Coming at the end of a film series that had degenerated into useless portraits of cartoonish characters and simplified visions of social issues, the 2006 film Rocky Balboa probably attracted very little attention from progressive film critics. I, admittedly, decided to watch it to indulge my fondness for bad taste. I wondered if there could be characters as campy as Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago. I cringed at the thought of Rocky Balboa reducing social relations to what they were in Rocky IV, a film that suggests the Cold War could end if Russians became as honest as Rocky. But after watching Rocky Balboa, I wasn’t just pleasantly surprised to see that the film was good; I found this film to contain value in the way it explores the nefarious ways that sports have been used in urban renewal projects.
The film tells a charming slice-of-life story about an aging Rocky who has moved back to his working-class neighborhood and is battling with depression after his wife’s death and his estrangement from his son. It is set in three distinct areas of Philadelphia: a gentrified neighborhood where the heavy-weight champion, Mason Dixon, lives and trains, the working-class neighborhood where Rocky grew up and to which he has moved back, and the graveyard where Rocky’s deceased wife, Adrian, is buried. The film might offer us a glimpse into the crisp, clean, and beautiful gentrified spaces where a boxer trains, but Rocky Balboa’s power comes from its commitment to showing run-down and decaying areas of the city. The film poignantly explores how the cultures of urban working-class, ethnic, and minority neighborhoods are at risk because of urban renewal, and the film offers a way for these histories to fight back against the corporate interests looking to gentrify depressed areas. Rocky Balboa contains a populist message that ordinary people should not have their cultures obliterated so that rich corporations can make more money by transforming urban areas into leisure zones for the middle and upper classes.
Rocky Balboa begins with two seemingly separate plots. The first is the story of Mason Dixon, a heavy-weight champion who recently defended his title but is still looking to be seen as a legitimate fighter in American culture. He is known to have skill but no heart, and many boxing fans and commentators think he chooses weak opponents to hold onto his title. The second story is the one of Rocky Balboa. The ex-champ is now a restaurant owner struggling to overcome depression and find self-worth on the anniversary of his wife’s death. These two stories contain different ideas of what history means and what the relationships between sports and history are in different parts of the city.
The plot with Mason Dixon poignantly explores how minority histories become commodified and sanitized when sports are used to assist in urban renewal. Dixon is a wealthy fighter who lives and trains in gentrified parts of the city. The very name Mason Dixon, based directly on the line dividing northern states where slavery was illegal and southern states where slavery was legal, draws upon long and complex histories of slavery, freedom, emancipation, and the Underground Railroad. Yet the character Mason Dixon has no real connection to African American history. Rocky Balboa uses film style and mise-en-scene to suggest this image of African Americans in sporting cultures is clinically sanitized. The opening scene is shot with a blue hue. We watch Mason Dixon defending his title. The scene lacks any signs of authenticity or realism and suggests the image of Dixon is highly glossed and polished. Moreover, the scene employs a series of jump cuts and slow motion shots while Dixon pounds his opponent with no retaliation. The editing and the film speed call attention to the fact that Dixon is a constructed sports object. He is not authentic. That, coupled with the blue, almost clinical visual depiction of the fight, presents Dixon as a sanitized figure. Although the actual Mason Dixon Line inspired bloodshed and life lost from an epic struggle over African American rights, Dixon lacks any of these traits of a bloody and messy history. The scenes with Dixon at his house further this theme. The completely white mise-en-scene presents a clean, hospital-like look. Additionally, the modern architecture of Dixon’s home plays into this theme. His home’s crisp lines call attention to a neat form, a very manicured obsession with space that resembles the ways minority cultures operate in gentrified sporting zones. The clean lines resemble the clean and very selective views of history present in the plot of Mason Dixon.
As I watched these scenes with Mason Dixon, I was struck by the way the film seemed to be aware of radical critiques of the way minority cultures operate in gentrified areas associated with sports. Sports studies scholar Daniel Rosensweig argues that late twentieth century and early twenty-first century baseball parks were designed to have a retro feel by duplicating the architecture of early-twentieth-century sporting stadiums. On the surface, it seemed like these stadiums celebrated minority cultures by including memorials to and museums for minority athletes. But Rosensweig unearths dubious politics at work here and argues that these parks were usually built in working-class sections of the cities with large minority populations. These areas were torn down, and in the process, the rich history of minorities in the cities was lost so that superficial shrines to minorities could be put up in areas that wealthy and middle-class whites would inhabit. Rosensweig looks at how these areas became highly policed by security guards and cameras so that poor minorities could no longer enter these areas. What was left was a very palatable view of minority life in the city that was completely divorced from working-class and poor residents, and the attempt to remember minority cultures at these stadiums was actually a way for financially successful whites to engage simplified minority cultures and not interact with actual minorities (Rosensweig 2005: 113-141).
Moreover, Rosensweig stresses that the superficial commodification of minority cultures in gentrified sporting areas economically benefits the rich owners of sports teams, not the poor displaced people. Owners take a depressed part of downtown, seize the land through eminent domain, and build a ballpark there. For team owners, there’s little economic risk. Owners use public money to fund a majority of stadium costs. Owners raise hundreds of millions of dollars through strategies such as increased sales tax, property tax, sin tax on cigarettes and alcohol, or through lottery funds. The money owners make from the stadium goes to them and not back into the community (21-56).
Many of the issues of memory, culture, and business that Rosensweig explores are also brought up with Mason Dixon in Rocky Balboa. Not only is Mason Dixon a superficial image of blackness in a gentrified area who has no real connection to African American history, but he is also someone who is controlled by rich corporate executives of professional boxing. Several scenes with Dixon show him with promoters who tell him what to do and who to fight for the best interests of boxing. Dixon comes across as a corporately controlled person, a person who is designed by rich professional boxing executives and whose life is not lived with any real connection to African American culture.
The plot of Rocky Balboa and his emotional struggles after his wife’s death present a more authentic view and nuanced version of history and sporting cultures – one that places the working class back into the imagined citizenry of the city. If Dixon is a glossed-over historical image of African Americans, then Rocky represents an effort to document history meticulously. Part of the way the Rocky plot celebrates history is through its obsessive quest to recreate the historical details of the original Rocky film. The film opens on the third anniversary of his wife Adrian’s death. On these anniversaries, Rocky takes his brother-in-law, Paulie, on a tour of working-class Philadelphia to all the meaningful sites where Rocky and Adrian went when they dated. Rocky journeys with Paulie to the pet store where Adrian worked in the original Rocky film, to the steps of Rocky’s old house where the couple would talk on the stoop, to an abandoned field in the middle of the city where the ice rink used to be where the couple would go ice skating.
The film meticulously recreates the world of the original Rocky through various references beyond this tour. For instance, even though Rocky now owns and manages a restaurant, he has a special booth for the retired fighter Spiderico, the boxer Rocky fought in the opening scene of the original Rocky film. Throughout that film, when people would question Rocky’s talent and the types of fighters he boxed, Rocky would always state, “Spiderico can hit.” And in Rocky Balboa, Rocky quotes that line several times when waiters and hostesses ask Rocky why the retired fighter comes to Rocky’s restaurant every night. Moreover, Little Marie, the foul mouthed pre-teen in the original Rocky film who says “screw you, creepo” to Rocky on a street corner is now a bartender at a bar in Rocky’s old neighborhood. Rocky befriends Marie and hires her as a hostess at his restaurant. Additionally, Rocky Balboa recreates the world of the original Rocky through tiny details – such as the fact that Rocky has the same alarm clock as he did in the first film, the fact he wears the same type of fedora, the fact that he has the same number of pet turtles in the same type of tank in his bedroom, and that he goes past the gym where he used to train with Mickey.
But beyond its quest to engage with the historical details of the original Rocky film, Rocky Balboa has a joint interest in depicting the run-down world of Philadelphia’s poor neighborhoods and saying that these neighborhoods have historical value in and of themselves. They should not be torn down for gentrification. This theme is developed through Rocky’s benevolence toward Little Marie, now a middle-aged woman. Rocky lives in a working-class part of Philadelphia, and Marie lives with her mixed-race teenage son, Stoops, in an impoverished and forgotten neighborhood. The row home next to the one she rents was damaged in a fire and never repaired. Numerous scenes with her and Rocky take place in front of this destroyed house covered in soot stains. Marie seems embarrassed by her neighborhood and the fact that she lives in poverty. In one scene she tells Rocky that this neighborhood is so forgotten that a city bus has not come by in twenty years. Often Marie puts her head down in shame and embarrassment.
But whereas the scenes show Marie turning her look away from the fallen down buildings, the film asks us to employ a different look. The scenes with Marie prominently feature the buildings of this run-down neighborhood. They are there for us, as spectators, to gaze at and reflect upon. The scenes depict areas of the city often forgotten in public memories of urban spaces. Rocky asks us to appreciate the historical value of these neighborhoods. Through his sentimental, comical, endearingly dim-witted way, Rocky says things such as, “You know, this place used to be really nice. There is a lot of history around here. Yeah, like down the street there is the Cambria Fight Club. They used to call that place like the Bucket of Blood. I took some massive beatings down there. But it was nice. Good memories. And I heard these buildings are like a hundred, a hundred and fifty years old. So I mean, if I was a hundred and fifty years old, I’d be falling apart, too, so, it’s OK, building.” Marie’s neighborhood is a world apart from the gentrified areas that Mason Dixon inhabits, but Rocky’s thoughts powerfully state that this is where real history lies in Philadelphia.
Rocky Balboa insists that, although impoverished and working-class sections of Philadelphia are becoming forgotten and written out of the city’s imagery by new and gentrified neighborhoods, we would do well as a society to recognize the historical greatness of these older neighborhoods, and the film develops this theme of acknowledging the value of aging areas through the improbable but completely enjoyable plot line of Rocky returning to boxing as a senior citizen. Rocky re-enters boxing to find recognition and dignity with a public that has forgotten him, and in a very touching shot, after Rocky fights Mason Dixon at the end of the film and takes him to a split decision, Rocky leaves the ring to adoring fans chanting “Rocky, Rocky, Rocky.” Rocky reaches up and shakes the hand of a spectator, and the camera freezes on that image to register the impact of Rocky finally finding human connection, even though he is now old. But to read this scene as literal misses the point. Rocky allegorically stands in for aging working-class neighborhoods in Philadelphia, and that freeze frame represents not just an embrace of Rocky but a celebration of the historical value of these older neighborhoods.
There are many parts of Rocky Balboa that ask us to read Rocky as a symbol for working-class neighborhoods in Philly. When Rocky is taking his tour of the areas where he and Adrian used to go, he turns to Paulie and says, “You know. I think if you live some place long enough, you are that place.” The film makes an even more interesting connection between Rocky and working-class Philadelphia after the opening fight where Mason Dixon is booed by the audience for having no heart as a fighter. When a commentator states, “All of boxing is hoping for a warrior who thrills us with his passion,” the film avoids the cliché of cutting to a shot of Rocky and instead goes into a montage of working-class Philly while Frank Stallone’s “Take You Back,” a song sung by street corner singers in the original Rocky, plays. Eventually the montage takes us through the night and ends in front of Rocky’s townhouse at dawn. While clearly Rocky is meant to be the fighter who will thrills us with his passion, the film suggests that Rocky and working-class Philly are interchangeable.
About halfway through the film, after Rocky Balboa maps out the two different classed-spaces of Philadelphia, the movie sets up an interesting conflict between gentrified and working-class areas; boxing promoters set up an exhibition fight between Mason Dixon and Rocky. In a smart move, Rocky Balboa doesn’t simply pit the values of gentrified vs. working class neighborhoods into a conflict that gets resolved through victory in a boxing match. Rather, the film presents opportunities for people who inhabit gentrified spaces to understand the value of the authentic world of the working class.
Dixon is, admittedly, in the film for very little time. Other than the final fight with Rocky, he is in the film for approximately 10 minutes – mostly in scenes to show him as someone associated with sports and urban renewal. But Dixon’s thematic inflection is handled powerfully in a scene where Rocky begins working out with his long-time trainer to prepare for the exhibition. His trainer states that Rocky knows everything about fighting, so there is no need to go over that. His arthritis is so bad that he can’t run, and he is too old to spar. His trainer insists that Rocky simply needs to lift weights in order to be strong and hurt Dixon. Then his trainer says, “You are going to hit him so hard that you are going to rattle his ancestors.”
This scene suggests that the actual fight between Dixon and Balboa could place Dixon in touch with a more authentic history than the one he represents in the film, and the fight does. Dixon is known for a fighter who has skill but no heart, but early in the fight Dixon breaks his right hand and must do the entire fight with his left hand, even though he is right-handed. Throughout the fight, Dixon can no longer rely on skill and must carry on with heart. At the end of the fight, Rocky hugs Dixon and tells him he is a great champion who has heart. Dixon, bloodied and clearly rattled, has found a connection to authentic history. Freed from fighting with skill to please the corporate world of boxing, Dixon now draws on the passions of African American cultures and histories.
Although Dixon is in the film only minimally, a good deal of the film’s obsession with gentrified spaces and values surfaces in the scenes with Rocky’s son, Robert. Robert works for an unidentified financial company in downtown Philadelphia. The building where he works employs the same white modern architecture of the spaces associated with Dixon. Robert is estranged from his father and constantly turns down invitations to come to Rocky’s restaurant so he can socialize with fellow upper-class colleagues in gentrified bars near downtown. Additionally, Robert lives in a luxury townhouse near downtown.
In a poignant scene, Rocky tells Robert he plans to fight again, and Robert asks him not to, saying he has lived his whole life being known as the son of a sports legend. Robert would prefer that Rocky continues to fade from public consciousness. At that moment Rocky is able to re-establish a relationship with his son by noting that Robert has gotten so caught up in his current upper-class lifestyle that he has forgotten who he is and how to be happy. Although the scene ends with Robert leaving in anger, the son meets his father at Adrian’s grave to reconcile, a meaningful moment where the setting suggests Robert is forfeiting his gentrified values and embracing a more authentic history in Philadelphia’s past based on previous generations and traditions (those that were kept alive by the deceased residents in the graveyard).
In order to stress the theme of the importance of recognizing forgotten areas of the city, Rocky Balboa occasionally employs horror film tropes to couch its focus on memory with the language of the return of the repressed. These horror tropes make an interesting commentary on the dilapidated buildings in Philadelphia. When Rocky is talking to Paulie about why he needs to start fighting again, Rocky uses language that again connects the fighter to the poor urban landscape of much of Philadelphia. He tells Paulie he has stuff still inside his basement and gestures as if the basement is inside his body. Clearly Rocky is meant to be seen as an aged building – much like the ones in Marie’s neighborhood. When Paulie asks what is in Rocky’s basement, Rocky says there is a beast that is waiting to get out, as if he’s a gothic mansion with monsters inside. Rocky speaks in basic tenants of the horror film, raising issues of repression and release. Here release is healthy, as repression is causing Rocky physical and mental anguish.
The film’s fixation on the graveyard where Adrian is buried brings together images of horror with the theme of historical value. Rocky’s first and last lines of dialogue in the film are at Adrian’s grave, and he visits the graveyard several times in the film. On the literal level of plot, these scenes are simple attempts to show a man’s love for his deceased wife, but they resonate with the film’s obsession with history. Rocky adores a person from a previous generation, from a previous life. Her values and her memories add meaning to his current life. The graveyard, after all, is home to people from older generations, decades, and centuries. Rocky returns to the graveyard throughout the film because the past is important within the film.
With the film making a claim that the past is important and that working-class areas of the city have value and should not be gentrified, Rocky Balboa brings closure to this theme through imagination and poetry more than through narrative or a definitive change to the social structure of the city. After the fight ends and Rocky receives the recognition he deserves, there is a brief scene at the graveyard where the fighter repeats his iconic line to his wife: “Yo, Adrian, we did it.” But the film cuts to a montage on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum while the Rocky theme song plays, the same site and music from the famous scene in the original film where Rocky climbs the steps in triumph at the end of his run. Only this time the scene includes shots of numerous Philadelphians running up the steps. This montage contains images of the types of citizens who have the right to live in the city – poor ones, working-class ones, middle-class ones, and rich ones. Women, men, and children. African Americans. Asian Americans. Whites. Latinos. People of all ages. The film concludes, not through plot, but through imagery, that everyone has a right to urban space, not just those who can afford to live in increasingly gentrified spaces.
I find these final images to be quite moving. Rocky Balboa might not be a social realist film calling for an overthrow of capitalism in gentrified cities. But it’s a smart film that examines the value of neighborhoods susceptible to gentrified projects. Through a focus on historical value and an employment of allegory and horror tropes, the film has heart and delivers a populist message that everyone, people of all classes, races, and genders, has a right to live in contemporary cities and has a right to know about their histories within these spaces. As I drive through cities that are increasingly gentrified on the east coast of the United States, I am reminded that Rocky Balboa should make us all pause and consider what is being lost as we transform older neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal.
I would like to thank Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for reading an earlier draft of this essay and for encouraging me to find my arguments about this film.
Jon Kraszewski is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and the Arts at Seton Hall University. His first book, The New Entrepreneurs: An Institutional History of Television Anthology Writers, was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2010. He has written several articles on race and U.S. media, and his new book is Reality TV (Routledge 2016).
Rosensweig, Daniel (2005), Retro Ball Parks: Instant History, Baseball, and the New American City, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.