In 1976, Rocky was released in theaters. It became a major hit, spawning seven sequels and effectively launching writer-actor Sylvester Stallone’s career as a movie star. At the Oscars, Stallone won best screenplay.
Forty years later, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land came out to a similar astounding success. At the Oscars, it won best actress, best original screenplay, and (briefly) best picture.
While they may not be similar in terms of tone or outcome, they both come out of the same premise: down on their luck people seeking major success in their respective fields. They also experienced similar criticism in terms of racial politics in. However, the change in time period decided how these criticisms were met.
Down on his luck amateur boxer Rocky (Stallone) gets the chance to fight World Champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) as part of a PR stunt.
Rocky was one of the hardest studio film to produce at the time, in that it starred an unknown who had written the script. The Director, John G. Avildsen, had made some small independent films (the most notable being Save The Tiger (1973), which won Jack Lemmon his second Oscar). Probably the best-known actor in it was Talia Shire, who had just starred in her brother’s film version of The Godfather (1972). Besides that, it starred TV star and character actor Burgess Meredith (who appeared in 4 episodes of the Twilight Zone and 6 Otto Preminger films) and James Caan’s best friend Burt Young (Caan had gotten him cast in four movies before this). None of these people were well known at the time.
For Rocky, Stallone took inspiration from a Muhammad Ali fight with Chuck Wepner. Although he partially inspired Stallone’s creation, Wepner had a complex relationship with the Rocky films and Stallone. Stallone offered Wepner the part of “Chink Weber” in Rocky II, but he did not do well at the audition. Stallone promised to work with him later, but Wepner lost hope that that would ever happen after he learned secondhand that Stallone had shot Copland (1996) near him. In 2003, Wepner sued Stallone for taking his life story and not sharing the profits with him. Stallone settled for an undisclosed amount.
La La Land
La La Land follows the relationship between aspiring Jazz musician Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia Dolan (Emma Stone). Mia aspires to be an actress, while Sebastian wants to open a Jazz club to honor his heroes.
Of the two films, La La Land is a higher profile film. Besides featuring two established stars (Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone), it also features an established musician (John Legend) and a writer-director who was better known than either Avildsen or Stallone at the time his film came out. Chazelle had previously written and directed the whimsical musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009) and the punishing Whiplash (2014).
Unlike those previous films, Chazelle saw the film as a celebration of Los Angeles, which led him to create the opening musical number in Los Angeles traffic. Inspired by films like Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Chazelle set out to make a bittersweet colorful musical about the city.
Differences in Films
Although these films have the premise, they have radically different styles, outcomes and messages. Rocky tells the story of a man who loses the fight and wins the girl, while La La Land tells the story of two people who decide to end their relationship to pursue their own career goals. Rocky begins by allowing the audience to consume the world and the characters before getting into the plot, while La La Land rushes through the characters and the plot in the first hour before slowing down in the second hour to make everything more dramatic and grounded. La La Land also seems to be more built around set pieces, while Rocky simply maneuvers from event to event.
A Change in Criticism
These films also suggest a change in terms of criticism. Both follow white characters trying to succeed in a field or art form dominated by black people. Both received similar criticisms about their narratives.
Michael Gallantz of Jump Cut in 1978 and Joe Flaherty of Film Comment in 1982 both wrote critically about Rocky’s racial politics. Both critics saw the film as a backlash to the civil rights movement and critique the portrayal of Apollo Creed as he relates to Muhammad Ali. Writing for film magazines, these criticisms did not reach as many people as mainstream publications.
The Rocky films came out in a time where there were far fewer portrayals of black people in film and television. In the first movie, Rocky loses, but in the second movie, he wins. Since race does play a big role in narrative, the outcome of the match matters more.
Gallantz’s article “Critical Dialogue: Rocky’s Racism” begins by discussing how few critics discussed the racism within Rocky’s story. He has decided to write this article in response to Ira Shor’s review of Rocky. Gallantz then compares Rocky to the 1978 Supreme Court case from the same year, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In that case, the court ruled in favor of Alan Bakke, who said that the University of California favored minorities over whites in its medical program. According to Gallantz, the Bakke decision viewed minorities as forming an alliance with upperclass white bourgeoisie to “squeeze out the ignored and neglected white, and particularly white ethnic working class and petty bourgeoisie.” Gallantz then describes a similar incident occurring at the beginning of Rocky. Rocky goes to his locker at the gym, only to find that he has been replaced by a black man.
Throughout Gallantz’s article, he critiques how Stallone uses narrative and metaphor in this film. For a long time, boxing has been a sport built around narratives of fights. One of the most common is white versus black. Gallantz also argues that while all the white characters are portrayed as non-racist, most of the black characters are portrayed as aggressive and race baiting. This includes Apollo Creed constantly making “eye-talian” jabs at Rocky. With Gallantz, the argument centers around racial antagonism in the story coming from blacks and not necessarily being as mutual or as complicated as it would be in a real working class environment.
In his article “The First Three Rocky Movies Were Nothing But White Wish Fulfillment,” Joe Flaherty’s criticism has to do with the series up to the article in 1982. More than Gallantz, Flaherty criticizes the boxing. This includes how Creed picks a mediocre fighter like Rocky. According to Flaherty, in reality, Ali would choose fighters to go up against through a rigorous screening process.
Flaherty sees the driving force of the film as Stallone rewriting history with Apollo Creed. He describes it as “bordering on a colonial restoration.” He says that the first film had some restraint, with Rocky losing at the end instead of winning. A great deal of his article deals with the newly released Rocky III (1982), in which Rocky goes up against a new opponent, Clubber Lang (Mr. T).
Portrayal of Muhammad Ali
Both Gallantz and Flaherty see Apollo Creed as a desecration of Muhammad Ali.
In Gallantz’ article, he points out that Apollo Creed is a caricature meant to evoke Muhammad Ali, but “erases all traces of his uphill battle against authority.” While he is great businessman and promoter, he also acts in arrogant manner and assumes that he can easily beat Rocky, making him seem lazy. Gallantz also points out that Rocky’s personality and name are meant to invoke Rocky Marciano, a man who was known as non-violent and gentle out of the ring. By creating such a mild-mannered character as the hero, it makes the audience detest his arrogant opponent even more.
In Flaherty’s article, Flaherty sees Apollo Creed as what white men wished would have happened with Muhammad Ali. Since Ali’s career was largely successful, the films allow white audiences to live out a fantasy of Ali getting his comeuppance. In the third film, Creed becomes a kind trainer to Rocky. Flaherty speculates “all this might be Stallone’s apology for so shamelessly bastardizing his legend.”
In both cases, both articles critique what they dislike about the portrayal of Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali Response to Rocky
In 1979, Film critic Roger Ebert did an interview with Muhammad Ali. During their interview, they watched the recently released Rocky II. While criticizing the boxing (including the cutting of the eye), Ali liked the film, calling it “a great movie.” Ali also said that Creed was him. After the screening, Ebert asked what Ali thought about Rocky winning the fight over Creed. Ali responded:
“For the black man to come out superior would be against America’s teachings. I have been so great in boxing they had to create an image like Rocky, a white image on the screen, to counteract my image in the ring. America has to have its white images, no matter where it gets them. Jesus, Wonder Woman, Tarzan and Rocky.”
La La Land
On the other hand, more criticisms of La La Land came in faster. While the racial criticisms for Rocky came out in film magazines over a series of years, the criticisms of La La Land appeared over weeks and months.
Multiple critics felt that the film had a white Savior complex. One of the primary criticisms of the movie was that the male lead is a white man out to save Jazz, while the primary black speaking role (played by John Legend) in the film is considered a sellout.
There were multiple perspectives on this.
Ira Madison of MTV news had mixed feelings about the movie. He calls it “a Trojan horse white savior film.” However, Madison does not feel that broken up about it, as this is the same year as Moonlight, Fences, and Hidden Figures.
Another aspect that Madison examines in his article is Chazelle’s previous work and the production of this film. He mentions that Chazelle’s previous film Guy and Madison On a Park Bench starred a black man and Hispanic woman. He also brings up that Chazelle approached Michael B. Jordan to star in the film. Madison theorizes that this casting decision would have caused Lionsgate to make and sell the movie as less of a fantasy due to the racial politics of the situation.
Ruby Lott-Lavigna of Wired said that the movie does not seem to be quite set in reality with a stable defined time period. Phones and 1950’s dance numbers bump up against each other. However, this unreality that celebrates jazz seems to exist outside of the actual history of Jazz. Lott-Lavigna also brings up how Ryan Gosling’s Seb talks over actual Jazz musicians to explain the greatness of Jazz to Emma Stone.
In an article for the Hollywood Reporter, former basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar questioned the way the film portrayed Jazz. While he liked the film, he had criticisms of its message. He disliked how the film chose portray a noble white man as a noble figure trying to save jazz, while portraying a man of color as a sellout. Abdul-Jabbar felt that having this character also be the only prominent character in the story did not help matters, as it plays into simplistic Hollywood storytelling.
While criticisms could gain greater visibility faster, so could quick responses. When Emma Stone received criticism about playing a part Asian character, she went on Saturday Night Live (1975 -). Similarly, Saturday Night Live made a skit about the controversy that La La Land received.
While both of these films faced similar Criticisms, the time periods they were released in affected the way they received this criticism. A change in technology and news media affected how this criticism was received and processed.
With Rocky, some of the criticism has changed with the reboot. In 2015, Warner Brothers rebooted the Rocky series with Creed. The new series follows Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed. He becomes the focus of the story while Rocky serves as his trainer. With Creed II, director Steve Caple Jr. wrote the screenplay based on an outline Stallone wrote. Working with Jordan and Stallone, Caple Jr. added in Jordan’s uncertainties of living up to famous black actors like Denzel Washington and Will Smith. This added an uncertainty to the story that both Caple Jr. and Jordan wanted.