Ryan Coogler’s teaming with Michael B. Jordan on three films has been so successful that we eagerly await their next time together. Can we expect that they will continue some of the themes we find in those three memorable roles? All three characters are young men contending with a world that has abandoned them, and yet each respond in a unique way.
In “Fruitvale Station,” Oscar Grant seeks to repair himself, despite a life of desertion. In “Creed,” Adonis Johnson fights his father’s ghost with jabs and uppercuts, until he embraces it. In “Black Panther,” Erik “Killmonger” Stevens is the Frankenstein monster who wants vengeance from the world. Every one of us needs to feel that our worlds are stable, that they are secure. When we have been abandoned by family, or friends, or society we distrust all possible allies. When faced with threats, we can respond by fighting, fleeing, or freezing. When faced with abandonment, however, each of Coogler’s characters responds with escalating levels of aggression.
“Fruitvale Station” begins with three moments. Grant (played by Jordan) and his girlfriend Sophina (Melanie Diaz) make New Year’s resolutions. Then, we watch footage of Grant’s killing. Then, launching the film, Grant—caught in infidelity—vows to an angry Sophina that he will dedicate himself to her “forever.” Meaning, he doesn’t want her to leave him. Over the next 24 hours, he strives to fulfill that promise, until destiny overtakes him.
We chronicle the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, who was murdered by police officers at the Fruitvale train station in Oakland on New Year's Day in 2009. That killing launched the modern focus on the homicides by law enforcement of Black American men and women. While we can trace such killings as far back as the murder of John Hollis, shot in the back by a New York police officer in 1858, the modern focus finds its fuel in cell phone camera footage and social media dissemination. You know the growing list of names of those murders, including Trayvon, Eric, Tamir, and Sandra.
Grant sees himself as a solitary victim of a disappointing world. When Grant tries to convince his former grocery store boss to rehire him, he responds to the refusals with accusations and belligerence. “Do you want me selling dope?” Grant is always late to work, but he blames his boss. In a flashback, when his mother—upset by his misconduct and repeated incarcerations—threatens to stop visiting him in jail, he shouts at her, “Are you gonna leave me?! ... What kind of mom is you?! ... You ain’t never had my back anyway! I’m in here by myself!” Still, she never deserts him. His girlfriend never deserts him. He, by going to jail repeatedly, deserts his daughter. When he confesses to his girlfriend, Sophina, that he lost his job, he complains that she is not listening to him.
In that final day, Grant responds to his perceived desertions by reforming himself and protecting everyone. He smothers his daughter with play and love. He takes care of Sophina with promises and small kindnesses. He celebrates his mother’s birthday and obeys her wishes big and small. He finds a stray, abandoned dog, loves it, and—after it gets hit by a car—races to get it help. He hopes to follow Oprah’s advice and not mess up for thirty days in his quest for redemption.
Then, during New Year’s celebrations, it ends. On an otherwise happy train ride, he gets accosted by former prison rivals. Fights them. Tries to escape. Police officers detain him at the BART station. While subduing him, a cop shoots him in the back. Gone. The film ends with footage of Grant’s actual daughter, abandoned.
“Creed” begins with little Adonis Johnson (played by Alex Henderson and Jordan), in a juvenile detention center, fighting a kid who insulted his mother. Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) visits him to take him home to raise him. As she tells him with such tenderness about his absent father, the late heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, he unclenches his tight fist. Adonis never meets his father. Mary Anne raises him as his mother, though he seethes with anger against his patriarch and everyone else who ignored him. When he decides to become a professional fighter, she wants nothing of him. He shouts at the trainer, Little Duke, for leaving him in the group homes. He reminds Rocky Balboa that he never called.
But, Rocky is himself loitering in a world that is leaving him behind. Everyone of any value in his life is gone. Mickey is dead. Adrian is dead. Pauly is dead. And Apollo is dead, and he blames himself for not acting in time (in “Rocky IV”). His son left the country to be free of his father’s shadow.
Rocky comments that “Time is undefeated.” Time always outlasts everyone. At some point, you give up fighting. When he finds out he is ill with lymphoma, he refuses treatment, dropping whatever remains of his will to live. And, he leaves Adonis, saying, “We’re not a real family.”
Adonis unleashes his anger on some of his girlfriend Bianca’s (Tessa Thompson) friends, and she distances herself from him. When Rocky comes apologizing to bail him out of prison, Adonis lashes at him, “You ain’t my family. You got my family killed.” He reaches out in apology to Bianca, and she closes the door on him. He shouts, “I trusted you! Can you please not shut me out!”
Soon, however, everyone reunites. Adonis can forgive his father. He can make peace with his own existence, that his birth was not a mistake. Time still moves forward, and time will still win. Until Time wins, they will fight.
This brings us to “Black Panther.” Erik is orphaned when his father gets murdered by the King of Wakanda. Despite being Wakandan royalty, he is left in Oakland, and forgotten. While Wakanda flourishes, he dedicates his life to merciless vengeance.
We cannot speak about “Panther” without speaking about Race. There are moments in the film related to representation that will resonate with People of Color that White people will miss. There are moments in the film that will hold meaning for Black Americans that other People of Color will miss.
The narratives we find in Jordan’s characters reflect a theme of Black Suffering traceable at least to the myth of the Hamitic Curse, which was used as a theological justification for the enslavement of Africans. Likewise, major autobiographies of African Americans speak of the death or abandonment of fathers, from The Autobiography of Malcolm X to President Obama’s Dreams from My Father. Similarly, saintly mothers—here, Octavia Spencer, Phylicia Rashad, and Angela Bassett in the three Coogler films—are found in the writings of Alice Walker as well as the ideas of Womanist Theology.
In other words, is Killmonger a symbol of African-American anger fueled by the sorrow of being abandoned by those of the homeland? All of these narratives are narratives of the powerful force of destiny that makes choices for us before we make choices for ourselves or others. That answer is, however, beyond my expertise.
What we can all appreciate is the narrative that we find in superhero movies of the monster that forms from negligence. Unlike the case of “Fruitvale” and “Creed,” there is neither reflection nor epiphany in “Black Panther.” Killmonger wants blood, gets blood, and wants to liberate all the Peoples of Color across the world. When he loses and has the opportunity for healing, he takes his cue from his ancestors, choosing death over bondage, taking his own life.
So, where will Coogler and Jordan take us next? Will we see more destinies of abandonment? Or, perhaps that story is now complete in this, sort of, trilogy. Perhaps next we might see freedom, in a sort of abandonment of destinies.