Thursday, March 10, 2016

Coming to Identity

Society uses ages of majority to define personal identity in many ways, for example the ages at which one can drive a car, vote, serve in the military, marry, and legally achieve majority and independence. These are all indicia of adulthood and coming of age. They are also benchmarks through which identity can be created – as member of society with full rights and privileges, a driver, a voter, a soldier, or a spouse. Combined, law creates a written system through which one comes to identity as well as age of majority.

The film Creed documents another phenomenon – an unwritten system of coming to identity – through the story of Adonis “Donny” Johnson’s evolution into Donny Creed.  The film begins with a young Donny fighting at a group home. Shortly afterward, a woman, Mary Anne, visits Donny and makes reference to his father. To Mary Anne’s surprise, Donny responds that he has no father. It soon becomes clear to the audience that Donny’s father was Apollo Creed, who died prior to Donny’s birth, and that his birth was the result of an extramarital affair. It also becomes apparent that Mary Anne is Apollo’s widow. To honor Apollo’s memory, Mary Anne takes Donny in and gives him a home – teaching him about his father while shunning the idea of him fighting.

The next scenes of the film show Donny as an adult – at least in terms of age – boxing in Tijuana and then working in a corporate position in Los Angeles. Although successful, he seems uncomfortable in his office, as if he is a child playing dress-up. In a bold move, Donny presents his boss with a letter of resignation, explaining that he feels the need to do something else. He then goes to the boxing gym he has been using – the gym affiliated with his father – and announces that he is ready to become a professional boxer. His trainer shuns this idea, belittling Donny’s achievements and denying the idea that Donny would be able to fight professionally – in essence, denying that he can live up to the family legacy. Despite the humiliation, Donny is undaunted. He tells Mary Anne about his plans and she is visibly upset, recalling that Apollo himself lost his life in the boxing ring. Still, he moves to Philadelphia to train.

The film then shows the audience a Philadelphia restaurant – Adrian’s – at the end of the evening. Inside, the walls are covered in photos. The restaurant is empty except for Donny, who is transfixed by one photo. As he stands staring at the photo Donny encounters the restaurant’s owner, Rocky Balboa. Rocky is taken aback when he is barraged with questions about the photo depicting the epic fight between Rocky and Apollo. Donny is at first reluctant to reveal his relationship to Apollo but ultimately does, shocking Rocky who, like the rest of the world, was unaware that Apollo had an illegitimate son. Donny asks Rocky to train him but Rocky refuses, arguing that Apollo would not want him to be a boxer.

Donny rents space at Rocky’s old gym and is persistent in his quest to have Rocky train him. Throughout all of this, Donny uses his mother’s last name – Johnson – and does not divulge his father’s identity to anyone. Eventually, Rocky stops by the gym. Rocky attracts attention, particularly from the gym’s owner, who wants Rocky to train his own son. Rocky politely declines and proceeds to work with Donny on an increasing basis, annoying the gym’s owner.  The gym’s owner soon proposes to Rocky that they set up a fight between Donny and his son. Knowing that the son is an advanced boxer, Rocky is reluctant to accept the offer. Donny, however, is insistent that they accept the offer and brashly believes that he can win. Rocky agrees but insists that Donny move in with him and begin training at another gym.

Donny is already comfortable in his apartment and has found a love interest in Bianca, his neighbor. However, for the sake of winning he agrees to move into a spare room in Rocky’s house, where he is surrounded by the history of Rocky, Apollo and boxing in general. Rocky’s training regimen is severe and “old school,” focusing on discipline and mental training as much as on physical training. At first, Donny fights some of these measures but ultimately he begins to thrive under them. As Donny Johnson, there is no expectation of him from anyone other than Rocky, and even then Rocky simply wants to see what Donny can do. Certainly, Donny wants to box because his father was a boxer and wants to live up to the image of his father that he has created in his own mind but his focus seems to be more on the winning aspects of his father’s legacy than anything else.

Before the fight, the gym owner tells Rocky that he’s done some digging and knows that Donny has “Creed blood.” Rocky explains Donny’s reticence to reveal his name and asks that this be kept quiet. Donny wins the fight. The next morning the secret is out – somehow, the sports media becomes aware that Donny is Apollo’s son. It is easy to see that Donny is conflicted over the revelation – it is no longer necessary to keep the secret, but now the world of boxing and the world in general views him differently. There is also a deeper personal question of who he is and what his next objective will be professionally and personally.

The latter question is answered when an offer comes to fight a well-known English boxer, Ricky Conlan. Rocky wants to decline the offer, realizing that Conlan simply wants to fight a Creed. This is confirmed when Conlan’s manager makes the fight contingent on Donny fighting as “Creed” rather than “Johnson.” The appeal of the fight is too much for Donny to resist. This is more than hubris, however. For the first time he embraces the idea that he is not only Apollo’s son but also that he can in fact live up to the family legacy. In the moment when he tells Rocky that he wants to take the fight – conditions and all – he begins the process of coming to and claiming his identity. While training, Donny is repeatedly overcome by doubts and is particularly offended when he is referred to as “Baby Creed.” When the time for the fight arrives he is visibly nervous and Conlan tries to play on this by taunting him about being born into a legacy he cannot live up to.

Mary Anne sends Donny a pair of boxing shorts with the same design as Apollo’s and both the Creed and Johnson names on them. This seems to encapsulate who and what he is fighting for. The fight is a brutal battle that goes the full 12 rounds against all expectations. Both fighters are bloodied and exhausted but in a contested vote Conlan is deemed the winner. Conlan’s attitude has visibly changed and he is respectful of Donny as a fighter, seeing past the association of being simply Apollo’s son. The crowd is equally accepting, chanting “Creed” in support of the underdog it jeered 12 rounds beforehand.

The film is not a traditional coming of age story – legally, Donny has already come of age. Rather, this is a coming to identity story, meaning that Donny goes through a variety of stages in order to claim his own identity and take possession of his name, with all that it represents. Throughout the film, Apollo is a constant figure – sometimes as an ideal to live up to and sometimes as a source of questions and lore. No matter the capacity, Apollo created a name and a legacy for himself and Donny is acutely aware of the weight that goes along with the name.

Donny’s initial choice to box as Donny Johnson was not an attempt to deny his father as much as to make a name on his own. This is admirable but masked the inner knowledge that he was indeed Apollo’s son and there would always be a legacy to live up to. Donny had to go through a variety of stages – akin to reaching various steps toward full majority – in order to claim his identity and reconcile his family legacy with his own. This could only be done after a series of tests – being revealed to the media, facing the unwanted attention of the Creed name, and fearing that he would not live up to the legacy created by the father he never knew, to say nothing of the actual fights themselves.  

This also required that he create his own family and support system out of people who did not seek him out because of his name and who saw him in the same light once they knew his name. Ultimately, Donny’s coming to identity required him to embrace who and what he was through his own aspirations. Once he realized that he could in fact live up to the family name and realized who he was as a person, notably during the fight, Donny came to his identity. It is through this unwritten process that we see the establishment of a person who is able to function fully for and as himself while understanding who and what he is.

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