Sunday, February 28, 2010

When I Grow Up I Wanna Be: Clubber Lang

by Odienator
(for all posts, click here)

Once upon a time, I was a boxer. “I am just a poor boy, but my story’s seldom told,” and all that other jazz Simon and Garfunkel sang about in my favorite song of theirs. I wasn’t bad as a lightweight back in my skinnier days, and a middleweight once I started weight lifting. I managed not to be a tomato can, and considering all the abuse I took at the hands of the neighborhood kids growing up, I was very good at taking a punch. I remember two matches: The first time I was knocked out, and the first time I returned the favor. The latter was sweet; the guy kept hitting me in my prominent jaw, which was stupid and ineffective. He got frustrated and I hit him. WHAM! The former was my fault: I got snookered into dropping my hands for a split second. My opponent went for my temple. WHAM!

I think everybody should experience what it feels like to be, to quote Chris Tucker in Friday, “knocked da fuck out.” It’s really something, though if you do it too many times, you’ll wind up sounding like Rocky Balboa. Truth be told, I never understood what Rocky was saying in any of his six movies, besides “Yo, Adrian,” and even worse, I tend to like the Rocky movies nobody else did. I was never a big fan of the original, though it is not a bad movie by any means. I thought the second and fifth movies were garbage, and the fourth one is xenophobic propaganda and Carl Weathers’ most embarrassing movie (yes, I’ve seen Action Jackson, and you know I loved it). I made fun of the last film, Rocky Balboa, until I saw it and was surprised at how good it was. If I actually had shame, I’d hang my head as I tell you that Rocky III is my favorite Rocky movie. Two words: Clubber Lang.

On The Producers DVD documentary, Mel Brooks says “if you’re gonna go up to the bell, ring the bell.” That is, go all the way with whatever it is you’re doing. Apparently, Apollo Creed wasn’t enough Buck for the bang, so Stallone went all in, creating a character so stereotypical that he shamed Blaxploitation film makers. Before you dare mention Mike Tyson as an inspiration (and therefore negating the stereotypical characteristics of Clubber Lang), please note that Tyson made his debut in 1985. Rocky III was made in 1982. I doubt Sly inherited any of his mother’s psychic abilities, so Clubber had to come from where most movie Bucks come from: terrified White screenwriters. James Toback created the quintessential Black Buck in Fingers, which made his direction of the excellent documentary, Tyson, inevitable. Stallone gets runner-up credentials for Rocky III.

Not that I’m complaining. One of the Black stereotypes I purposely didn’t sing about in my Get to Know Your Movie Negroes series is the Buck. This is because, of the Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks that make up old Hollywood’s stereotypes and the title of Donald Bogle’s book, I like the Buck. He’s tough, angry, hypersexual, all brawn, and this is the most important part: he scares the fuck out of people. This is a stereotype I can get with, folks. Boxer or not, I’ve always been more brains than brawn. For once, I’d just like to show up somewhere and have everybody run in fear, as if I were Godzilla or P. Diddy at a club.

I have issues.

Mr. T was always a tough guy. He grew up on the South side of Chicago, is huge and muscular, and was a bodyguard for one of the toughest people who ever lived. No, not Muhammad Ali, though T did bodyguard duties for him. I’m talking about Diana Ross. Can you imagine her berating Mr. T, and him cowering in a corner saying “Yes, Miss Ross, sorry about the jibber-jabber, Miss Ross!?” In 1982, Mr. T wasn’t widely known, appearing in Penitentiary II and some NBC bodyguard reality program. Clubber Lang changed all that. With his trademark Mohawk, infinite gold chains and gravelly pit bull voice, Mr. T was instantly unforgettable. The bullied kid in me wanted to be him. He was so intimidating to Rocky Balboa that Rocky turned to another Negro, former enemy Apollo Creed, to help him figure out how to beat Clubber Lang. When you get into the ring with a big Buck, you need something old, something new, something borrowed and something Black. So Apollo Creed covers three of those by giving Rocky the boxing trunks that he famously wore in their battles. “Just make sure you wash those before you give them back,” Creed tells him.

Everywhere Rocky goes, Clubber follows. Clubber wants a match with the champion, the same way Rocky wanted a match with Apollo Creed two movies ago, but Rocky wants nothing to do with this guy. After attempting to appeal to Rocky’s sense of competition and failing, Clubber goes for the macho version of A Christmas Story’s Triple Dog Dare: Clubber gets fresh with Rocky’s woman.

Hey, Woman. Hey, Woman!” Clubber yells to Adrian (Talia Shire). “Listen here. Since your old man ain't got no heart, maybe you like to see a real man. I bet you stay up late every night dreamin' you had a real man, don't ya? I'll tell you what. Bring your pretty little self over to my apartment tonight, and I'll show you a real man.

Rocky is suitably pissed, so he agrees to a match with Clubber Lang. The match is one-sided, with Clubber beating Rocky’s ass so bad that Survivor wrote a song about it. To pull audience sympathy to his side, Stallone has Mr. T inadvertently cause the death of Rocky’s beloved trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith). It’s the most clever screenplay device Stallone employed in the entire series, paving the way for Rocky to team with Apollo Creed and setting up the Good Negro vs. Bad Negro final act. After this pairing, rooting for Rocky was like rooting for Apollo Creed, something I’m sure a lot of little Black kids did during the first two movies. (Remember that a lot of the first Rocky’s success depended as much on Stallone’s well-written script as it did on the notion of the Great White Hope in boxing. This is why Rocky’s loss in the first movie won it the Best Picture Oscar.) Rocky III splits the deck; if you’ve been following the series, how can you not root for Rocky, and even if you couldn’t, how can you root against him now with Apollo in his corner?

Even at the young age I saw Rocky III, I knew Rocky would win the final match. I was fine with that, because Clubber Lang was such a deliciously hissable villain, played by an unrepentant Mr. T with such enjoyable venom that the ‘hood audience I was with cheered when Rocky gets his revenge. I love Mr. T, even to this day (he’s currently in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs), because of this movie. I have to give Stallone more credit than most people will give him; he not only does a good job directing the boxing scenes, he allows himself to be completely upstaged. As a screenwriter, he gives Mr. T the line he still utters to this day: “I pity the fool!” Personally, I pity the fool who doesn’t like Rocky III. The prideful Negro in me should be all pissed off about just how stereotypical the movie is, with its Buck and its Sidekick Negro, but as the Bible says, “pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before the fall.” There’s some good destruction in Rocky III.

Your Homework Assignment:

Pity fools like me.


Steven Boone said...

Odie, don't worry, I'm on CP time with reading all your posts and making smartass comments.

For now, thank you for writing about what, when it hit cable in '83, seemed like the greatest movie ever made to me. Rocky III has everything you want from a movie.

Yeah, it's still kind of amazing how easy it was to cheer for Great White Rocky, but I think his new alliance with Apollo definitely helped. As with Diff'rent Strokes, the whole racial harmony fantasy was as pwerful for black kids like me as the image of E.T. flying a bike across the moon.

Anonymous said...

Just in case you thought Clubber Lang was defeated by Rocky's strength and stamina alone, enjoy this anecdote from John Ortved's "The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History":

TIM LONG, writer/producer, The Simpsons (1998-): "I had an incredible experience when Mr. T was on the show. He was telling me about the scenes in ROCKY III where he lost. The reason he lost was that his mother needed money for an operation, and so he was paid to take a dive. And I said, 'Well, I don't remember that in the movie.' And he just looked at me right in the eye and said, 'Things you don't see!'"

T then went on to personally sing "Mr. T's Commandments" to the writer in question.

... I love this man.

Heartfelt thanks for another great Mumf.

Fernando said...

This is also my favorite Rocky movie (can't stand Rocky 4. Its so simple and people love it so much!!!)

As a sports fan, I love to see Rocky as the entitled champ that falls and has to pick himself back up. I love all the self doubting he has in the second act, finding out he's been handled and not fighting the best. Then losing and really having to find his confidence back.

As a film/meta commentary geek I have to ask: How do the people in the universe of Rocky know the Rocky Theme? Every time the band plays it, my head explodes a little trying to figure out how the fictional people in the movie would ever here the score of the film?

odienator said...

Boone, Stallone also tried to get Black people to hate Russians in Rocky IV! He not only wants us to all get along, he wants all Americans to be united behind his principles!

Anonymous: T then went on to personally sing "Mr. T's Commandments" to the writer in question.

I wish Mr. T had sung his song about mothers, from his NBC special. To this day, I sing it in my best Mr. T voice:

"Mother! There is no other! Like mother. So treat her right!"

Fernando: As a film/meta commentary geek I have to ask: How do the people in the universe of Rocky know the Rocky Theme?

Because they all saw Rocky I, silly!!! :)

Hal said...

Odie: the scene with Rocky and Apollo doing sprints on the about homoeroticism....

ROCKY IV ranks right up there with DEATH WISH 3 on my list of all time funniest unintentional comedies. SHOWGIRLS has nothing on either. Nielsen's accent, Pataki's "Come! We go!" during the press conference, Paulie suddenly becoming the U.S.A.'s spokesman at same, Rocky climbing a mountain and not even being short of breath me,who could possibly do anything except laugh his/her ass off for 90 minutes? If anything, it gets funnier with each viewing.

I think Stallone was really full of himself at the time, kind of like Tom Laughlin after BILLY JACK's surprise success. On the other hand, I'm convinced Michael Winner was intentionally making a comedy with DEATH WISH 3 and just couldn't bring himself to tell Bronson, for fear he'd get his ass kicked.

odienator said...

Hal: I'm convinced Michael Winner was intentionally making a comedy with DEATH WISH 3 and just couldn't bring himself to tell Bronson, for fear he'd get his ass kicked.

Is that like how Willie Wyler put all that gay subtext into Ben-Hur without telling The Omega Man?

In Rocky IV, I love Dolph Lundgren's seismic punches. They should make Rocky explode like a reject from Ricky-Oh! Lundgren will always have a place in my heart for his horrible "Come to Jesus" performance as the Killer Version of de Lawd in Johnny Mnemonic.