In ‘Creed II,’ Michael B. Jordan takes a beating and keeps on ticking With unforgettable roles in ‘Black Panther’ and now ‘Creed,’ he’s the poster boy for 2018

The American patriot and central hero of Creed II has zero interest in making googly eyes at Vladimir Putin.

Director Steven Caple Jr. made his feature debut in 2016 at Sundance with The Land, a story about skateboarders set in Cleveland. In the latest chapter of the Creed franchise, he turns a good ol’ Russian-American showdown into a deceptively fun vehicle for exploring ideas about race, patriotism, leadership and modern American masculinity. The satisfaction it brings hits unexpectedly hard, the work of a story originally written by Luke Cage creator Cheo Hodari Coker and then rewritten a couple of times, including by Juel Taylor and star and producer Sylvester Stallone.

Having ascended to heavyweight champion of the world, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has little time to enjoy his success before boxing promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) presents him with a challenge he can’t ignore. Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the vengeful son of Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) and Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen, who reprises her turncoat role with delicious, biting iciness), wants to fight Adonis, and he wants to fight him bad. This feud is generational: Ivan killed Adonis’ father, Apollo, in the ring before getting beaten by Rocky Balboa (Stallone). The Dragos, still stinging from Ludmilla’s abandonment, have been wallowing in shame and isolation in Ukraine while plotting their way back to the top.

Despite the resurrection of a familiar rivalry, the Cold War enmity that fueled the subtext of the Rocky movies has given way in Creed II to a more complicated expression of patriotism familiar to many black Americans. Adonis fights for himself, for his community, for his city, for his father’s legacy.

They’re too polite to say it, but it’s clear that his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and his mother, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), see his fight with Drago as a suicide mission. Being black women with two working sets of eyes, they are, of course, right.

Creed hangs on to his belt, not because he beats Viktor but because the Russian has so little integrity that he can’t resist landing one more knockout punch after the final bell. Bianca becomes Adonis’ personal Horace Greeley, pushing the couple and baby she’s baking out of the cold, claustrophobic confines of Philadelphia and toward Los Angeles sunshine, where Adonis can figure out how to mend his bruised ego. She wants to get her burgeoning music career off the ground while she still can. Thompson’s performance reveals that no director has yet come close to capturing the full breadth of her talents. She stuns as an artsy-yet-commanding chanteuse and takes full advantage of the third act to unfurl a soaring, magical presence.

Michael B. Jordan stars as Adonis Creed in Creed II.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

In Drago, Creed is battling not only revenge-seeking Russians but also in-the-flesh white supremacy. Not only is the titanic Viktor Drago bigger, faster and stronger than Creed, he looks like what would result if master-race mad scientists were allowed to manufacture a heavyweight boxer with CRISPR gene editing.

Drago will only agree to a rematch if the fight is held in Russia. Can Creed win when “neutral” has shifted so heavily? Because asking the United Nations to monitor the officiating is not an option, Creed deduces that nothing less than an undisputed TKO will do.

The outcome of Creed II is, of course, wholly predictable. Its appeal lies in how it gets there, charting Creed’s path to redemption through the choking hot air of the California desert. As training montages go, the shift in venue serves Creed II especially well: Caple rewards Jordan’s fans with ample shots of his leading man’s rippling physique as the appropriately named Adonis gears up for the fight of his life.

In Adonis, Caple and executive producer Ryan Coogler have crafted a bridge from a stoic brand of American hypermasculinity, one in which “working class” is immediately coded as white, to a modern one that finds its core in romance and history-making legacy, a point Caple punctuates with a shot of Adonis cradling his daughter, Amara, in his father’s boxing gym as a billboard-sized image of Apollo stands watch in the background. Anger, hunger for revenge and brute strength aren’t enough to vanquish an existential opponent like Viktor Drago. Only focus, endurance and strategic precision will prevail.

Coogler and Caple are the architects of this year’s one-two punch of cinematic black power, with leading man Jordan as the fulcrum. While Coogler used Black Panther to imagine an African utopia untouched by the evils of imperialism, Caple’s latest chapter of the Rocky story projects a vision in which restoring the glory and honor of an imperfect America lies in the hands of a black man.

As Killmonger in Black Panther and Adonis in Creed II, Jordan toggles from an avatar of the lethal efficiency of the American military-industrial complex, molded and calcified by white supremacy, to a symbol of American perseverance, triumph and calculated might on the world stage. These two unforgettable roles have made Jordan the poster boy for 2018.

Adonis Creed may be an American with a world heavyweight title, but in the hands of Coogler and Caple, he belongs to black people first. And the possibilities for what lies ahead are already spinning. Baby Amara is the next generation of the Creed family, and her father has deemed her “a fighter.” Are Coogler, Caple & Co. setting us up for a chapter in which the future is female?

Don’t join the rush to condemn ‘Game of Thrones’ team behind HBO’s ‘Confederate’ Whiteness does not prevent wokeness

There are as many reasons to worry about the next project from the Game of Thrones showrunners — an HBO series called Confederate, about an America where slavery still exists — as Queen Cersei has reasons to worry about her head staying attached to her neck.

But let’s give David Benioff and D.B. Weiss a chance. Whiteness does not prevent wokeness. And fiction can be more penetrating than fact, particularly in this era when too many people argue that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery.

On Wednesday, HBO announced the forthcoming drama, written and executive produced by Benioff and Weiss, who turned the Thrones fantasy novels into a global phenomenon. Confederate is set in an alternate reality where the South won the Civil War. “Slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution,” HBO said in a statement. “The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone  —  freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.”

The biggest reason to worry about Confederate is Game of Thrones’ troublesome relationship with race.

Benioff and Weiss’ show is almost devoid of blackness. Only two minor characters had African features, and they’re both long gone. Two current minor characters appear biracial: Grey Worm, who has no testicles, and Missandei, an ex-slave doomed to love Grey Worm when she’s not busy as Daenerys’ servant. The brown-skinned Dothraki are a stereotypical savage horde, reveling in public sex and the consumption of raw animal organs — and they worshipped fair Daenerys, of course. Overall, Thrones is so Eurocentric, even a dude named Shagga is white.

Such whiteness is somewhat to be expected, given that George R.R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire books that are the basis of Game of Thrones, says his world of Westeros is a fantasy analogue of the British Isles. “There weren’t many Asians in Yorkish England either,” Martin told a mournful fan in 2014. And Thrones delivers equal-opportunity barbarism, with white characters perpetrating an enormous variety of depraved and disturbing crimes.

But still. Dragons are born of a human mother in Game of Thrones. People return from the dead. Undead ice-fiends are marching south. But we can’t get a brother up in King’s Landing? C’mon, y’all.

Folks on Twitter predictably trashed the Confederate press release, questioning whether white writers could be trusted with such a deeply black story. In a more nuanced critique, David Perry, a writer and professor of history at Dominican University in suburban Chicago, expressed concern over Thrones’ treatment not only of race but of sexual violence as well.

“The showrunners have been defensive when engaged on these issues,” Perry, a Thrones fan, said by email. “Their decisions have been troubling here, and we’re only dealing with a medievalish fantasy world. … I am skeptical that they have the listening skills and humility to adeptly handle the even more tense subject matter of American slavery.

“You can’t do a show about American slavery without engaging the history of rape of enslaved women,” Perry continued. “Can we trust the people who decided to make the rape of Sansa about Theon’s emotions to portray that kind of trauma? I am always willing to be proved wrong. I always want to believe artists can develop and improve. But I’m deeply skeptical.”

But Cheo Hodari Coker, showrunner for the Netflix series Luke Cage, dismissed the critiques of “armchair Twitter cultural nationalists” and cautioned against judging a TV concept by its press release — or even by the creators’ previous work. Coker also expressed confidence that the involvement of black executive producer/writers Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman, who have worked on shows such as Empire and The Good Wife, will ensure that the explosive premise is handled with sensitivity.

“You can’t always apply someone’s previous creative track record to the work that hasn’t been done yet,” said Coker, who is friends with Benioff and Malcolm Spellman. “The Ice Cube of Straight Outta Compton is different from the Ice Cube that collaborated with the Bomb Squad, and different from the Ice Cube that made Are We There Yet? Just because there were elements of the Dothraki and some of these things that were problematic on Game of Thrones, does that mean this new concept will be equally problematic? No. You have to see it first.”

Responding to the criticism in an interview with Vulture, Weiss said, “It’s a science-fiction show. One of the strengths of science fiction is that it can show us how this history is still with us in a way no strictly realistic drama ever could, whether it were a historical drama or a contemporary drama.”

Despite America’s long history of white storytellers seizing and misrepresenting black life, white writers have inhabited many authentic and classic black characters. Langston Hughes called Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin a “moral battle cry for freedom.” Richard Price illuminated the world of corner crack hustlers in Clockers. David Simon created some of the greatest (quasi) fictional black characters in American history with The Wire (which could actually be the most realistic depiction of an America where slavery never died).

The recent best-selling novel Underground Airlines explores the same premise as Confederate — what if slavery never ended? — in powerful and thought-provoking ways. It was written by a white author, Ben E. Winters. His protagonist is a black escaped slave, trapped into tracking down other fugitives. Winters’ research included reading slave narratives, contemporary and classic African-American literature, histories of slavery and the generations after slavery, and just talking to regular black folks about their modern lives.

“As we all know, our country has a long literary history of white people telling black stories and writing in black voices, and a lot of it is pretty gross,” Winters told me last year. “It was my aim from the outset to not be one of those. To bring empathy and intelligence to a work of speculative fiction that was also engaged with the great social issue of our time.

“The novel rose out of my powerful and sad sense of all the ways the shadow of slavery hangs over our country,” Winter said. “All the institutions and attitudes that were shaped during those centuries are still with us.”

They will be with us again when Confederate hits HBO, undoubtedly under great scrutiny. Game of Thrones is one of the towering achievements of this golden television age, largely because of the immense talents of Benioff and Weiss. Let’s see how they apply those talents to the great social issue of our time. Let them make their art, and then let them win or die. There is no middle ground.