The reasons – and feelings – that led to many white working-class men, in particular, to vote for Donald Trump, were manifold. Some were convinced by his nationalism, others by his vague appeals to religious liberty; most believed they’d finally found a politician who would stand up for the neglected masses. The thinly veiled white supremacism of Trump’s rhetoric also, sadly, appealed to many.
These reasons are underpinned by a common way of thinking about the world: the current times aren’t kind to white, working-class American men. There’s a potent sense of victimisation here: Christian beliefs are being eroded, ‘foreigners’ are taking American jobs, and white, small-town America is dying. While the economic suffering of the US working class isn’t imagined (although, this class’s overwhelming whiteness is), it’s a distinctly inward way of thinking. It doesn’t approach the world in its chaotic and messy context; instead, is steadfastly committed to lamenting one’s own perceived marginalisation.
It’s actually the same kind of engagement with the world that is extolled by the 1976 film Rocky. The film refracts the same worldviews – with remarkable prescience – of Trump and many of his supporters, through the life of a working-class Italian-American, Rocky Balboa, played by Sylvester Stallone. It shows, cinematically, how white men can exploitatively spin narratives of marginalisation.
The film itself is almost autobiographical in its details. It’s hardly a stretch to read the film as a projection of Stallone’s own status, experiences and greatest fantasies. He, after all, wrote it and starred in it.
Before Rocky, Stallone was an unknown actor with few credits. His career was going nowhere, and he had to resort to working in porn in 1970. In 1975, he reportedly only had $106 left in the bank, and his pet dog was starving. When Rocky came out the tables turned quickly: Stallone turned into a mega-star with millions to his name.
Superficially, Rocky is a story of unexpected triumph. One that celebrates hard work and determination. In a way, too, it may appear to capture the American Dream: work hard, and nothing is off limits in the ‘greatest country on Earth’. But such an interpretation denies the film’s pernicious, narrow-minded politics of racial conflict and self-pity, that was likely invisible to 1970s audiences. After all, it won Best Picture at the 1977 Oscars.
The beginning of Rocky charts the character’s ungratifying life. He performs odd jobs for the local Philadelphian mafia, mainly following up debts. The job isn’t respectable or lucrative, but it’s all he can get. Rocky lives in a small, squalid apartment that’s constantly shrouded in dark shadows, reflective of his financial precariousness and the apparently joyless nature of his life.
It’s strongly implied that Rocky’s circumstances have been determined, at least in part, by social and economic forces. He lives in an Italian working-class enclave of Philadelphia, where opportunity doesn’t exactly make itself known. The people there have descended from migrant families with little English and little education. There are no white-collar jobs available, and there appears to be no government investment in his part of town.
Rocky and his friends, the film tells us, have been neglected. They’re an afterthought, left to languish without necessary support for them to make something of themselves. It’s no wonder that Rocky, who was a naturally gifted boxer in his earlier days, hasn’t been able to achieve anything of note. The long takes of Rocky aimlessly bustling around in his leather jacket, throwing punches into thin air, are supposed to engender sympathy – we’re following a man who has been systematically ignored by mainstream America.
To some degree, the forces of marginalisation have been at work. Rocky appears to be bereft of opportunity and of the social and economic support that ought to be provided in a wealthy nation. The same goes for many Trump voters: trade policies have seen the American working class lose good-paying jobs, tax cuts for the rich have entrenched inequality and ever-decreasing social spending – on health, education, welfare, pensions and the like – has devastated communities.
However, in Rocky, it’s only white, Italian-American groups that receive understanding from Stallone and director John G. Avildsen; i.e. Stallone’s own demographic. It’s a remarkably Trumpian outlook.
Indeed, Rocky’s and Trump’s logic break down at the same point. Rather than attributing the crisis of working-class and ‘middle-American’ malaise to their genuine root causes – corporations and the government officials who do their bidding – both shift the blame onto vulnerable groups. For Trump, it’s the Mexicans, the Chinese, the faceless foreigners taking American jobs. For Stallone, it’s African Americans, who have ostensibly benefitted from white-American stagnation.
Rocky seems to posit that the increasing power and quality of life for African-Americans corresponds to a decline in white-American prosperity. Instead of viewing increasing racial and economic equality as a positive step, a reworking of disgustingly racist traditions and policies, Rocky expresses an air of resentment and envy towards the black community.
That is, the film assumes – ignorantly, at best, and sinisterly at worst – that African Americans hold positions of power to the exclusion of impoverished Italian-Americans. The scenes in suburban Philadelphia – replete with poorly-spoken, underprivileged characters – predominantly show white Italian-Americans struggling. The African-American characters are principally seen in hotels and boardrooms, colluding with rich, white industrialists and public relations teams to multiply their wealth, leaving the Italians steeped in disadvantage. This is especially true of boxer Apollo Creed – an obvious Muhammad Ali surrogate who was at the time a symbol of some authority – and his posse.
Dressed in fine, expensive suits, Apollo and his well-educated, eloquent team sit around in offices scheming about how to enhance his winnings and reputation. After his opponent in an upcoming title fight is forced to pull out, Apollo and his team – aided by white businessmen – decide to offer a chance to an ordinary, unknown boxer to fight Apollo. ‘This is the land of opportunity, right? So, Apollo Creed, on January 1st, gives a local underdog fighter an opportunity,’ Creed soliloquises. He opens a book filled with boxer names, and falls on ‘the Italian Stallion’. There’s a discernible condescension in his selection of Rocky. ‘The media will eat it up,’ Creed announces. His fight with Rocky isn’t something to take seriously – it’s just another way for Creed to assert his business acumen and his physical superiority.
Consequently, the film moulds Creed into a villain. He, and his African-American team, are viewed as the beneficiaries of a social and economic system that disenfranchises white Italian-Americans from the cities and suburbs. The film directs its fury towards him, leaving government and corporate bodies almost entirely unscathed.
The second half of the film – of Rocky training for the big fight – reveals his determination, fight and indefatigable attitude. The supercilious Apollo Creed hardly bothers to prepare, for, in his mind, he is assured of victory. Rocky exercises like never before, doing push-ups and running and boxing around the clock. And when Rocky and Creed finally meet in the ring, Rocky pushes Creed to his physical and psychological limits. Although Creed is declared victorious, Rocky wins the spiritual battle. ‘Justice’ has been done.
The Italian-American – who wears his sobriquet, ‘the Italian Stallion’, as a badge of pride –proves his worth, cutting the African-American down to size. Rocky’s values, of hard work and companionship, are valorised, while Creed’s, of manipulation and materialism, are denounced.
It’s truly perplexing that Rocky makes little attempt to view the world’s problems through the lens of wealth inequality and greed. Rocky does show rich white businessmen scheming in their own interests, but it hardly instigates a sustained criticism of them. And while the Trump voter might chant ‘drain the swamp’, they seem unperturbed that Trump has the richest cabinet in history.
Both find a simpler panacea to rally around: attacking people of colour. Their growing power is something to resist, something seemingly incompatible with white prosperity. This is the film’s and many Trump voters’ fatal and most disgraceful error: instead of viewing people of colour as allies in a common fight for respect and equality, they’re scapegoated as adversaries.
Films like Rocky carry significant power. They shape and reinforce perspectives and biases. It’s to be expected that Rocky, made forty-two years ago, will exhibit some dated values. But its very foundations are politically, culturally and morally repudiable. That it still receives so much fandom and support today is actually disconcerting. The politics it reflects and seems to endorse – almost in complete symbiosis with the world-view Trump espouses – contributes to a world where racial and economic injustice persist.
Image: Rocky – RK*Pictures / flickr