The Case for Creed: Why Michael B. Jordan Should Be in The Oscar Conversation

By  · Published on December 1st, 2015

The Ryan Coogler-directed Rocky spinoff Creed is an instant hit not many saw coming. Opened right before Thanksgiving, it took in a respectable $42+ million throughout the weekend, earned raves from many critics (including A. O. Scott / New York Times) with a 93% from Rotten Tomatoes’ ‘Top Critics’ and got the audiences –both fans of the Rocky franchise and those who are new to its universe– cheer in support and awe.

But Creed is beginning to look like more than just a holiday season blockbuster designed as a simple crowd pleaser. As the reviews thus far prove, it’s a prestigious picture with notable work from both in front of and behind the camera talent. Let’s leave aside Ryan Coogler’s electric directing and Maryse Alberti’s extraordinary camerawork for a second (although side note: Creed is worth seeing for that single-take fight scene alone), and focus on its cast. A huge part of the film’s appeal and achievement rests on the shoulders of its charismatic lead Michael B. Jordan. In the role of Adonis Johnson/Creed –Apollo’s love child raised by his late wife Mary Anne– Michael B. Jordan delivers a physically demanding, emotionally exhaustive and an all-together captivating performance with humor and infectious magnetism. But for some reason, the awards noise only seems to be building around Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa – who agrees to train Adonis and assumes the role of Mickey (Burgess Meredith) from the first three Rocky movies.

Don’t get me wrong; Stallone is fantastic in the role. He proves to have an everlasting connection to the Rocky Balboa character: he is effortlessly convincing as the ex-champ who mentors and even fathers his best friend’s son, also born with the urges of a fighter. Stallone very much deserves to be in the Best Supporting Actor conversation, which is already a very crowded field with the likes of Tom Hardy (The Revenant), Michael Keaton (Spotlight), Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), Paul Dano (Love and Mercy) and Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation) also in play (and that’s not even including The Hateful 8 crowd yet.) But from where I’m sitting, Michael B. Jordan is the true winner of this film, and equally –if not more- deserving of a nod. And given the sparseness and openness of the Best Actor field –Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), Johnny Depp (Black Mass) and Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs) being the most likely names to be nominated thus far, he might even crack the list of 5, getting ahead of other likely names such as Matt Damon (The Martian) or even last year’s winner Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl). But he might need a little push.

There is certainly a strong case to be made for Michael B. Jordan, who was equally superb in the also Coogler-directed Fruitvale Station in 2013, yet didn’t score a nomination then. True, he doesn’t have a tear-jerking “money scene” in Creed (unlike Stallone, who is said to make grown men cry), but it’s remarkable how much this isn’t Rocky’s film and instead, it is his. Any lesser actor would have been swallowed by the legacy of the franchise, but Jordan coolly makes his character his own, no doubt servicing the vision of his director Coogler who smartly makes Creed a living, breathing part of the franchise, while also setting it apart from the crowd. Jordan composedly switches Adonis’ anger, insecurity and even arrogance on and off with consistent assurance, summoning a rather complex character (as complex as Rocky Balboa from the very first Rocky) into an otherwise straightforward story. Whether it’s training for his big fight with the British boxer Ricky Conlan or getting swept away by romance with his musician neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson, also wonderful as the girlfriend with smarts and agency,) Michael B. Jordan offers up a complete, star-making performance from all accounts, amplifying or downplaying Adonis’ strength and vulnerability with ease.

And yet -with exceptions-, I am not seeing his name in many predictions charts so far. Sasha Stone of Awards Daily has predicted him as a likely name to crack the top 5 as of last week. Over at In Contention, Kris Tapley currently has him at 6th spot – right on the bubble for a nomination. As far as Gold Derby’s charts go however (which many experts might not have updated just yet,) only two pundits predict him as a nominee.

I know predictions are exactly that – predictions – and not wishes, but part of me always wonders how much of this noise can manipulate and influence the race in the end, and at what point buzz turns into reality. It seems enough people believe in this film and in Michael B. Jordan’s performance, but not enough people believe AMPAS will agree. A couple of weeks ago, Bilge Ebiri tweeted: “I can’t help but think the “Oscar conversation” is mostly a collective illusion. If you’re a media outlet, you could even help change it.” Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but I wonder what would happen if all the same people who support and/or predict a Stallone nomination also got behind and advocated a Michael B. Jordan narrative, if they like his performance as much as I do. It’s worth a try.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.