I was about thirteen years old when Rocky came out. I saw it during the summer, while in sleepaway camp—in a camp trip to the town movie theatre in Warrensburg, New York. I did not know much (actually—anything) about boxing. Still, I am sure I could have followed the basic plot had I been on my own. But I wasn’t on my own. Most of the camp counselors (who were with us in the theatre) were from Slippery Rock, and they were studying to be school gym teachers and college coaches. They were good guys, and they knew everything about things like boxing. So during the movie, I had a running commentary as to the details from a counselor.
Summer ended. We went home. And in pretty short order there were all sorts of reviews that Rocky was about race. The great white hope. A movie only racists could love. Here is Joe Queenan in The Guardian:
Cheerfully moronic, imbued with an almost infantile racism to which Stallone and the film's enthusiasts have long purported to be oblivious, Rocky lionizes a small-time South Philly hood who somehow manages to wangle a bout with the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, and thereupon gives him the fight of his life. The champion, Apollo Creed, is a motor-mouthed African-American punk who shows no respect for America, much less the flag; he is transparently a stand-in for Muhammad Ali, who, though sainted and adored now, was in those days reviled by a substantial percentage of white Americans, particularly old school Caucasian fight fans. (Joe Queenan, America’s great white hope?, The Guardian, https://tinyurl.com/y7wxb6g3).
Just about everything is wrong about the statement above. Apollo Creed was not portrayed as a “punk.” He was the champion. He was a boxer—who was so much better than his peers that he found difficulty finding contenders. When he could not find a contender, it was his idea to create one: giving “a local Philadelphia boy a shot at the greatest title in the world.” What this shows is that Creed was not just raw strength—he was a thinker. And that’s the truth too many of our movies never put forward about professional sports—athletes and their coaches are thinkers.
The remaining claims are similarly false. There was nothing about Creed that showed a lack of respect for America or its flag. As to Rocky, he did not “wangle” his way to getting the bout with Creed. It was handed to Rocky—a result which was wholly unexpected (from Rocky’s point of view) and wholly undeserved (ditto). Most of Rocky was about his transforming himself to make himself worthy of the shot fate (and Creed) had gifted him.
Then there is the racism charge. What is meant by an “almost infantile racism.” If it is “almost infantile,” does that mean that it is adult-like, or does it mean “almost racist,” as in not racist? Plain and simple: Queenan is a race huckster. The natural consequence of such race hucksterism is to make producers and others afraid to make movies with a diverse cast.
Still, I used to (sometimes) wonder—did I root for Rocky because he was the underdog, or because he looked more like me than Creed? I always thought it was the former, but now I am sure. Here is why.
Have you seen the Ip Man martial arts series starring Donnie Yen? Here is a link to Ip Man 2, where Ip Man fights Twister—the stand-in for British boxing. The fight is cast as a confrontation between East and West, martial arts and Western boxing, the champion and the underdog. I know that I was rooting for Ip Man, and I am not Chinese. I suspect that most people (including most Caucasian people) in British theatres (that is, in the country next door) were doing much the same—even though Twister is draped in a Union Jack.
It might be irrational to root for underdogs. Maybe underdogs don’t deserve our good will. But giving them our good will and support isn’t rooted in racism. It transcends race. I rooted for Ip Man. Rocky was never about race. Case closed.
Seth Barrett Tillman, Rocky & Racism, New Reform Club (Aug. 7, 2018, 7:06 AM), ( https://reformclub.blogspot.com/2018/08/rocky-racism.html )