Between a Rocky and a Hard Place: How Rocky Balboa Taught Your Mom to Fear Black Men and Communism


Between a Rocky and a Hard Place: How Rocky Balboa Taught Your Mom to Fear Black Men and Communism


by Dale Bridges


Every generation yearns to understand the one that came before it, if for no other reason than to publish essays on the Internet criticizing past cultural icons in order to prove to your parents once and for all that you didn’t just “fritter away” six years of college smoking weed and playing Frisbee golf—so there!

There are many respected academic methods of analyzing the social progress of large populations, but most of them are boring and involve math.  Therefore, the author would like to propose a theory that can be researched whilst eating potato chips on the couch.  The theory is this: One can trace the anxieties that have plagued the Baby Boomer generation by watching all six Rocky movies in succession.

Let us begin.

Movie: Rocky.  Year: 1976.  Fear: black men.

The author of this essay would like to state for the record that he loves this movie.  And not in some ironic, hipstery it’s-great-because-it’s-bad type of way either.  His love is sincere and eternal.  The dialogue in the original Rocky is fantastic, the cast is perfect, the cinematography is wonderfully understated, and it’s just a damn good underdog story.  In fact, if Stallone had stopped here, this author believes snooty film scholars would feel comfortable describing Rocky as one of the best boxing movies of all time without squirming in their seats hoping no one mentions Dolph Lundgren or Tommy Morrison.

As any first-year student of Rockyology knows, Stallone was a struggling actor and screenwriter before he penned the script that made him famous, and the inspiration for that script was a 1975 boxing match between heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and unknown white dude Chuck Wepner.  Ali won the fight easily, but the boxing world was shocked that Wepner was able to stay on his feet for almost fifteen rounds before a TKO was declared.  (It’s worth pointing out here that by this time in American history black men so dominated the sport of boxing that simply staying conscious through a title fight was considered an accomplishment for a white man.)

Today, Ali is widely considered a sports legend and beloved civil rights leader, but in the 1970s he was one of the most hated men in America.  He was a cocky, outspoken black man who converted to Islam, renamed himself after the Muslim prophet who founded the religion, and refused to fight in Vietnam.  He was the epitome of what racists call “uppity,” and he appeared to be proud of it.  White America couldn’t wait to see Ali get his comeuppance, and since no white man could beat him in real life Rocky provided that catharsis at the theater.

In the movie, Ali is represented by Apollo “The Master of Disaster” Creed, a bombastic black heavyweight champion who speaks in rhyming couplets, taunts his opponent, and is cynical about American patriotism.  Wepner may have been the inspiration for the script, but Rocky “The Italian Stallion” Balboa is named after Rocky Marciano, the last great white hope.  Rocky surprises Apollo by knocking him down in the first round, and after that it’s an epic brawl that goes the distance, with Apollo barely edging out Rocky in a controversial decision at the end.

Basically, Rocky was culture porn for Baby Boomers in the 1970s who feared the rise of a new generation of strong black men and wanted to see them put them in their place.

Movie: Rocky II.  Year: 1979.  Fear: black men and feminism. 

If there had only been one movie, this argument would be mostly hypothetical.  Sure, there’s a direct correlation between Ali and Creed, Marciano and Balboa, but you can’t establish a theory of systemic racial fear based on one precarious example.  After all, at the end of Rocky, the white man wins the integrity battle but loses the fight.  However, with the second movie, the pattern is confirmed.  Integrity be damned; the Baby Boomers wanted to see the black man beaten once and for all.

The anxiety about feminism is a bit more subtle than the racial fear in the first movie but becomes apparent in the second.  The only consistent female element in the Rocky series is Adrian.  In the first movie, she is so painfully shy she barely even has a voice.  She hides her body under sweaters and hats; she seldom makes eye contact with anyone; and she’s powerless against the verbal and emotional abuse heaped upon her by her brother, Paulie.  It’s only when she starts dating a man that she learns to stand up for herself.

Rocky helps Adrian find her voice, but Adrian doesn’t necessarily have the same positive affect on Rocky.  Rocky’s trainer, Mickey, warns about women in the first movie, advising Rocky not to have sex while he’s training with the famous line, “Women weaken legs.”  The implication is that females have a tendency to civilize males, sapping their physical and spiritual strength, and transforming them into emasculated losers.

To solidify the point, the second movie begins with a series of domesticating moments: shopping for mens wedding bands, a marriage proposal, a wedding, clothes shopping, house hunting, and finally pregnancy.  Rocky has retired from boxing at the behest of Adrian, so he has basically been castrated.  He attempts to get work outside of the boxing ring, but he can’t find steady employment.  In order to pay the rent, Adrian goes back her job at the pet shop where they first met, despite Rocky’s claim that, “I’m the one who’s supposed to support.”

Meanwhile, Creed is taunting Rocky publicly, challenging his masculinity in an effort to shame him into a rematch.  Rocky, unable to provide for his family, makes the decision to fight Creed again, and when Adrian protests, he tells her, “I never asked you to stop being a woman, you know.  Please—I’m asking you please don’t ask me to stop being a man.”

“Being a man” in this case means making more money than your wife and beating the snot out of the guy who’s calling you a chicken.

Rocky starts to train for the rematch, but his heart isn’t in it.  He made the decision to fight unilaterally, but he’s not satisfied unless his wife adopts his point of view.  Paulie visits Adrian at her workplace and tells her that Rocky is going to get injured in the ring, and it’s her fault because she’s not being a supportive wife.  Adrian then tries to lift a heavy bag of dog food, faints, and is rushed to the hospital.  The baby is born premature (a boy, naturally), and Adrian lapses into a coma.

Lesson: if you work outside the home and fail to support your husband, you might die.

In the end, Adrian wakes up from the coma having learned her lesson and tells Rocky she wants him to win the fight.  His house in order, the white American male is now ready to beat the shit out of the mouthy black guy.

Movie: Rocky III.  Year: 1982.  Fear: angry black men and death.

One of the most brilliant aspects of the Rocky series is how Stallone is able to alter the formula just enough with each movie to keep pace with the evolution of Baby Boomer anxiety.  It’s also important to note that it is essential to the formula that Rocky is always the underdog; therefore, no matter how rich he becomes or how often he defends his title, the audience must feel sorry for him and believe he has to beat the odds in order to win.

By the time the ’80s rolled around, Ali had finally been defeated and he was beginning to show signs of physical and mental decay that would later be diagnosed as Parkinson’s.  Furthermore, sports writers and civil rights historians were discussing his legacy in a positive light, and he was starting to be recognized as a global humanitarian rather than a national threat.  Therefore, it was necessary to change the Rocky narrative.

But white America wasn’t ready to give up on its fear of black men just yet.  During the 1980s, urban squalor created black slums in many inner-city neighborhoods, where the drug addiction and gang violence that existed were exaggerated in the media.  The myth of the violent black man was broadcast into suburban homes every night on the news.

In the third movie, Rocky’s opponent, Clubber Lang (a.k.a. Mr. T), is all anger.  That’s his entire character.  The reason for his rage is never explained, presumably because it doesn’t matter where his anger comes from.  All the audience needs to know is that he’s black and he’s pissed.

At the beginning of the movie, Lang is a promising contender who wants a shot at the title, but Mickey keeps putting him off because he fears Lang will seriously injure Rocky.  Mickey (clearly the central father figure in the Rocky universe) has been setting Rocky up with easy bouts in order to protect him.

Finally, in front of a large crowd during the unveiling of the famous Rocky statue, Lang insults Rocky publicly, calling him a coward and stating that Adrian needs a real man (i.e. Lang) to please her in bed.  Rocky accepts the challenge (of fighting Lang, not of satisfying his wife sexually).  However, just before the match, Lang shoves Mickey during an altercation, and Mickey has a heart attack.  Rocky goes through with the fight anyhow, but he’s concerned about Mickey and, as we later learn, frightened at the thought of his own mortality.  Clubber knocks Rocky out in the second round.  Mickey dies.

The angry black man has killed the father.

In an interesting twist on the racial theme, Creed then replaces Mickey as Rocky’s trainer and teaches Rocky how to fight like a black man so that he can defeat Lang.  This demonstrates white America’s reluctant acceptance of black icons like Ali who are no longer in positions of power, while maintaining the fear of black men rising up to overthrow the status quo.

Movie: Rocky IV.  Year: 1985.  Fear: communism and the mid-life crisis (consequently, the author thinks this would be a great name for an indie band).

OK, so the symbolism in this one is so slap-you-in-the-face-with-a-bald-eagle obvious that it’s hardly worth pointing out.  From the opening shot where the silver boxing glove with the American flag collides with the silver boxing glove with the Russian flag and the screen explodes in a spray of fireworks, the references to Cold War fear, American patriotism, and fist-pumping Reaganism are not subtle.  In fact, this movie is so over the top that it could almost be seen as self-satire if not for the utter sincerity of the rest of the series.

So let’s skip over the communism analysis.  If you’ve seen Rocky IV and you’re older than, say, fifteen, the nationalistic propaganda should be clear.  If it isn’t, there’s nothing more to say here that will convince you.

(The author would like to make a quick comment on the fact that Ivan Drago is Rocky’s first white opponent, which means that in order to find something the Baby Boomers feared more than black people, Stallone was forced to turn to international politics.)

While the mid-life-crisis anxiety is not as blatant as the fear of communism, it ain’t exactly understated.  Numerous references are made at the beginning of the movie about Apollo and Rocky getting old.  Rocky drives the type of expensive sports car certain men purchase when they reach a certain age to compensate for certain waning sexual drives.  The only things missing are the plastic surgery and trophy wives, but perhaps that was a bit too on the nose for Stallone at this point in his career.

However, the most obvious example of a mid-life crisis is Rocky himself.  In the first two movies, Rocky resembles a normal male homo sapien, complete with chest hair and blue-collar muscles.  In the third movie, the chest hair is gone and he’s starting to look more like an oiled-up body builder.  By the time the fourth movie comes around, he is one of those hairless workout freaks who believes he can reverse the aging process with the right combination of vitamins, exercise, and, of course, steroids.

The Baby Boomers are pushing forty, their bodies sagging, their virility fading, but if they can just do enough hot yoga and find the right organic kale at the farmers’ market, they too will be able to defeat Ivan Drago and save the world from communism.

Movie: Rocky V.  Year: 1990.  Fear: getting old and being bad parents.

It is common knowledge that Rocky V is the festering boil on the tanned, well-toned ass of the Rocky series.  The writing doesn’t have the clear focus of the earlier movies, the characters are inconsistent, the acting is often soap opera quality, and it recycles too many plot devices from the previous films.  Also, the gratuitous use of rap and hip hop is borderline offensive in yet another “great white hope” fantasy.

To keep the underdog theme working, Rocky loses all his money to a fraudulent accountant and has to move back to the old neighborhood, and a brain injury from the Drago fight forces him into retirement.  He meets a hungry, young white fighter named Tommy “The Machine” Gun and agrees to be his manager.  However, Rocky gets so caught up in Gun’s career he neglects his son, Robert, who is struggling to fit in at his new school.  (We know the kid is headed for real trouble when Robert starts smoking cigarettes and wearing an earring.)  In the end, Gun betrays Rocky for George Washington Duke, a conniving black boxing promoter modeled after Don King.

Rocky V is an obvious attempt by Stallone to bring the franchise back to the beginning.  The director of the first Rocky, John Avildsen, is back; Mickey returns in a series of flashbacks; the Balboas leave Hollywood and move back to Philly; and Rocky even starts wearing the iconic leather jacket and wool fedora again.  It’s a cheap attempt at nostalgia.  The Baby Boomers are afraid of getting old, losing touch with their roots, and becoming bad parents.  If the point isn’t clear enough from the plot clichés, toward the end of the movie Rocky and Adrian get into their usual let’s-clarify-the-moral-of-the-story fight and Adrian screams, “Rocky, you’re losing your family!”

At first blush, Rocky V appears to contradict the racial themes of the first movies, but the fact that Rocky fights another white guy in the end is a red herring.  The main story is still the fantasy of a white boxer (in this case, Gun) beating up black men.  Yes, there is a showdown between the two white fighters, but the cathartic money shot doesn’t come when Rocky defeats Gun in a street fight; it takes place afterward, when Rocky knocks out the black boxing promoter, Duke, in a single blow.

Movie: Rocky Balboa.  Year: 2006.  Fear: outliving your loved ones and leaving a legacy.

Rocky Balboa is neither as good as the original Rocky nor as bad as Rocky V.  It is, however, a nice, clean final chapter in the series and an interesting conclusion to this theory.

Rocky is retired and Adrian is dead.  Rocky mourns his wife’s passing almost obsessively, visiting her gravesite regularly and returning over and over to the locations of their courtship.  He even owns a restaurant named Adrian’s, where he entertains customers by telling stories of past fights.  Rocky’s son, Robert, is a wussy corporate employee who is admonished by his boss in public and yearns to get out from under his father’s shadow.

The current heavyweight champion is a black boxer named Mason “The Line” Dixon (wink-wink nudge-nudge…get it?).  Dixon is undefeated, but he gets no respect in the press because he has never faced a difficult challenger.  A televised sports show runs a computer simulation of a fight between Dixon and Rocky in his prime.  Rocky wins.  (The movie also refers to a similar simulation called “The Super Fight” conducted in 1970 that pitted Rocky Marciano and Mohammed Ali.  In the simulation, Marciano knocked out Ali in the thirteenth round—which is also a white fantasy, in this author’s opinion.)

After seeing the simulation, Rocky decides he wants to fight again because, as he tells Paulie, “There’s still some stuff in the basement.”  We never find out what exactly he means by “stuff,” but it’s clear that Rocky wants to make sure his legacy lives on in both his reputation and his son.  Dixon’s manager offers Rocky an exhibition bout, thinking it will put to rest the rumors surrounding the simulated fight.  Rocky’s son begs him not to fight Dixon, complaining that he can’t establish his own life when his father is constantly overshadowing him.  Rocky then gives Robert a big speech about life being hard and not making excuses for your failures, a speech that many Gen Xers have heard from their Baby Boomer parents at one time or another.

Robert eventually comes around to Rocky’s side, there’s the requisite training montage, and then the fight.  Dixon dominates the first round but breaks his hand on Rocky’s hip in the second, evening the odds.  It’s an all-out brawl after that with both fighters swinging haymakers until the final bell.  Just like the first movie, Rocky loses in a close decision but wins the integrity battle for displaying courage and just generally being so old.

This is the only Rocky movie that gives any perspective to a black opponent (we have some empathy for Creed in III and IV, but only after he’s been defeated by Rocky).  Dixon is shown as a great fighter who has never been tested by a strong opponent, and when he finally demonstrates “heart” by going the distance despite his injury, there’s a modicum of compassion for his character, although the bulk is saved for Rocky.  Nothing much has changed.

In the end, Rocky remains a Baby Boomer fantasy world in which blue-collar white men dominate athletic competitions, women who work outside the home lapse into comas, communism is KOed by the independent spirit of democracy, age is reversed with pushups and body oil, relationships are restored by schmaltzy speeches, and any obstacle can be overcome with a melodramatic song about tigers and a five-minute training montage.


(The author would like to thank his fiancée, Michelle, for putting up with ten straight hours of Rocky movies.  He promises he won’t talk about Rocky for at least a week…  Or a month.  Two months?)

A Movie That’s “About Something,” or Why “Creation” Isn’t a Great Movie, But You Should See It Anyway

Creation still photo

A Movie That’s “About Something,”
or Why “Creation” Isn’t a Great Movie,
But You Should See It Anyway
By John Unger Zussman

I was ambivalent about “Creation” even before I saw it. On the one hand, we desperately needed a movie about Charles Darwin in his bicentennial year. Evolution has become a religious and cultural flashpoint, and Darwin himself has been demonized. Only about 40% of American adults say they accept the truth of evolution. Our schools shy away from teaching it, and a raft of BBC and Nova documentaries haven’t been able to pick up the slack. We needed a movie that would humanize Darwin and explain evolution in a way that ordinary people would say, “Hey, wait a minute. That’s all it is? That’s not so bad.”

On the other hand, my wife Patti and I are screenwriters, and we had written our own Darwin screenplay which we hoped would do just that. We conceived it in 2006 and finished a reviewable draft (no screenplay is ever “final” until the movie is made) in 2007, in time (we hoped) for production and release in 2009. We called it “Origin” and it placed highly in several screenwriting contests. It won us a manager—representation in Hollywood is a big deal for screenwriters—and he submitted it to production companies both in the U.S. and Europe. Although it got some “good reads,” no one was willing to spend two years of their life raising money, attracting talent, making the movie, and getting it distributed. Then we learned that British producer Jeremy Thomas had bought the rights to Annie’s Box—a book about Darwin by Darwin’s own great-great-grandson, Randall Keynes—and watched as he recruited a screenwriter (John Collee) and director (Jon Amiel). When we heard that “Creation” had been financed and green-lit, we knew “Origin” was dead, at least in its current iteration. And I was jealous.

We knew it had been a long shot. Period dramas are notoriously difficult to get made, at least in Hollywood, and biopics (biographical movies) are especially problematic to write. People’s real lives do not often reflect the drama and story arc necessary for a good movie. That’s why successful biopics are usually heavily fictionalized or restricted to a brief but critical period in the subject’s life. We ourselves had used that tactic in a previous (and also, so far, unproduced) screenplay, “Trio,” about the love triangle between young Johannes Brahms, his mentor Robert Schumann, and Schumann’s wife Clara, a famous pianist. “Creation” used it as well, focusing on Darwin’s struggle to come to terms with the death of his beloved daughter, Annie, at age 10.

But for “Origin,” we decided we needed to portray the bulk of Darwin’s life, from his voyage on the Beagle, when he was a callow 22, until at least the great debate at the Oxford Museum when he was 51, after On the Origin of Species was published. Only a tale with such broad scope would trace Darwin’s own evolution, from his beginnings as an unpromising, upper-class youth, who studied for the ministry and believed the bible was literally true, yet was blessed with an overpowering fascination with nature—to the proponent of the best (and most subversive) idea in the history of science. Charles would be our proxy, a young creationist who nevertheless kept his eyes open and did not shy away from what they showed him. And so would his devout wife Emma, who abhorred the thought that Charles’s theory would prevent them from being together in heaven, yet who loved him too much to deny him his life’s work. It would be about a scientist and his theory, but really it would be a love story. We wanted it to be the “Brokeback Mountain” of evolution.

When we finally attended the San Francisco premiere of “Creation,” it fulfilled both our hopes and our fears. It succeeded in humanizing Darwin, and Paul Bettany was quite wonderful in the role. It found drama in Charles’s struggle to publish the work that he knew would polarize Victorian society and “break Emma’s heart.” And I had to admit that some of the scenes milked more conflict out of that struggle than ours had.

“Creation” was rather light on the science of evolution. This is understandable, since people go to movies (as our screenwriting coach keeps reminding us) to experience vicarious emotion, not for academic learning. It is even forgivable, especially from a British point of view, since I’d bet that British schools (and the BBC) do a better job educating the populace about evolution than our American counterparts.

But “Creation” was also light on what Darwin called the “grandeur” of nature, and that is more of a problem, for that is what made him tick. And in bringing out the drama, portraying Charles as an angst-ridden neurotic and Emma as his stern, disapproving wife, it made them unsympathetic. Charles and Emma came across as human beings, but not necessarily ones you’d want to spend two hours with, when by all reports they were both interesting, likeable, and generous people. “Creation” ended up as a domestic drama, at times dreary, that happens to be about a scientist. It was far from what we’d tried to write—a heroic drama about a scientist who stumbles on a revolutionary theory and struggles to publish it despite the condemnation of his wife and his society. We wanted a movie that would engage both heart and brain.

Jon Amiel, the director, conducted an hour-long Q&A after the screening. Despite our issues with the film, we were impressed with his intelligence and craft. When I asked whether he thought “Creation” would change any minds, he said he hoped it would at least open them.

To do that, of course, people who don’t accept evolution will have to see it. There’s the rub. Big studio movies open across the country (and world) on thousands of screens—it’s called “opening wide.” “Creation” opened in January on seven screens in five of the most progressive cities in the country. It is gradually rolling out more broadly—it’s on 14 screens as I write this in early February, and will play 15 more in the next month, again mostly in cities. This is the narrowest of openings for an important movie.

In fact, “Creation” was almost not distributed in the U.S. at all. After its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, the producers expected it would be picked up for major distribution and released during “award season.” But no one bit. Finally, a smaller distributor, Newmarket Films, courageously rescued it and chose its distribution schedule.

Amiel called movies like “Creation” “an endangered species” and cited two strikes against it from the beginning. One reason is that it’s a period drama, a difficult genre to sell in Hollywood (as mentioned above), despite the success (and awards) of movies like “Amadeus” and “Shakespeare in Love.”

But more importantly, Amiel said, “it’s about something,” and that sets it apart from studio fare, which seems primarily to be based on comic books or video games or toys. Studios these days are all about making “tentpoles”—movies that will hold up the heavy tent of their businesses—and building “franchises” (like Spiderman, Transformers, Shrek, Harry Potter, Twilight, Batman, and Saw) that will not only attract viewers to movie after movie, but also sell plenty of cross-licensed merchandise.

Of course, movie-making is a business as well as (one hopes) an art. We can’t begrudge the studios a profit on their work, or ask them to make or distribute movies they expect to lose money on. Moviegoers these days tend to be young, in their teens or twenties, and at the end of a long school or work week, they don’t seek out heavy dramas or movies that make them think. They want to be entertained, they want to laugh or be aroused or frightened. They want to have fun.

You’d think there would be plenty of older moviegoers, too—boomers like me, and other ages too—who grew up on great movies and might prefer period dramas. But our viewing habits are different (despite the efforts of my early-retired friend Dan, who singlehandedly raised the curve by seeing 139 movies in theaters last year). We tend to wait for movies to be released on DVD or television, which is not nearly so profitable for filmmakers or distributors. That’s why they cater to younger audiences.

A year ago, the buzz in Hollywood was that intelligent movies, movies aimed at adults— “adult movies” has another meaning, so the term I prefer is “movies for grownups”—were dead. Serious films with major stars like “State of Play” and “The Soloist” disappointed at the box office. Even 2008 Oscar nominees like “Doubt” and “Frost/Nixon” struggled. The studios were shuttering their specialty divisions like Warner Independent and Paramount Vantage.

Of course, Hollywood is fickle, and trends may be reversed in weeks. These days, the mood is slightly more upbeat, with grownup movies like “Up in the Air” and “The Blind Side” racking up decent box office and surprising many with their staying power. But audiences are fickle, too. Even “The Hurt Locker,” which some critics consider the best movie of the year, barely made back its modest $13 million cost in theaters—the latest in a line of Iraq war movies to disappoint. And the bodies are still falling; just last month, Disney closed its Miramax division. Amiel said that he doubted “Creation” could even get financing today.

Which is why I’m urging you to go see “Creation,” despite its flaws, if it’s playing in a theater near you. If we want to see quality movies, we have to vote with our feet.

In fact, if you can, see these grownup movies the weekend they open. (At posting time, “Creation” has now opened in most U.S. cities, but debuts in Phoenix and Tuscon are scheduled for March 5.) By some arcane calculus, Hollywood counts opening weekend box office results disproportionately. As I understand it, the distributor takes a greater cut of the gross on opening weekend than on subsequent showings. Or maybe Hollywood just wants its marketing budget to play a larger role in a movie’s success, before word gets around that it sucks. (A vain hope, in the age of Twitter and texting.)

This may seem like too much “inside baseball,” and you may not care how the movie business works. I can relate. But one thing we’ve learned from politics is that making changes to a system depends on understanding how the system works and how to get a message through. And the way to encourage more movies for grownups to be made is for grownups to go to the ones that are—however imperfect.

So I’ll see you at the cineplex. Orsince Patti and I are currently adapting “Origin” into a stage playmaybe at the theater.

Copyright © 2010, John Unger Zussman. All rights reserved.