Five years before he made the world’s most culturally significant blockbuster with “Black Panther,” Ryan Coogler was at the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Lab, workshopping his first feature “Fruitvale Station.” The five-day gathering overlapped with Martin Luther King Jr. Day; on that morning, lab coordinator Michelle Satter invited fellows to share thoughts about its significance over breakfast. Until that point, Coogler struck many other participants as a quiet, soft-spoken young man. Then he stood up.
“He gave this beautiful, deeply felt, and completely extemporaneous speech about how Dr. King’s legacy inspired him as a storyteller,” recalled David Lowery, who was then developing “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” at the lab. (Like “Fruitvale,” it would premiere at Sundance a year later.) “It was an incredibly moving testament, both personal and all-encompassing in its scope, and we all heard the voice that has since been resonating so powerfully in Ryan’s work.”
Now Coogler has delivered Marvel and Disney the most revered Hollywood achievement of the 21st century to date, a black superhero story with an almost all-black cast — and the movie’s very existence has galvanized an oft-neglected demographic of moviegoers who at long last are getting their due. On track to grossing a record-breaking $180 million on its opening weekend, “Black Panther” speaks to a turning point in the industry’s bumpy path to diversification. Coogler’s trajectory sits at the center of this celebratory moment, but his capacity to deliver fine-tuned crowdpleasers for black audiences — along with everyone else — didn’t materialize overnight.
By any standard, this 31-year-old Bay Area native catapulted from breakout indie talent to A-list Hollywood director on a compact timeline. Each of his movies, as well as his short films, has provided a keen window into African-American identity. By the time the profound tearjerker “Fruitvale” nabbed the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Coogler was already developing the screenplay for “Creed,” his surprising and thoughtful reinvention of the “Rocky” franchise with Michael B. Jordan as the offspring of Apollo Creed. While shooting that project with Sylvester Stallone, Coogler got the call from Marvel about “Black Panther,” after talks with Ava DuVernay fell apart. A year later, he was tackling the dazzling saga of the regal T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in a globe-trotting adventure that stretched from the mystical African nation of Wakanda to inner-city Oakland.
“It’s been a weird journey for me, man,” Coogler said, sitting down in a midtown hotel as he worked through a dense promotional schedule. In person, Coogler tends to speak in slow, considered sentences interspersed with lengthy pauses for contemplation. “What’s funny is, I get that independent film was my roots, but I don’t really have roots, you know what I’m saying? Each film was its own thing, so I never calcified in terms of a certain way of making movies.”
With “Fruitvale,” he said, “my friends were producers, and we were shooting in the Bay without a lot of money. It felt like an extension of what we did in film school. ‘Creed’ felt exponentially more complex, but when I got into it, it felt the same. I guess it’d be different if I’d made three movies like ‘Fruitvale,’ then I would’ve had a way I’d be used to making movies. I never planned to make them in a certain way.”
Still, Coogler has cemented a process, one described by friends and peers as intensely collaborative with an eye for detail. His movies radiate intention; collectively, his three features form a body of work that upends expectations. “Fruitvale” is the ultimate emotional package, exploring the final day in the life of Oscar Grant and culminating with his unjust death at the hands of a police officer, but it never sags into obvious sentimentality — the movie’s loose, naturalistic style brings viewers inside the world of its protagonist, and his murder resonates with unexpected power. “Creed” achieves a similar effect with the legacy of Apollo, exhuming a character many viewers discarded as a campy sidekick years ago to reclaim his cultural significance.
Now comes “Black Panther,” which celebrates blackness as a global identity while exploring its uneasy relationship to other facets of modern culture. Notably, its villain is an Oakland-born man (Jordan) of Wakandan heritage convinced that the African nation should rule the world, while T’Challa believes in a more balanced approach to helping his people thrive.
That ideological divide harkens back to the contradictory quotes from King and Malcolm X at the end of “Do the Right Thing,” even as it percolates alongside sprawling CGI-spiced showdowns, fast cars, and spear-wielding warrior princesses. “This film is very much about identity,” Coogler said during a Q&A following a BAM screening later that week, where the movie showed as a part of a series focused on black superheroes. “I had a lot of pain inside me, due to not being able to know my ancestors, to access that wound.”
Coogler’s personalized approach to mainstream cinema, calmly juggling substance and spectacle, positions him as a next-generation Spielberg. The comparison has been applied with less accuracy before, most notoriously with M. Night Shyamalan, but in this case isn’t much of a stretch: Spielberg was on his third feature when he upended the blockbuster model with “Jaws,” establishing a new Hollywood royalty charged with satisfying massive audiences and channeling classic tropes in new ways. While DuVernay has been hailed for her role in raising the dialogue about African-American filmmaking, and her “A Wrinkle in Time” marks the first time a black woman has directed a $100-million movie, it’s Coogler who embodies what commercially viable cinema can look like in a progressive business.
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“It’s a game changer for our industry,” said Charles D. King, the former WME partner whose company MACRO supports film and TV projects from people of color. King, who first connected Coogler with Stallone for “Creed” when he was still at WME, added that Coogler’s easygoing demeanor made him a natural fit for the potential chaos of a major studio production.
“Ryan’s not only being a great storyteller, he’s a leader, a coalition builder,” King said. “When you’re putting together a movie on a scope like this, with dozens of department heads and pieces you have to bring together, he’s the type of person who would know how to communicate and inspire groups of people. I’ve known him for six years and have never seen him lose his temper.”
Coogler acknowledged the potential dangers of bringing his precise style of filmmaking into the studio arena — and shrugged them off. “People did say I should be wary about working with a studio,” he said. “But I felt like I was making personal movies every time. Contractually, I didn’t have final cut — but I really did, you know what I’m saying?”
As much as he had to juggle the tricky dynamics of fast-paced action scenes, Coogler projected a confidence on set that informed his relationship to the cast, endowing the project with a sense of purpose that extended beyond the payoffs of another Marvel sensation. He spent time in Africa researching the project and used it to inform his approach to the performances.
“He spoke so clearly about accessibility and authenticity,” said Danai Gurira, the actress and playwright who plays Okaye, the head of Wakanda’s armed forces. “He was going to use the authenticity of what he’d experienced … he was going to let that pour into the film. He wanted to hit on that, and the conversations this film was going to hit on are so insanely timely.”
Letitia Wright, the movie’s big discovery, plays T’Challa’s spunky younger sister. “Ryan loves to flesh out a scene and do as many takes as he can, but different versions of it,” she said. “He would fine-tune the performance in a way that you have the skeleton of it, but he would always add something to it that needs to be in the scene … He really cares about the characters.”
Coogler marries the practical needs of moment-to-moment direction with overarching attention to the broader significance of each storytelling beat. “You recognize that you’re watching the work of somebody with deep maturity and wisdom,” said filmmaker Shaka King, who met Coogler when her “Newlyweeds” premiered at Sundance the same year as “Fruitvale.” “That translates quite well to empathy, which defines his filmmaking above all.”
King was among the organizers of a 2014 event called Blackout for Human Rights, a nationwide social media boycott on Black Friday to raise awareness about police brutality against African Americans. As an extension of their effort, the pair also put together a live reading of “Do the Right Thing” on the same day at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “He is incredibly nice, but it isn’t just niceness,” King said. “He inspires you to want to do your best, but he’s also deeply calm under pressure.”
Coogler’s activism stretches back to his youth, with parents who worked in community organizing and probation counseling, as well as his own experience as a counselor at a juvenile hall in San Francisco. When “Fruitvale” premiered at Sundance, he still had that day job; these days, those efforts have been sublimated into the larger canvas of his movies.
“In regards to the social causes he gets behind — this movie is that,” King said. “I grew up being told stories about African gods. You hear these stories and had to visualize them in your mind’s eye, because there was no visualizing of them in film or TV, even though these stories predate Roman civilization.”
For aspiring filmmakers of color, “Black Panther” could represent a generational shift: “This movie’s going to be wildly successful and of course there will be sequels,” King said, “but hopefully, it also ushers in more of that kind of big-budget, black-centric style of filmmaking.”
Another filmmaker at Sundance in 2013 was DuVernay, who became the first black woman to win the best directing prize at the festival for “Middle of Nowhere” a year earlier. Connecting with Coogler yielded a powerful union. By the time pair worked next to other on the Disney lot, Coogler on “Black Panther” and Duvernay on “A Wrinkle in Time,” they had a long-running dialogue about how to sustain the careers of more filmmakers like them.
“You see these incredible filmmakers who have these massive gaps,” Coogler said, citing the eight years in between Barry Jenkins’ debut “Medicine for Melancholy” and his Oscar-winning “Moonlight” as a key example. “Then they make something again, and the whole world goes crazy for it. It’s like, man, what happened? Ava and I just want to keep asking those questions, looking at finding ways to get those filmmakers’ stories told.”
For DuVernay, those efforts include hiring directors for her OWN series “Queen Sugar” and the distribution service ARRAY. Coogler recently signed on as an executive producer of “Creed 2,” and helped select filmmaker Steven Caple, Jr. to direct; as with Coogler on “Creed,” the sequel will mark Caple’s sophomore feature, following his 2016 Sundance debut “The Land.”
“A lot of times, that gap between movie one and movie two can be difficult,” Coogler said, then chuckled. “I was blessed to be able to go again right away, but if Stallone had been like, ‘No, I’m good,’ I can see how that would’ve been difficult.”
Coogler’s success sits on a continuum of black storytelling that has gradually found its way to bigger platforms. Jenkins’ scrappy 2008 romance “Medicine” didn’t find a wide audience, but it inspired countless black directors in their twenties and thirties, including 2014’s “Dear White People,” later adapted as a Netflix series. Two years after that, “Moonlight” premiered to great acclaim on the same weekend that F/X’s “Atlanta” brought Donald Glover’s quirky vision of southern black America to the small screen. A few months later, “Get Out” landed at Sundance, grossed a record-breaking $100 million, and became a major Oscar contender.
To that end, the success of “Black Panther” emerges organically from ongoing proof of a neglected audience. “Frankly, these movies perform well, and there’s an audience for them,” said Charles King, who recently produced the 2018 Sundance breakout “Sorry to Bother You,” a racial satire coming out this summer from Annapurna Pictures. “I believe we’ll see more and more growth there. As more filmmakers navigate from independent filmmaking to working on the scale that Ryan has, it just continues to broaden the lane for more voices.”
Despite the good vibes surrounding its release, there’s an elephant in the room of every “Black Panther” party — the disturbing rise of white supremacism in the wake of the 2016 election, and its tendency to rain on every diversity parade. In the case of “Black Panther,” the dark clouds gathered in the form of a racist Facebook group that assailed the movie on Rotten Tomatoes. (Facebook eventually shut down the group, and Rotten Tomatoes said it will block anyone espousing hate speech.)
When pressed, Coogler was diplomatic, noting that the election took place just as “Black Panther” began production. “Man, if you look at the political landscape, like what kind of stuff was bubbling up during the election, nothing surprises me,” he said. “There is a diversity of political thought in this country. It’s out there. You can get total ambivalence, or people who are passionate. When making this film and going through the process of putting it out there, I’ve just tried to keep a level head and stay away from all that.”
That philosophy — focusing on creative ambition rather than rhetoric — gels with widely reported news that, in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite backlash when no actors or filmmakers of color landed Oscar nominations for two years in a row, Coogler turned down an offer to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Asked about that decision, he paused again and stared at the ground, started to say something, and stopped again.
A Disney publicist burst into the room, announcing that Coogler needed to leave for another appointment. “Oh, snap!” he said, looking dazed. “It’s so much. I don’t even know what I’m doing before I get somewhere.” Reflecting on the blur of activity, he unwrapped a piece of gum.
“You can answer that last question,” the publicist said, then vanished again. He looked up. “Nah,” he said, then smiled. “Not on the record, anyway. It’s complicated. I’m focused on ‘Black Panther’ now.” Resistant to projecting negativity, Coogler readied himself for a softball question: How about a sequel? “Our movie’s not even out yet!” he said. “I’m just focusing on putting one foot in front of the other other as best as I possibly can.”
He laughed, acknowledging that he was being dodgy about the divisive sociopolitical landscape at odds with the enthusiasm for his work. “Look, man,” he said. “There are people in this country who feel a lot of different ways. That’s a fact. It’s going to come up. I can’t allow myself to be surprised by that. But even though I’m not an expert on this — it seems like there’s so much more love out there for what we’re doing. We’d be crazy not to focus on that.”
—Additional reporting by Kate Erbland and Jude Dry
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