A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
America’s Great White Hope?
It has become a cliche to say that American movies, after a brief golden age in the early 1970s (The Godfather, The Conversation, Mean Streets, The Last Detail, Carnal Knowledge, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) began an inexorable decline into special-effects lunacy with the release of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977). But Jaws and Star Wars, whatever negative effect they may have had on subsequent US moviemaking, were clever, intelligent motion pictures. The truth is, the decline of American cinema began in 1976 when Rocky emerged as the surprise hit of the season, beating out Taxi Driver, All The President’s Men, Bound For Glory and Network for Best Picture at the Academy Awards ceremony the following spring. The massive success of the witless faux prole Sylvester Stallone, coinciding with the cultural ascendancy of the pathologically lame singer John Denver, and the election of the hapless rube Jimmy Carter to the White House signalled that America was entering a forlorn era from which it would not soon re-emerge.
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.
The character of the talent-thin but gutsy Rocky Balboa is based on a thuggish New Jersey club fighter named Chuck Wepner who once spent an evening in the same ring as Ali, getting smacked around, before returning to the obscurity he deserved. Because there is no cliche African-American athletes despise more than being told that their talent is God-given, rather than the result of their own hard work and perseverance, the first Rocky said exactly what White America wanted to hear: They’re gifted but we work harder.
Still, because the very notion of a 5ft 8in Italian-American rising to the top of the fight world on this or any other planet was obviously absurd, actor/director/ screenwriter Stallone was careful not to push things too far in the film that launched the series. (The last white heavyweight with genuine talent had been Rocky Marciano, who retired undefeated in 1956. Since that time, there was Ingemar Johansson, a mediocre Swede fighting in the late 50s and early 60s, and Jerry Quarry, a gallant late-60s punching bag. A few years later, a lumbering Great White Hope named Gerry Cooney would enjoy brief success before getting pounded into retirement by Larry Holmes. More recently, Tommy Morrison, who actually starred opposite Stallone in Rocky V, briefly held the WBO belt in 1993, while four out of five of today’s heavyweight divisions are dominated by white eastern European boxers including the 7ft Russian Nikolai Valuev.)
Recognising that a Rocky triumph at the end of the film would be ludicrous, Stallone allows his hero to win no more than a moral victory by giving Creed a whipping he will never forget. Then things got weird. Emboldened by the success of the flagship Rocky, Stallone went out and made Rocky II, in which his phantasmagoric palooka actually wins the heavyweight championship of the world. This supplied his supporters with the kind of vicarious ecstasy they could never enjoy in real life: if you can’t have a real-life white champion, the next-best thing is a celluloid one – even if he only stands about 5ft 8in.
This was succeeded by three more films, each more idiotic than its predecessor, which was going some. Throughout the saga, Balboa has been lionized by the cowed American press as the champion of working stiffs everywhere, a lovable lummox with a particularly strong psychic connection to blue-collar Philadelphians. Philadelphia, in fact, is a city whose population is roughly 50 per cent African-American, the vast majority of whom are working-class. I cannot recall the last time any film critic went out and asked black residents of the City of Brotherly Love what psychic connection they felt with a fictional thug from a section of a city not widely known for its affection toward minorities.
It’s worth noting that 1976 was the year Frank Rizzo won his second term as mayor of the city. Rizzo, a native of South Philly, was famous for asking the federal government for tanks to combat criminals while he was still serving as police commissioner, and also garnered headlines for raiding Black Panther headquarters in the middle of the night, lining up the naked black men outside the building, and allowing newspaper photographers to take their pictures. He once said that he was so tough he would make Attila the Hun look like a “faggot”. This is the intensely polarised racial environment in which Rocky was filmed, marketed and released.
Thirty years later, Stallone’s merry abuse of African-Americans continues unabated. Washed up for years, unsuccessful in his mid-90s attempts to get taken seriously as either a comic or a dramatic actor, the desperate, irrelevant Stallone has now slapped together Rocky Balboa, the sixth entry in this inane series. Bored by endlessly recycling the same old tales of pugilistic derring-do to the jock-sniffing patrons who flock to his chi-chi South Philly restaurant, and estranged from his yuppie son, Rocky cannot reconcile himself to the death of his wife Adrian. Concerned about his legacy, not sure he is getting the respect from the boxing press that he is due, Rocky decides to come out of retirement for one last fight.
This time, he will duke it out with Mason “The Line” Dixon (played by real-life boxer Antonio Tarver), an undefeated black man who, though prodigiously gifted, has never really been tested. That’s because up until now he has only battled tough black men in their 20s, but has never had to face the ultimate test: a 10-round bout with a decrepit Caucasian restaurateur pushing 60. Rocky II was insane, Rocky III and IV were even more insane, and Rocky V was really insane. But the incoherent, heart-tugging Rocky Balboa takes insanity to a whole new level that will only be surpassed when Stallone’s brainchild finally comes back as a ghost in Rocky XIII: Even When It’s Over, It Ain’t Over.
When I was in my teens, I worked in a clothing store owned by a tough ex-Marine who used to referee fights in North Philadelphia gyms. One day he told me that he had joined an organisation called Cloverlay, which would provide funding to a young man so that he could quit his job in a slaughterhouse and train for a career as a professional boxer. The young man knocked out Buster Mathis and became heavyweight champion of the world. Three years later, he would crown a majestic career by defeating Muhammad Ali in one of the most famous bouts in history.
The prize fighter in question, like Ali, was young, gifted, and black, not old, talentless and white like Rocky. His name was Joe Frazier. A real-life, flesh-and-blood heavyweight champion, Frazier was long vilified as the white man’s champion by fans of Ali and by Ali himself, and never, ever got the respect he deserved. If you go to Philadelphia today, you can see the statue of Sylvester Stallone at the foot of the Art Museum steps, where it has temporarily been relocated as a fundraising gimmick. But you will not see a statue of Joe Frazier, a working-class hero who fought his way to the top but who is now down on his luck financially, anywhere in the tri-state area. This is not just an insult; this is a disgrace.