Opinion: The critical departure from the backlash against the stars of ‘Creed III’.

Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values ​​and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is professor of history. He is the author of “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.


Note: Spoilers for “Creed III” follow.

Michael B. Jordan and Jonathan Majors, two of the most talented actors of their generation, are redefining Black masculinity in America.

They took the box office by storm over the weekend as the leads in “Creed III” — the blockbuster spinoff from the “Rocky” film franchise that follows Adonis Creed, the son of Rocky’s nemesis turned martyr friend Apollo. Its opening record made it the biggest sports movie opening of all time.

“Creed III” is more than just a boxing movie. It is an artistic meditation on the complications of black masculinity in the 21st century. Jordan, who stars and directs, and Majors, whose rising star also appears as the complex villain Kang in Marvel Studios’ latest “Ant Man” film, have impressively expressed their mutual admiration and love for each other. each other as friends and colleagues.

During an interview, Majors suggested that there would be future collaborations, one that would remind audiences of the film collaboration between Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, two of the most famous and iconic actors to emerge from the New Hollywood era of 1970s. Jordan and Majors, both only in their 30s, represent an extremely positive development and bright future for the portrayal of black men in film and television. Both on screen and in real life, they shape and normalize a vision of black masculinity capable of defying homophobic tropes about the ability of boys and men to reveal their vulnerability and openly declare their love.

Jonathan Majors and Michael B. Jordan on set

After photos of the two actors playfully hugging each other went viral recently, the backlash was intense — fueled by homophobic backlash that rejects such open affection displayed by two black men — and further backlash was swift, from those who applauded the courage them to show love and admiration that black men are too often punished for appearing in public.

This reaction has a wider context. Majors, who showed off his muscular physique on the recent cover of Ebony while holding bouquets of roses, was also trolled for being human. Rap artist A$AP Rocky came in for similar treatment after appearing on the cover of Vogue with music icon and business mogul partner Rihanna. Rocky stood holding their smiling son in the background as Rihanna commanded the front of the cover. Haters belittled Rocky for being too effeminate and submissive – instead of cheering his obvious love for his son and seeing the board as the epitome of the modern family.

These seemingly isolated but ultimately related controversies help illuminate the persistent toxicity of longstanding stereotypes about black men. The public displays of friendship between Jordan and Majors represent an important and welcome disruption of the cultural boundaries that too often hinder black men’s ability to publicly express love for one another.

Jonathan Majors and Michael B. Jordan speak during the Hollywood Walk Of Fame Star Ceremony honoring Michael B. Jordan on March 1, 2023 in Hollywood, California.

Majors, along with Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, gave heartfelt speeches praising Jordan recently as he received a coveted star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles. In his remarks, Majors used the word “love” liberally, and hugging Jordan afterward was a truly beautiful moment.

What makes public displays of black male love like these so impressive and, for some, so very threatening?

Blackness encompasses an infinite number of identities, emotions, feelings — and yet many people see black men and boys as threats, anticipating aggression and seeing it even where it doesn’t exist. Black boys tend to be punished in school at higher rates than their white counterparts for the same behavior. Black men are more likely to receive harsher sentences for the same crimes as white men.

As distressing as these real-world statistics are, the dynamics behind them also shape expectations of what we see in popular culture for audiences of all racial backgrounds. Black male friendship and the emotional vulnerability shared by two black men defy what so many of us (including black men themselves) have come to expect on screen. Performances like Jordan and Majors take us all out of our natural comfort zones.

Michael B. Jordan stars as Adonis Creed, Mila Kent as Amara and Tessa Thompson as Bianca in

But movies can, at their best, challenge even our most stubborn stereotypes with the vast complexity of the human experience. In “Creed III” Jordan and Majors play a pair of gifted athletes who use boxing to transform their material circumstances. While we may all have witnessed a variation of this story before (notably in the original 1976 Oscar-winning film “Rocky” starring Sylvester Stallone in a star-making turn), the film unfolds in ways that subvert this familiar scenery.

The viewer sees Jordan’s Adonis Creed in many scenes relishing his role as a loving husband and tender, loving father who skillfully uses American Sign Language to communicate with his seven-year-old daughter. The film also lingers in its depiction of vulnerability when Creed’s unexpected reunion with Majors’ Damian Anderson evokes feelings of trauma, shame and guilt over a long-buried incident in their past. Majors injects humanity into Anderson’s palpable rage at an unfair prison sentence and grief at being abandoned by his once-best friend. We relate to him even when we disagree with his actions.

America’s long history of racial injustice and patriarchy continues to affect black men in unique and strange ways. Instantly criminalized by law enforcement on the one hand, and envied for their stereotypical innate athletic abilities and sexual prowess on the other, black men have been left with little to no room to be human. Cry, laugh, make mistakes. To express love (whether romantic or platonic) for each other. To root for each other. To celebrate our collective achievements and mourn the loved ones we have lost.

Amidst all the real and illusory promise of post-George Floyd America, there is genuine beauty in the ability of black men—on screen and in real life—to transcend the toxic boundaries of our collective humanity—defiantly, hopefully, and gracefully choosing love over fear.

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