Know Your Role! The Normalization of Racism and White Supremacy in Rocky III

Featured image: art by Steve Marchal.

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When Rocky was released in 1976, it became a worldwide phenomenon celebrated by both audience and critics. The story of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is the typical fairy tale of the white working class man who, against all odds, is capable of fulfilling his dreams. The success of the movie can be partially explained by the fusion of conservative ideological narratives―monogamous, heterosexual, and non-racially mixed families as the base of society―and liberal ones―strong and active women, sensible men or powerful members of minority groups. In consequence, the movie has been mostly considered as an optimistic and patriotic attempt to reunite a nation in crisis.

One of the few critics who did not agree with the hegemonic position was Michael Gallantz, who in “Rocky’s Racism” (1978) argued that the movie is filled with a discrimination that “is as mysteriously invisible as it is systematic and vicious”. The author states that Rocky is the reflection of a backlash against the achievements of the African American community that took place during the 70s. That derived from the fear of white Americans of losing their rights in favor of a potentially new order led by privileged Blacks. In the first movie, the embodiment of that threat is Apollo, an uppity world heavyweight champion who ostentatiously enjoys privileges such as wealth, power, and fame. Gallantz claims that the powerful hidden narrative of Rocky takes form through the innovative and apparently egalitarian, inclusive, and non-stereotypical representation of Blacks. That is possible by presenting that progressive society as a naturalized menace in which Rocky’s oppression represents the situation of all white Americans.

Almost a half of a century later, the context of globalization of the 21th century is experiencing, once again, the rise of new reactionary and anti-human rights movements that are partially sustained on narratives of the same kind. In the specific case of the United States, the second decade of the century is characterized by the growth of the far-right and structural violence against minority groups, especially African Americans. In consequence, antiracist movements such as Black Lives Matter have earned great influence both inside and outside the country.

In a context of massive production and easy access to audiovisual cultural products, the popularity and influence of the Rocky series remains as powerful now as it was in the past, which has led a considerable number of academics from varied disciplines to dissect it (Hoff 1999; Salyer Jr. 2009; Fiamengo 2010; Rivas 2015; Walsh 2015; Hilby, Stephens and Stripling 2016; Junior 2016; Tholas-Disset 2017; Yüksel 2018; Saravia Gedes 2020). This article follows the path initiated by Gallantz through the analysis of the representation of African Americans in Rocky III (1982) with the aim of uncovering the ways in which racist narratives, both implicit and explicit, are present in the film. In a previous article (Saravia Gedes 2020), I analyzed the construction of Soviet otherness in Rocky IV (1985) as a useful political tool that aimed to spread a negative conception of the external enemy during the Cold War period. In a similar way, Rocky III is the reflection of the fears and prejudices promoted against African American activism in a context of social unrest.

This article argues that Rocky III presents a political narrative that aims to promote a White-Black alliance, led by White people, that finds its enemies in the Black Americans who actively rejected the Anglo establishment during the 70s and 80s. This is done through the assignment of positive attributes to the Blacks who accept White leadership and adopt a secondary role, while those who pretend to stand at the top of the game are assigned negative attributes. Moreover, ethnic differences within Whites are made invisible as Rocky, the Italian-American hero, is presented as the incarnation of White supremacy and Americanness. This makes his final victory over Clubber Lang (Mr. T) a metaphorical celebration of the desired America against the Black rebels. The analysis is mainly focused on the discursive and filmic depiction of Lang as the representation of the defeated enemy, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) as the desired role for Blacks, and Rocky as the defender of an interracial America under White rule.

Unlike the previous movies, that offer a romantic depiction of a rags to riches love story, politics is a relevant issue from the first time Rocky and Lang interact. The heavyweight champion of the world is interrupted during his retirement speech and defied by the official number one contender who claims that: “Politics, man! This country wants to keep me down. They don’t want a man like me to have the title because I’m not a puppet like you” (Stallone 1982). In order to understand Lang’s arguments, two questions need to be answered: what kind of man is he? Is he a menace to the nation?

One of Gallantz’s arguments to sustain the existence of subtle racism in Rocky rests on the non-existent reproduction of the traditional stereotypes about African Americans. Rocky III is different from the first film as the protagonist’s rival is not just a sportsman but an obvious villain that breaks the traditional codes of society and morality. In consequence, Lang is modeled on one of the most pervasive stereotypes inaugurated during the Enslavement Era: the Mandingo. It depicts young Black men as animalistic and brutish through the attribution of two main capacities. First, exaggerated strength and agility; second, a hypersexualization that represents Blacks as potential sexual assaulters. The world of boxing was not free from those prejudices. In 1910, the Black heavyweight champion, Arthur Jack Johnson, defeated the “Great White Hope” James Jeffries. Johnson’s victory, added to the rejection of his relationship with a White woman by supremacists, resulted in weeks of national violence against Black communities (“Popular and Pervasive”).

Lang’s actions and attributes are just the fictional reproduction of the prejudices present in popular culture with the aim of showing him as the antagonist. Each of the main attributes assigned to the Mandingo stereotype are reproduced by him. After Rocky’s initial unwillingness to give him a title shot, Lang provokes him by directing his attention to his wife, Adrian:

Hey, woman! Hey, woman. Listen here. Since your old man ain’t got no heart, maybe you wanna see a real man? I bet you stay up every night dreaming you had a real man, huh? Bring your pretty little self over to my apartment and I’ll show you a real man. (Stallone 1982)

Lang’s sexist and violent statements are not only a sign of disrespect and a provocation towards women. In patriarchal cultures such as the America of the 20th century, women have been conceived and treated as men’s property, first of their fathers and then, like in this case, of their husbands. The main aim of the hypersexualization of Black men and their cultural representation as sexual assaulters has historically been to keep them far from White women. In consequence, Lang’s verbal assault activates the mental defense mechanisms of the racist White America, exactly the same as the interracial relationship of Jack Johnson.

Moreover, Lang’s attitude is harmful to one of the pillars of the American society and the driving force that allows the hero to achieve the impossible: the traditional family. Lang does not only attack Rocky’s and America’s vital pillar, he also despises and rejects the institution in his personal life: “My whole life’s been directed towards this title. I live alone. I train alone. I’ll win the title alone” (Stallone 1982). His extreme individuality in search of a personal goal presents Lang as a selfish human being that isolates himself from a society he hates. His antisocial and antisystem behavior, especially his willingness to earn “nothin’” (Stallone 1982) in the potentially most profitable match of his career, suggests an implicit rejection of capitalism that is reinforced by the austere spaces in which he lives and trains.

Aesthetics play a fundamental role in meaning construction processes. In this case, Lang’s punk rocker clothing style, traditionally associated by the conservative media with crime, drugs, and violence, is used to relate him with danger. If that was not enough, he is also surrounded by police officers. As the frames below show (fig. 1), the effect of presenting the hero as a calmed, wealthy, and sociable man surrounded by loving people, local authorities and national symbols, produces a binary division with obvious racial and class connotations in favor of rich White people:

Figure 1 Rocky III (Stallone 1982).

Moreover, whereas the hero is characterized by optimism and an unbreakable community spirit, the contender is a renegade whose disruption threatens the American way of life. No scene illustrates this better than the first match press conferences (fig. 2).

Figure 2 Rocky III (Stallone 1982).

The frames expose both the first example of explicit racism in the movie and the mechanisms used to hide and/or make its detection more difficult. The dehumanization of Blacks in popular culture through their animalization is one of the most repeated actions used to justify their oppression. Similar to the representation of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in Rocky IV, the villain is uncomfortably situated in a dark room that makes him look like a dangerous cornered beast about to attack. The harassing presence and flashes of the press, who ignore the fighter’s demands for privacy (“I told you, you better get outta here. I wanna be alone”, Stallone 1984), and insult him (“Come on, take your robe off. – Take off your robe!”, Stallone 1984), make him look like a fearful zoo animal.

The scene simultaneously shows a relaxed and funny Rocky whose relationship with the press is based on respect and comradeship. The contrasting realities highlight the individual/community distinction, softens Lang’s dehumanization and promotes sympathy towards the white team. Lang’s violent reaction to the violation of his will and the humiliation he is suffering is presented, therefore, as a proof of his wicked condition and, at the same time, promotes the naturalization of Black bullying.

The villain’s portrayal as an animal is reinforced by his use of language. In contrast to Apollo, his vocabulary is reduced to violent expressions that take the match to a personal level. Lang continuously talks about destroying, killing and causing pain, which is reflected in his brutal boxing style. The absence of any kind of strategy and his limited technical skills, compared to Apollo or Rocky, characterize him as dangerous, mentally limited and irrational. This negative portrayal is reinforced when he pushes Mickey, what causes his heart attack and subsequent death. Rocky’s trainer’s death, one the most touching moments of the series, overshadows the racist insult (“Get that ape back in the ring”, Stallone 1982) that triggered Lang’s physical reaction. Although the boxer’s action cannot be justified, a reaction towards a racist aggression is naturalized and the victim shown as the only aggressor. In consequence, the movie promotes the adoption of passiveness and resignation even when suffering discrimination. In this context, Rocky’s defeat in the first match and the subsequent crowning of Lang as the new world heavyweight champion have a symbolic meaning: the triumph of the “bad” African Americans over the established American way of life.

After the analysis of the Black boxer as a historical pervasive stereotype used to stigmatize African Americans, one of the main questions to answer is whether he is a representation of the entire community. Lang represents the “bad” African Americans who do not respect the status quo and want to occupy the hegemonic place of the dominant white group. He is rebellion and, as the analysis shows, rebellion is violent, chaotic, irrational, and uncivil. In sum, those like Lang are bad for America.

The movie is not limited to telling the audience what African Americans should not be, it also proposes an alternative role model for “good” Blacks: Apollo Creed. The “bad” Black starts the hostilities by violently despising the “good” one for no reason. Lang tells Apollo: “Get outta my face! I don’t need no has-been messin’ in my corner” (Stallone 1982). This fosters Apollo’s alignment with the white champion: “Give everybody a present and drop this chump, all right? Good luck to you, man” (Stallone 1982). This scene is highly symbolic because an African American icon shows the division between Blacks, and a later alliance with the White establishment, as a necessity for the common good. The division is a key element to soften the explicitness of the stigmatization suffered by Lang because it states that not all Blacks are the same.

However, an effective differentiation requires a clear depiction of the “good” Black. In the first two movies, Apollo Creed is Rocky’s rival, a successful, talented, and smart businessman and undisputed world champion. In the end, he is defeated by the hardworking White man who replaces him at the top of boxing. In Rocky III, Apollo becomes the hero’s helper. The new Apollo is characterized by a deep transformation in his personality, status and aspirations. Despite an excellent physical condition, initially superior to Rocky’s as shown during the training scenes, he has been retired for three years, accepting the Stallion’s superiority. Therefore, the “good” Apollo is the one who accepts, in contrast to Lang, a secondary role in favor of the white sportsman.

Apollo’s alliance with the white cause is not merely discursive, as he actively cooperates by becoming Rocky’s trainer for the rematch. The interracial cooperation against Black villainy is highly symbolic as it both assimilates Rocky to African American culture and highlights Lang’s othering. The selection of a Black working-class gym and the hero’s introduction to the African American boxing style (footwork, lateral movements, distance, speed, accuracy, continuous dodging, and rhythm) depicts him as the champion of honest Black Americans. Rocky’s black attire during the training matches is another sign of his transformation (fig. 3):

Figure 3 Rocky III (Stallone 1982).

White superiority is so great that he is able to dominate the “Black style” in just a couple of months. The iconic beach scene in which Rocky is able to finally beat Apollo in a speed contest is the most powerful reflection of his supremacy. Once the hero has included the African American boxing style to his repertoire, the process is presented as a ritual that turns Rocky into the embodiment of multiracial America. It is not Rocky who voluntarily appropriates the national colors, it is his Black trainer who baptizes whiteness as the legitimate defender of common interests against rebellious blackness:

Apollo: “I want you to wear these”.
Rocky: “Come on, Apollo. These are the colors that you wore in our first fight together. I… I can’t wear your colors”. (Stallone 1982).

Figure 4 Rocky III (Stallone 1982).

If the attires used during the Drago vs. Rocky rematch (Soviet vs. American flag) function as symbolic devices that reflect the Cold War struggle for cultural hegemony (Saravia Gedes 2020), the Lang vs. Rocky rematch symbolizes, at an internal level, the tensions between the status quo and the Black antiracist movements (fig. 4). Lang’s defeat represents the establishments final victory against the subversives. Thus, “The Master of Disaster” has found his path to virtue: being a tool of the White hero in his quest to recover his place at the top from the “bad” Black usurper.

The way in which Rocky wins the match is the ultimate tool used to consolidate the construction of an interracial alliance that, at the same time, clarifies white superiority. During the first round, Rocky’s effective use of the African American boxing style seems to be the key to victory, which in the symbolic struggle for America’s hegemony could have been a demonstration of the necessity of inclusion and cooperation. However, the effect proved to be ephemeral during the next round, when Lang is able to immediately take control of the match. Surprisingly, Rocky’s reaction after discovering that he could win was to disobey his Black corner, to abandon their strategy and to return to his classic style of physical resistance and boxing instinct. Against rationality but in line with the rest of the movie, Apollo accepts his decision:

Apollo: “What the hell are you doing?”
Rocky: “It’s a strategy. I know what I’m doin’ […] He is getting tired”
Apollo: “Don’t tell me what you think! Go out there and do it” (Stallone 1982)

As Gallantz (1978) explains, Rocky’s boxing style is a reproduction of Rocky Marcianos’s, that is to say, the legendary essence of the last great White heavyweight champion. Even though Rocky takes advantage of the African American style, the key of his victory is his superior physical condition. He could win as a Black, but he takes the risk to win as a White. As happened with Apollo after the training sessions, the Stallion shows that he is better than Lang on all levels. In the end, no African American boxer was clearly better than the White champion. On the one hand, Rocky’s defeat against Apollo in the first match was controversial. On the other hand, the one against Lang was the result of lack of motivation, bad training, and the destabilizing effects of Mickey’s heart attack.

The analysis of Rocky III shows that the subtle racism described by Gallantz is not limited to the first movie. On the contrary, that kind of racism is used, in this case, as a discursive weapon that aims to create a division inside the African American community through the depiction of “good Blacks” (embodied by Apollo) and “bad Blacks” (embodied by Lang). The main objective is to naturalize the appropriation of Americanness by part of Whites through the acceptance, by part of minorities, of a secondary role in all societal aspects. Unlike the first movie, Rocky III exploits pervasive stereotypes such as the Mandingo to stigmatize Black leftist activists. At the same time, some of the most powerful messages about the need of White leadership is expressed through African American iconic characters (Apollo), which makes them easier to accept. Moreover, the narrative is not limited to the naturalization of White supremacy. The relevance and harmful effects of racial verbal aggressions such as Mickey’s or humiliations such as those delivered by the press, are underestimated both because of the badness embodied by the victim (Lang) and his aggressive responses. This kind of constructions promote the rejection of those who act against their aggressors and the resignation of passiveness in front of injustice. As a result, the narrative reflects a desire for a White-Black alliance that rejects those who do not adjust to what is “best” for society.



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Saravia Gedes, Joaquín. 2020. “Good vs. Evil: The Construction of Soviet ‘Otherness’ in Rocky IV.” PopMeC Research Blog. Published February 13.
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Stallone, Sylvester, dir. 1982. Rocky III. Beverly Hills, CA: MGM.
Stallone, Sylvester, dir. 1985. Rocky IV. Beverly Hills, CA: MGM.


SUGGESTED CITATION: Saravia, Joaquín. 2020. “Know Your Role! The Normalization of Racism and White Supremacy in Rocky III.” PopMeC Research Blog. Published September 18.

Joaquín Saravia

BA in English Studies. MA in American Studies. MA in Strategic Cooperation between Latin America and the European Union. My research interests are: US-Latin America relations, Hispanics/Latinxs, and popular culture.

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