On Tuesday, February 9th, I crisscrossed the streets through beastly night winds towards the University of Chicago. I was cold but thankful for the 19-degree windy-city, winter heat wave! Normally Chicago boasts temps below zero in February, so anything above 10 degrees was a blessing. The main floor and the balcony of Mandell Hall were packed to the walls with filmmakers, activists, scholars, and cinefiles alike. We, as a community, were drawn together in this space and time to celebrate and gain insight into Ryan Coogler, arguably one of the most relevant filmmakers of the day, who, in addition to the title of Warner Brothers Creative Talent Ambassador, now possesses the distinction as the University of Chicago’s Kent lecturer for 2016.
The Kent lecture was named for Dr. George E. Kent, U of C’s first African American professor of English. The annual lecture has featured Nikki Giovanni, Michael Erick Dyson, Dick Gregory, Gwendolyn Brooks, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Michelle Alexander, and Cornel West. To some, adding Ryan Coogler, a 29 year old narrative filmmaker and activist to the roster, was an audacious, tradition-breaking move by the Organization of Black Students… Thank you!
After an introduction by Chase Woods, Political Chair for OBS, Ryan Coogler stepped to the podium and graciously thanked the University of Chicago and the student organizers who made the event possible. He shared his experiences as a young Black male, raised in Oakland, CA. He spoke of his friends who did not make it beyond the block, and the commitment of brotherhood that he still shares with them today. His reflections and sentiments revealed a man who has accepted crafting stories that need to be told as his raison d’être. He spoke about the significance of his first feature length film, “Fruitvale Station,” the story of life of Oscar Grant III, poignantly portrayed by Michael B. Jordan. From Coogler’s perspective, it was important to unfold the human being behind an in-humane event as a son, a father, a boyfriend, someone who loved, and was cared for by his family. “Fruitvale Station” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film. It was screened in the Un Certain Regard competition at the Cannes Film Festival in the same year and won the award for Best First Film.
The national release of “Fruitvale Station” was only two months after the Sundance premier, and occurred on the same weekend that the Trayvon Martin verdict was announced. As America grapples with an increase in overt violence against Black men and women by police officers and other “sanctioned officials”, Coogler’s work is a timely battle cry. Through his work he voices that Black men are passionate human beings who grapple with joy, anger, life, death and love like everyone else. And attached to victims of violence are women, men, children, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and an entire community that is greatly impacted when they are treated worse than animals with little consequence to majority white male perpetrators.
“Creed,” the story of Adonis Johnson, played by Michael B. Jordan, is one of the smartest scripts that I’ve seen to date. The premise has been right there, hidden in plain sight for forty years; the son of Rocky’s rival, turned friend has a son who takes an interest in boxing and asks Rocky to train him. Brilliant! It takes a complex mind to see the story behind the story, pull it forward and illuminate it as an original work of art. Coogler had not been born when “Rocky,” which featured Sylvester Stallone and Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed, was released in 1976. However, it was his father’s love of the film that caused it to engrave a note of nostalgia in Coogler’s mind. Born of that nostalgia is the “Creed” franchise, which forecasts Coogler’s epic legacy as a force in film. Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed helps us to experience the “Rocky story” as Black, sexy, and multi-generational. Jordan, coincidentally celebrated his birthday on the same day as the Kent lecture. “Creed” is Coogler and Jordan’s second project together.
Marvel’s “Black Panther,” created by writer Stan Lee and penciler Jack Kirby, originally debuted in issue #52 of the “Fantastic Four” in July of 1966, and is one of the earliest Black superhero’s in American comic books. Jungle Action #5, which was published in July 1973, launched Black Panther as a central character, who was serialized and cameoed in subsequent issues. The next installation of the Black Panther comic book series will be written by Ta-Nehesi Coates and penciled by Brian Stelfreeze. The screenplay, written by Joe Robert Cole and directed by Mr. Coogler will feature Chadwick Boseman. When asked about directing “Black Panther” Ryan kept the details close to his vest. Instead, he expressed a deep respect for Coates’ writing, his commitment to bringing the character to the screen, and being honored to direct such a culturally rich project.
As Coogler wrapped his lecture, it became clear to me that behind his art lives the soul of an activist. He recently founded Blackout for Human Rights with Ava DuVernay and is currently raising funds to address the water contamination crises in Flint Michigan. He expressed concern when finding out that the University of Chicago does not have an African American Studies program. Throughout his lecture, he made a point to engage the many majors represented in the room and keep his points relatable to his audience. The desire to relate and connect are the threads that pull forward the universal themes in Coogler’s work as a writer/director. His history and trajectory as a force in film reveal a brother who ponders questions, thinks deeply, and approaches his projects with care and confidence. This millennial Black man possesses the ability to infuse thoughts, feelings, and emotions from his perspective as a Black man in America and translate them into universally resonant themes. As a writer, I appreciate his portrayal of Black men who unapologetically own their straight backs and navigate America with heart.
Shahari Moore is the writer and Co-Director of “Swimmin’ Lesson” https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/swimmin-lesson/id990215172 and “B Love” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NF9FXPBxwzA. Follow her on Twitter @Shahari.