Sunday, November 29, 2015

one flame, one bonfire, let it burn higher

I was wondering why I haven't been writing here lately. When other people have cited reasons for shutting down their blogs, they have mentioned that they are either too busy or too passionate about what they are doing to spend time on writing. And I am busy, and I do spend a lot of time writing rather dry, medical things for work. But there's more than that at play now.

There is so much going on in the world. And in my world too. It has become increasingly hard to write about some random piece of entertainment, or some random thought I've been pondering, without thinking of how insensitive it is in comparison to big things. Big things like violence and illness and injustice and inequity. It's often seemed best to just stop typing instead of typing something inconsequential when so much of consequence is occurring.

But then you watch a movie like Creed.

I know. That seems laughable. But the thing is, it matters. In America, in our culture, it just matters. Entertainment is our outlet, but it also influences our thinking, our perceptions. It even plays into how we see ourselves. It does this in ways small and large. I suppose even if none of that were true, sometimes you just have to write about what moves you. And Creed did, believe it or not.

Creed is an audacious movie, as much as it is also a formulaic one. If you want to see it as a by-the-numbers boxing movie, it's got all the requisite notes that make it clear this is a movie that can be seen as a Rocky sequel. It has the underdog, the coach who takes a chance on a kid, the love interest, the brash opponent, and the epic final match. And it does all of those things so deftly, it's easy to forget that the plot is very close to a remake of the original Rocky.

But consider what this movie is saying. Spoilers follow, but they will not really change your enjoyment of the film. The movie opens with a juvenile detention center that disturbingly resembles a high-security prison with a bunch of African-American boys who look like boys. Like true boys. And that alone is a halting visual. The movie does not flinch from the fact that there is a broken system here that dooms the majority of these young men.

And then consider that the main character has a lot of promise, but needs someone to take a chance on him. Rocky's cousin works in a local gym in Philadelphia, has been trying to get him to train his son, but ultimately, Rocky ends up choosing to work with Adonis Johnson. Yes, on one level, this is the story of how Rocky trains Apollo Creed's son to redeem himself for his perceived guilt in Creed's death. But on the other hand, and maybe this is because I've read too much about this movie going into it, but this is also the story about diversity, and how diversity happens.

In order for diversity to happen, someone has to open the door in order for you to put your foot through, and then you have to be able to stand in the room and be worthy of it (at the least, usually you have to be more than worth it, but that's a story for another time). This is as true in Hollywood as it is in science and anywhere else. Even though I hit a brick wall in STEM, and ultimately switched my leanings towards medicine, where it turns out I belong, before I hit that wall, I had a lot of people along the way who did help and encourage and gave me opportunities- I just got to the final door and it was shut. But it doesn't mean I don't appreciate those mentors, who were mostly white men, who came before them, who did help me, and who ultimately also helped me when it came time for me to switch course. I'm not grateful to them in a sense of 'oh thank you, for deigning to believe in me'. I'm grateful that they were recognizing a problem, the problem being that women did not feel welcome in the basic sciences, and were doing what they could to correct it. In the case of Creed, it isn't quite so dramatic. But Ryan Coogler pitched Creed to Sylvester Stallone, and he initially turned it down. But when Fruitvale Station came out, Stallone changed his mind and was on board.

That's not nothing on so many levels. Stallone previously had creative control, had written and directed all of the Rocky movies, for better or worse. So it's an act of trust and generosity to let someone else have a shot at it. And for that someone to be a person of color, well, that is not nothing.

You can see Coogler's love of Rocky all over Creed. Yet though the movie reveres Rocky, it makes room, it clears a space for a new lead. This is not a movie about a white guy who is a hero because he trains a black kid. If you really want to compare it to some trope, this is a superhero origin story. And the superhero is Creed, not Rocky. Even the last shot of the movie puts Adonis front and center with Rocky standing to the side. Supporting but not overshadowing, not taking all the credit. That is a thing to see.

Then think of this- how rare it is to see in a recent movie two people separated by several decades in age, neither of them trying to be older or younger than they are, and both of them benefiting from their relationship? This movie celebrates youth but also the wisdom that comes with age. This movie, to be flippant about it, respects its elders. But it's also grounded in the now in so many ways.

The fact is, the Rocky movies were never popular because everyone loves boxing. We never watched professional boxing growing up, but my family watched all the Rocky movies with fervor. Boxing keeps getting featured in movies because it is dramatic and because there's something essential about it. Creed gets to the heart of that, as Rocky explains to Adonis that you're really fighting yourself in the ring. The opponent is there in the movies because an internal conflict is not as entertaining on the screen. This movie's theme is about finding a reason to fight and then having the courage to give it everything you can, and every person in the movie is fighting for something, and it's the right thing. Even the supposed 'villain.' This is not Rocky IV. Everyone wins in some way or another.

And then, there is a whole different level to this movie. And that's what is playing out in the theaters. I went to see this movie in a town in California that is truly one of the most diverse places in America, in every sense, not just in terms of race but in terms of socioeconomics. All of Thanksgiving weekend, I had been trying to get some Indian friends to see Creed with me, and they all wanted to see the new James Bond movie or the new Hunger Games movie. In fact, they were a little offended that I would rather see Creed. It's interesting to me, this South Asian tendency to lean towards identifying with white culture (except, of course, when it comes to rap music, in which case, South Asians suddenly become Straight Outta Compton). But honestly, I just identify more with Creed (it didn't hurt that a hospital scene had some throwaway scenes with an Indian doctor who got to have an Indian name and no accent), and I've realized these small things matter. I am not giving my money to big studio films that don't reflect what America or the world look like, not anymore. I see those movies sometimes on television, but box office matters. And I was nearly giddy sitting in the theater today which was chock full of people of so many different ethnicities. We have a voice, we have a say, and we can and do vote with our wallets. Creed looks like it is going to be the #3 box office this weekend, which is good, but after watching the movie, it should be #1, and it should stay that way for weeks to come.

I think of how those Rocky movies have mattered to me, as a child and as an adult. They were about a lunkhead who didn't have much going for him but his heart and sheer will to keep at it. Strangely, that's meant something to me at various difficult times in my life. The new hero, Creed, has more complex things to say and says them well, and I feel like it makes a difference in ways that we don't even understand right now. And in this increasingly horrible world where so many terrible things are happening, we need art to give us hope sometimes, and to open our eyes at other times. So I don't care if it's just a dumb piece of entertainment. I've got no regrets, except I wish you had seen Creed too.