The carefree black girl. Black girl with an attitude. A Philly girl who breaks down the many, varied uses of “jawn.” The character with a physical impairment. The rude neighbor who won’t keep her music down. An artist. A career woman. The love interest.
In “Creed,” Tessa Thompson’s Bianca is all of these characters in one, which means director Ryan Coogler has achieved what so many filmmakers have not, and presented a full, fascinating, black female character for the big screen.
We shouldn’t be too surprised about this because, overall, Coogler presented an excellent film. “Creed” surprised many filmgoers as an excellent tribute to “Rocky,” even as its tale of a black kid who was almost lost to the system, deviates greatly from some the original franchise. Its newness allowed it to stand on its own merits, and weekend audiences were so entertained that “sequel” buzz is already starting up (along with some Oscar buzz too).
Michael B. Jordan is absolutely deserving of a sequel that takes us on another journey with Adonis, as he seeks to carve out a name for himself that embraces both his Creed and Johnson roots. It’s not surprising that he’s already expressed interest in the sequel so many fans are already asking for.
While most viewers might walk away wanting to see more from Jordan and Stallone, or another epic battle between Adonis and Pretty Ricky (things I’d love to see too), it’s also true that Jordan and Stallone both have their time to evolve during the film’s running time. Bianca, for all her dope attributes, does not have quite the same opportunity. And this is why she needs to get her own sequel.
In a film starring powerhouse performer Michael B. Jordan and the original Rocky, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson and her character could have been marginalized, simplified or written as so many others have before her: the endlessly supportive, motivating girlfriend. And while props must be given to Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington for going in a different route, it’s important to acknowledge the role that the actor herself played in the making and molding of Bianca.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve noticed that Thompson is carving out for herself, a unique and somewhat specific career trajectory. While the goal of many actors who haven’t yet made it to the mainstream is, simply, to work, Thompson has spoken out about the importance of taking on roles that speak to her, even when it means she doesn’t get nearly as much visibility as she might on more popular (or more heavily-funded) projects. There’s a very real political and socially conscious bent to her choices, and it shows in her work. In “Mississippi Damned,” “Selma,” “For Colored Girls” and “Dear White People,” Thompson brought to life the kinds of characters we do not often get to see or celebrate. Young, black girls who are victims of sexual abuse (but are also not defined by this abuse); young, black activists; talented black girls in need of competent women’s health care providers; and college students at predominantly white schools participating in campus activism (Sam White’s story has, in light of nationwide campus protests, become all the more relevant). Each of these roles (along with others she’s taken on) actually have nothing in common, aside from race and gender, and the fact that these are stories and experiences that need a platform, along with talented actors to present them.
Given her history, it makes perfect sense that Thompson decided to work closely with Coogler, in an attempt to round out Bianca. The character was always going to be a singer, but Thompson has described the hearing impairment as something she and the director “found together.” But Bianca is so well-written and presented, that the hearing impairment does not become The Defining Thing about her. And, more importantly, neither does Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis. There is a powerful scene in “Creed” where she, very clearly and definitively, draws a line between herself and her music career, and Adonis. And then, of course, there are also scenes where we see her in the stands, supporting him and cheering him on. The balance between all of these visions of Bianca is one of the things that makes “Creed” a powerful production. Adonis must also play support system to Bianca, going to see her perform in a nightclub, and later showing up at her bigger performance (though he doesn’t quite make it to the show)—all while preparing for his fight.
A storyline in which two back people begin to develop a healthy relationship, while also existing on their own terms and working towards their own goals, is so rare that it’s a thrill when you see it happening, especially in a huge film like this. It’s one reason last year’s “Beyond the Light” was so refreshing, though it received far less attention from Hollywood, for obvious reasons.
If I had my way, Gina Prince-Bythewood herself (who’s already expressed her love for the Creed stars) would direct “Bianca,” a powerful drama about a neo-R&B singer whose rise to fame is complicated by hearing loss and a relationship with a well-meaning, but impossible mother (because we know Prince-Bythewood can nail this). Throughout the film we’d watch as Adonis upholds the promise he made to Bianca in “Creed” – to exist as her motivation, to cheer on the champ from the sidelines, while she basks in her own glorious spotlight.
Not only would this movie become one more Tessa Thompson performance to celebrate, it would also represent an important shift in the “Rocky” franchise. After all these years spent with Adrian Balboa and Mary Anne Creed (and countless other characters like them), isn’t it time we gave these women their own arena? Isn’t it time we had our Bianca?
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste Magazine, and a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter: https://twitter.com/shannonmhouston.