Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers.
“You think you mad,” Damian Anderson snarls at Adonis Creed. “Try living half your life in a cell, watching someone else live your life.” He tugs at the gun in his belt. “I’m coming for everything.”
Two Black men stare across explosive silence. In Creed III, Adonis Creed (played by Michael B. Jordan, who also directs the film) and Damian “Dame” Anderson (a soulful, menacing Jonathan Majors) are childhood friends from a violent group home. As teens, both were abused by an older man and when going to the store, Creed sees the abuser and pounds his face. The man’s crew intervenes until Dame pulls a gun. Creed flees. Dame takes the rap. Later, Creed is taken in by his father’s wife and trains to inherit his father’s mantle as the heavyweight champ. But Dame stews in prison, obsessively following his friend’s career.
“You got domesticated,” Dame jabs at Creed while strolling the boxer’s palatial L.A. home. In prison, he says, “They take your name. They give you a number. That’s how it starts.” Creed listens and wrestles with guilt.
Creed III is a class reconciliation narrative in which characters from opposing backgrounds recreate solidarity — in this case, racial solidarity that “reconciles” their class division. Yet, as much as the film reflects the immense divide in Black America, it fails to heal it. In film, comedy and novels, class guilt drives the plot. The cathartic goal of this genre is to purge the shame of the Black middle and upper class for abandoning the poor. But it’s a trick. The genre feints to racial solidarity but betrays the poor in order to reassert upper-class dominance and install political reformism as the goal.
Punch Drunk Love
Creed III is the ninth film in the Rocky franchise, and like the first Rocky in 1976, two men boxing become symbols of larger historical forces. Director and actor Sylvester Stallone was explicit about the reactionary core of Rocky. In a 1977 BBC interview, he said, “Cinema … [was] at an all-time low, everything was anti-society, anti-Christ, anti-government, anti-everything and there was no one to root for. … Hollywood hasn’t taken heat and hasn’t made any good old-fashioned-type films where morality was at the forefront.” At the time, Stallone was broke, with a pregnant wife. He wrote Rocky in three and a half feverish days. The Philly palooka he conjured in his typewriter was a low-level mafia leg-breaker baited to fight the flashy, loudmouthed Black heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed. Rocky was a mirror reflecting white grievance, the vast “Silent Majority” of white, working-class conservatives that President Nixon called upon in 1969, who resented the social movements of the 1960s. Polls taken after the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention alerted mainstream media that a backlash was building. Eight years later, Rocky captured the zeitgeist of reactionary America.
The series climaxed in 1985’s Rocky IV, whose villain was Soviet superman Ivan Drago, scientifically designed to crush mortals. In contrast, Rocky trained at a farm with logs and runs in the snow. In the final battle, his American working-class pluck wins against soulless Soviet communism. Wrapped in the American flag (Stallone is not a subtle artist) with a face like raw hamburger, Rocky says “…in here, there are two guys killing each other. But I guess that’s better than 20 million … what I’m trying to say [is], that if I can change and you can change, everyone can change!”
Creed III inherits the franchise’s formula of two men fighting as a political allegory. The racial imagery has shifted, with Michael B. Jordan now the Black tragic hero struggling to make right his father’s legacy. But the class politics are conservative. Dame is the brother lost to the streets, who returns to exact revenge.
Under the spotlights, the men enter the ring: One [Creed] is a symbol of the newly minted Black middle class. The other [Dame], a reminder of those left behind — who, in fact, took “the fall” in their youth so that his friend could escape. Between them simmers guilt and hatred, promises broken. Each bites on a mouthpiece. The bell rings. They rush to the center. Gloves up.
He’s Not Heavy, He’s My Brother
“Among African Americans, we have to stop feeling guilty about our success,” said Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in a 1997 speech titled “Race and Class in America.” “Too many of us have what psychologists call the guilt of the survivor. The deep anxiety about leaving our fellow Blacks in an inner city of despair.”
Just a year earlier, Chris Rock’s 1996 HBO special, Bring the Pain, aired the same dirty laundry in the famous skit, “Niggas vs. Black People,” where he gleefully yelled, “Who’s more racist: Black people or white people? Black people! You know why? Because we hate Black people too. … There’s like a civil war going on with Black people and there’s two sides: [there’s] Black people, there’s niggas, and niggas have got to go!”
Class lines have always been drawn in Black America. The first clear division was between free Black people and the enslaved, but within plantation life, other gradients were used to measure status: house or field work, skin color, education or pedigree. In antebellum slave narratives such as the 1861 book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs expressed that she didn’t feel like a slave because of her family’s position. She wrote, “I WAS born a slave; but I never knew it,” and “My father was a carpenter, and considered so intelligent and skillful … he was sent for from long distances to be head workman.” She cites her light skin and the fact that her family was actually freed but stolen back to slavery. A larger birds-eye view is given in the 2019 book Slavery and Class in the American South: A Generation of Slave Narrative Testimony, 1840 to 1865 by William L. Andrews, who reported one quote from a formerly enslaved person named Henry Bibb: “The distinction among slaves is as marked, as the classes of society are in any aristocratic community. Some refusing to associate with others whom they deem to be beneath them, in point of character, color, condition, or the superior importance of their respective masters.”
Whatever petty social climbing was done by people of color, however, white supremacist violence is what united Black America in a demand for liberation. The grand narrative that expressed this collective vision was the Old Testament Exodus myth; it was repeated in sermon and song, it was the seed-prophecy that allowed Black people to “see” freedom in the future that, for the moment, looked impossible. One swayed to it in pews as voices lifted “Crossing the River Jordan” to the rafters. One read of a shared destiny in W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1903 essay, “The Talented Tenth,” in which he wrote, “The Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that are worth the saving up to their vantage ground. This is the history of human progress.” Finally, one heard the Biblical echoes in Martin Luther King Jr. thundering, “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land.”
The legal victories of the civil rights movement, specifically the 1964 Title VII of the Equal Employment Act and the 1968 Title VIII of the Fair Housing Act, made it possible for some to enter the “Promised Land.” This, too, was reflected in art. Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama, “A Raisin in the Sun,” showed a Black Chicago family’s hunger to grow in the suburbs, even if it meant facing the danger of racist whites. They had a bitter but hopeful view of integration. Twenty years later, Black playwright Charles Fuller’s 1979 play “Zooman and the Sign” chronicled another Black family’s despair of being left behind in a broken Philly neighborhood besieged by crime. Here are two families: one living Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream;” the other betrayed by it. Class resentment had arrived.
The Exodus myth was replaced increasingly by the Cain and Abel myth, where one brother, jealous of the other, slew him. The two decades after “Zooman and the Sign” came the crack epidemic and rise of hip-hop music. The Black middle class relentlessly fought both. Again, brother against brother. The poor stranded in projects were seen as incubators of crime. Two recent books — The Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment by Michael Javen Fortner, and Locking up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr. — document how the Black middle class actually supported the Rockefeller Drug Laws and mass incarceration in the 1970s and ‘80s. In Hollywood, middle-class brothers like Denzel Washington stared down drug dealers in Ricochet or Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever’s crack house scene. Again, brother against brother. Several rappers sounded the alarm in the 1988 single, “Self-Destruction.” In the streets, Rev. Calvin Butts actually steamrolled rap CDs and debated Ice-T on Video Music Box. He and other faith leaders expressed a deep resentment against rap artists for “bringing Black people” down and throwing the tradition of respectability politics out the window. Again, brother against brother.
In the last scene of Creed III, Dame and Creed square off. Punches knock jaws askew. Eyes swell like grapefruits. Each blow is a Morse code between men, talking to one another in the brutal language of boxing. But is this a replay of the Cain and Abel myth? Is this brother against brother, again?
No, it’s not. What makes Creed III a class reconciliation story is the vastly different political time. We are in the Black Lives Matter era. The police-perpetrated murder of innocent Black people has re-energized a dormant inter-class solidarity. And this was reflected in art. The 2018 film, Black Panther, which also starred Jordan as the villain Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, was also a class reconciliation narrative. Killmonger was, like so many, abandoned by the Black elite to a ghetto where he grew obsessed with revenge. A 2022 reboot of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air similarly milked class tension for two seasons. Which brings us to Creed III.
The class reconciliation narrative tries to reaffirm racial solidarity across class lines. Yet in the end, it betrays it. The final scene always shows the street brother beaten or even killed, but the middle-class family absorbs his loss with some token of reform. In Black Panther, after Killmonger was slain, the secret Black utopia of Wakanda revealed itself to the world and began a school in the ghetto Killmonger was raised in. In Creed III, it is after the fight, when Creed and Dame sit down — bruised, battered — and forgive each other. They agree that the event in their youth that divided them wasn’t each other’s fault, that they were scared kids running from the law. Creed gets up and tells Dame, “Come to the gym. You know where to find me.”
He does know. All of us know where to find the richer family who fled us to be safe. Even if it meant many, many lost their lives to poverty and prison. And are still losing them now. Nothing can be done to repair that damage. Some problems, you can’t punch your way out of.