143 total movies I ranked. I also wrote this glowing post about it on the blog. In other words, I've done everything within one man's power to raise awareness of a terrific film that deserves the maximum number of viewers and the most possible recognition during awards season.

So how could I possibly have done it a disservice, you ask?

Well, in the wake of the Oscar nominations and the near total snubbing of African Americans, it's become sadly clear how I've unwittingly furthered the trend of overlooking the contributions of minorities to the films we love.

See, I wrote a nearly 1,100-word review of Creed -- and spent nearly half those words talking about Sylvester Stallone. Who just so happens to have become the only Oscar nomination from a film made by a black director with a black star and black female romantic lead. All of whom are absolutely terrific in this film -- to the extent that the director is "in" it.

I sensed the imbalance even while I was writing the review, but I was in such a feverish state of rapture that I didn't go back to even things out. I was happy with what I wrote, and knew that I'd have to make sacrifices on what I could cover in the interest of length. The thing about movies you love is that you want to devote double your allotted word count to them. Even as it was, it's the longest review I've written for ReelGood.

But looking back now I feel especially guilty about inadvertently embodying a viewpoint that is sadly common both in Hollywood and in the entertainment media. I wrote a review of a film by a black director and I made it all about its white star. Actually, its white co-star. Actually, really, its white supporting player. Stallone was nominated as a supporting actor, not a lead one.

Of course, Stallone's case is a bit unusual. He was the lead actor in every other Rocky movie, and he is the single person most associated with the nearly 40-year-old franchise. But he clearly isn't the lead actor in this one, and my review did a poor job recognizing that. (As is this post doing. We've gotten this deep and I haven't even mentioned the name of the director, Ryan Coogler, or the name of the star, Michael B. Jordan, or the name of his awesome love interest, Tessa Thompson.)

What happened was, I got this great idea about how to open the piece, comparing the fortunes of Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, both 80s action icons, in their attempts to restart their most popular franchises in 2015. That's one of those darlings I should have killed, to paraphrase the old writing aphorism, because it did not relate very directly to Creed as a movie. But once I'd done that, it was only logical that I continue to call back to Stallone whenever and wherever the review seemed to call for it. And given the performance he delivered, it was all too easy to do that.

But what seems clear is that I missed "the story" of Creed's success. What I thought was the story was that Stallone, through sheer willpower and what was revealed belatedly to be good sense, had delivered the most satisfying entry in the series possibly since the original. I didn't know the real story at that time because I didn't know two things:

1) Ryan Coogler came up with this idea and brought it to Stallone;

2) Ryan Coogler is black.

It's the second one that really shocked me when I learned it. Coogler's Fruitvale Station was just outside my top ten in 2013, but for some reason, in all the discussion of that film I never absorbed the narrative that the film's director was black. And I think that's probably because his skin color was just not pushed very hard in the discussion of that film -- I mean, as far as I knew, it was not pushed at all since I never even learned that key piece of information. (I was also in the midst of moving to Australia at the time, so maybe I just didn't read as much about it as I thought I did.) Sure, the subject matter related to black characters, but for some reason I had always assumed that the film's writer and director was a white guy who was just unusually attuned to black subject matter. If asked to explore the reasons for that assumption, I'd probably tell you that I thought the name Coogler sounded Jewish. (And I'm not trying to get myself into further trouble here -- there's nothing wrong with Coogler possibly being a Jewish name, and it would be a pretty common thing in the movie industry.)

Anyway, I only finally learned that Coogler was black maybe ten days after I'd seen Creed.

It was actually at that same time that I learned that Coogler was the impetus behind this film. That's why I make reference in that review to the fact that this could have just been another director-for-hire assignment. I thought that Coogler was that director for hire, but without Coogler, the movie never would have existed.

If I'd known either of these things I certainly would have shifted the focus of my review. But I think it was also that I felt a little uncomfortable delving into the discussion of racial politics in that film, and part of that discomfort comes from the fact that the movie itself doesn't make an issue of race. Adonis Johnson's race is basically incidental, which is one of the things that makes Creed such a satisfying face of what we want the modern representations of race in the movies to be. If that movie doesn't want to make a big deal out of race, I'll respect that and follow suit in my review.

But then there's the more buried layers of meaning, where Johnson's race really does matter. There's an unspoken notion in this movie that Johnson actually is symbolic of many young black men in America, even though his circumstances ultimately end up being very different from many of theirs. Ultimately he lives his teenage years in a mansion as he is adopted by his father's wealthy widow. But before that, he's a kid going in and out of juvy because he grew up without a dad. Many black kids grow up without fathers, sometimes because they're dead, sometimes because they're in jail, or sometimes because they just left. On an unspoken level, this movie is about those kids finding their way in life and making something of themselves, rather than succumbing to crime, drugs or violence. (Johnson is involved in the violence part, but it's in his genes, and he does find a socially acceptable outlet for it.)

But to talk about all this in my review would have been to talk about things that are not present on a texual level in the movie, only on a subtextual level. And it could have become an instance of my seeing race or racism everywhere, when this movie overtly tries not to be about that. Then, you also walk the line of being a white film critic supposing to understand things about the lives of black kids, and you risk looking either condescending or just plain insensitive. Plus, I had all these other wonderful things I wanted to talk about. Too much good stuff in this movie.

But let's say an Academy member had only my review to go on in judging how to choose Oscar nominees from Creed. It's a pretty far-fetched scenario, as it's unlikely any Academy members actually read my review at all, and even if they had, they couldn't have voted on the awards in good conscience without actually seeing the movie and judging for themselves. But let's just say they did go only on my review. They would have read my opening paragraph, in which I call Stallone possibly the best part of the movie. They would have taken special note of the fifth paragraph, devoted entirely to Stallone, which actually ends with my prognostication that he'd get an Oscar nomination. But then they would have noticed that even in praising Thompson in the next paragraph, I talked about how her character speaks lines of dialogue that are a metaphor for Stallone's career.

Stallone Stallone Stallone. I couldn't get enough. And I don't think I'm wrong about him. He's great. He just isn't the whole movie.

Now, I need to let myself off the hook a little here in that the third paragraph is devoted mostly to Coogler, Coogler also gets a shout-out at the beginning of the second paragraph, and the sixth belongs mostly to Jordan. However, most of Jordan's paragraph is how his character is living down famous associations in the movie, something Jordan himself must do in real life since he shares the same name as perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time. Another thing not really directly related to Creed. Another darling I should have killed.

I can't help but notice that even in the little blurb I wrote on Creed in my year-end rankings piece, I spent more time on Stallone than I did on either Coogler or Jordan. And that was just a couple days ago.

But it was before the Oscar nominations were announced.

Creed was never likely to get a nomination for best picture, even though the original Rocky actually won that award. In fact, I'm pretty sure that Mad Max: Fury Road has just become the latest sequel in any series to be nominated for best picture, it being the fourth Mad Max film. As the seventh Rocky film, Creed should scarcely exist, let alone qualify for the year's top award. But Jordan really could have gotten a nomination, especially in a year where a nomination was thrown to Matt Damon when he didn't seem to really warrant one. And Thompson, by going way outside what's expected of the main character's love interest, could have been considered as well in the supporting category. Getting Coogler in the best director race would have been a tall order, but he could have gotten recognized for his script. Maybe.

But what might or might not have happened vis-a-vis Creed's Oscar nominations is kind of secondary to the point I'm trying to examine here. I played a role, however small, in making the conversation about Creed all about Stallone. He's deserving of praise, but he's not the only one.

At least we can say that if Stallone weren't already the frontrunner, he certainly is now. Voters seem certain to throw votes Stallone's way just to assuage their guilt about not honoring other black performers, writers or directors this year. Sad to say, that may have been a factor in what happened last year with Selma's best original song win, though I'm exceptionally wary of diminishing someone's accomplishments by chalking them up to tokenism. A vote for Stallone will function as a vote for Coogler, Jordan or Thompson, at least in the minds of an Academy with a guilty conscience. When you honor an actor, you are honoring that actor's director in a very real and a very direct way.

And when/if that does happen, at least we'll be able to say that Creed was an Oscar winner.

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