The greatest gift any filmmaker can have is their story. It is the pulse of cinema, or the feeling that stays with us as we drive home from a movie theater. In Ryan Coogler’s film “Creed,” Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), the son of famed boxer Apollo Creed, seeks out Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him so he can explore and rebuild the legacy left by his late father.
Though the film is a sports drama, it’s also about family, masculinity, and relationships. The origins of the movie lie in memories that Coogler had with his own father and young brothers while watching the “Rocky” saga and seeing his father overcome with emotion from the story. In “Creed,” it’s Coogler’s personal story of tragedy and triumph that elevates the narrative.
Heading into its second weekend of release with solid box office numbers and reports that Coogler will direct the upcoming Marvel ‘Black Panther’ film, the story seems to be capturing the hearts of many. I caught up with the fellow Bay Area native to discuss the personal nature of the story, the development of Bianca and Adonis’ romantic relationship, how Philadelphia came alive in the film, and why building a narrative of a black boxer is important and timely.
“Creed” is currently playing in theaters across the country.
Nijla Mu’min: One of the biggest strengths of the film is your ability to merge personal storytelling with a more mainstream film franchise. I never felt like I was watching a film I’d seen before. I know the story in this film is very personal to you. Can you talk about the origins of it?
Ryan Coogler: My dad was a big “Rocky” fan. He always watched the movies for as long as I can remember. He would watch them with me and my little brothers and he would get emotional, specifically in “Rocky 2” and he would cry or jump up and shout and I always knew these films had a power over my dad. And you know my dad is from East Oakland, a real tough guy, and could pick me and my little brothers up with one hand, and to see something move him emotionally was really cool. As we got older, I got him the box set and we’d watch the movies and I came to associate those films and the characters of Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa, with my father and our relationship.
When I was finishing film school at USC and getting ready to make “Fruitvale Station,” my dad got really sick and he was dealing with a muscular condition where his muscles were atrophying and they couldn’t figure out a way to stop it. They didn’t know if it was ALS and they didn’t know what was going on and it was a reality that we could eventually lose him. Seeing my father become weak, it affected me emotionally and mentally.
I was seeing the things I associated with my father’s masculinity, being taken away from him so it sent me on this thought process of what is it that makes you a man. When you think of our relationship, the tables had turned on who had to look after who. I spent my whole life with my father looking after me and now I was in the position where I was in the hospital and had to look after him. I was thinking, I have to make sure he’s taking care of himself. I have to make sure I’m asking the right questions to the doctors and I found it profound how the roles switched with time.
NM: Thank you for sharing that. That definitely came through and I think I heard you mention in another interview that the film is kind of like a relationship drama. I really connected to the chemistry between Adonis and Bianca. Bianca was someone I felt like I might know, and in a way, her passion for music reminded me of my own passion for writing. We don’t often get fully-developed love interests and women of color with disabilities in films like this and many female viewers especially have been drawn this this character because of that. What was your process of developing this character in particular, and developing this chemistry between Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson?
RC: Bianca always represented a lot of things. Bianca and Adonis’ relationship is very much a millennial relationship. We wanted it to be symbolic of what being in love means now when you’re in your late 20’s or early 30’s, in 2015. And one of the biggest things is that you find women are just as career-driven, if not more, than men are, especially in our community, the urban community. You find sisters who are all about what they are trying to do, all about what makes them happy, and oftentimes they know what they want before men do.
I think that with Bianca, we were going with that theme of identity and she’s dealing with Adonis who is not sure who he is, is trying to find out who he is, and what kind of man he’s going to be as it relates to his father and as it relates to society at large. Then, you have Rocky who is having an identity crisis as well because all the relationships he defined himself through have ended in some way or another, and even his relationship with the sport that he loves so much is done, and he can no longer fight so he’s buying time and letting the world go by. Bianca is different from those two because she knows exactly who she is and she knows exactly what she wants to do, and exactly what she wants, so when Adonis meets Bianca, he sees a strength in that. He’s attracted to her sense of self and her directness.
They are both attractive people, they both obviously have chemistry but the challenge is how do we make our lives work with what I’m trying to do and what you’re trying to do- and how do we support each other. If we can’t, then it’s not going to be able to work. Bianca is on a mission so it was really interesting working with a character like that and Tessa Thompson did a great job bringing her to life.
As far as her issue with progressive hearing loss, and her dealing with that, the motivation for that came from my fiancée who’s a sign language interpreter and she was doing that for like seven to eight years so through her, I learned a little about the deaf and hard of hearing community, and her sister has progressive hearing loss, so it’s something that’s in my life dealing with hearing people who are dealing with this condition.
It was an interesting thing to explore through this character whose mission in life is to make music because it puts her up against a similar ticking clock that athletes deal with, this idea of doing something that makes you feel happy and makes you feel alive but you can only do it for so long.
NM: What a strong connection there. Philly really came through as well- the people, the food, and culture and in “Fruitvale Station” you really captured the Bay Area in those tangible details as well. Can you talk about your relationship with Philly and bringing that city to life?
RC: Philadelphia was a place I was really fond of when I came out of high school. I took a recruiting trip to the University of Pennsylvania, and that was one of my first times traveling somewhere by myself as a young teenager, and I really loved it. It reminded me of the Bay Area in some ways and in some ways it was different. One of the biggest things I remember was meeting the girls out there that were my age and being surprised and taken aback about how direct they were and how upfront they were which is totally different than west coast culture. East coast culture is a little more direct and a little more verbal and in your face. It was a different side, and a different way of talking so I thought that was really profound.
I hadn’t really been to Philly for an extended time since, so moving out there for the movie, we definitely wanted Philadelphia to be a character as it had been in the “Rocky” saga before this one, but we wanted to see it from the point of view of an outsider, and from the point of view of someone who was from somewhere else and was just arriving, and I think that the biggest thing was just moving there, and getting to know the people, and putting some of the local folks in the movie and asking them questions and letting the city talk to us and dictate things about the script, like where people go to hear music from local artists, and picking a neighborhood where Bianca would be from.
We found a lot of people to take Tessa Thompson around and talk to her and help give a character backstory so she could share the screen with Rocky who’s been around in Philly for 40 years, and feel just as natural- so she could walk around on the streets and take Mike (Michael B. Jordan) to the cheese steak shop and feel like she grew up there her whole life.
NM: And it seems like boxing is built into the legacy of this country, and legacy is a big theme in your film. You said in a NY times interview, that the movie also “represents your relationship to the country and how you view yourself” and there are not a lot of boxing films where the lead character is black though black boxers from Jack Johnson, to Sugar Ray Robinson, to Muhammad Ali have really revolutionized the sport. How important was it for you to build a central narrative of a black boxer in a film that doesn’t directly address race?
RC: It was very important. When I would watch “Rocky” films, Apollo was the guy that I identified with as a young black man, because I grew up as an athlete for most of my life. With boxing, we have a long history of the greatest American fighters and so many of them are black and Hispanic but you don’t see that representation in cinema so I was really excited.
It was also exciting to deal with some of the similar issues that we deal with in “Fruitvale Station,” but in this way. So when you first meet Adonis, he’s in juvenile hall and you see a lot of other kids in juvenile hall that look like Adonis and through these circumstances, he gets pulled out and you get to see the potential that he has but at the same time, Mary Anne walks by a lot of other kids with potential, but she goes to his room.
This story was something that Mike and I talked about a lot and it was such a great opportunity to build a narrative around this boxer that actually looks like most boxers today.
Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. She’s written for The Los Angeles Times, Vice, and Bitch Media.