Filmmaker Raoul Peck and Abel Makonnen Tesfaye (aka The Weeknd) were among a May 11 packed house at Cannes’ Bunuel Theatre, where critic Elvis Mitchell spent 90 minutes digging into 31-year-old Ryan Coogler’s extraordinary trilogy of missing-father-and-son films: “Fruitvale Station,” which played Un Certain Regard after debuting at Sundance, “Rocky” sequel “Creed,” and historic blockbuster “Black Panther,” which Cannes played on the beach the night before .
Coogler’s original coming-of-age concept for “Black Panther” was “a lion learning what it means to be king … it was really about a man who had an idealized version of his father and country in his head. Having that broken, he had to pick up the pieces and create something new.” Coogler had never seen an African man like T’Challa, untouched by colonization, either in a movie or in history.
Theres’ no question “Black Panther” changed the rules of what works in Hollywood. Will it effect permanent change? “It’s a business,” said Coogler. “The business is informed by things life is informed by: colonization, institutional bias, racism. The business was built against these things.”
A former athlete, Coogler remembered his father telling him about team owners being afraid of putting black and hispanic players on the field. “Would people come to the games? There was a time when there were no black people in the NBA; people thought people would not come to the games. I was born in ’86; I turn on the TV and think everybody in the NBA is black. That’s the world I grew up in. For me, why can’t film have more black movies? People said, ‘Maybe these films won’t travel.’ We don’t know if that’s the case. It was great to have partners in Marvel and Disney who were excited as well. We didn’t feel like we are the only ones banging the drum.”
But will it change the way people make the decisions? “I just hope that it changes, man. It’s got to change,” Coogler said. “(David) Fincher says film is fashion; nobody really knows what works, but people will chase what has worked before. I hope that we can leave the business in a better way than we found it. I like to think that there will be more opportunities.”
To some extent the Wakanda fantasy of a hidden, fully actualized, never-colonized, ancient but high-tech African kingdom sprang from the mind of Coogler, who was trying to recapture the excitement he felt when he first visited South Africa. He was struck by how much of his Oakland family’s rituals had their roots in African culture.
When Coogler first met with Marvel (after they parted ways with his chum Ava DuVernay), execs told him they wanted “Black Panther” to be Marvel’s James Bond franchise. So he checked out all sorts of Bond movies (“Casino Royale” is his favorite), but his take on the only Marvel comics about characters of color was more nourished by Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” gangster trilogy — another film about a man from a secret country who steps into a position of power when his father dies, and tries to find his place.
“Black Panther” is also a crime movie about a shadow organization, Coogler said. He was worried to tell anyone that, though, because they might think he was “aiming too high. With art, some stuff is sacred, for good reason.” (Other movies that influenced “Black Panther” included Oscar-nominees “Timbuktu” and “Embrace of the Serpent,” as well as “Planet Earth.”)
Working with co-writer Joe Robert Cole, Marvel was open to letting Coogler weave a complex tapestry of Afro-futuristic entitlement — with T’Challa surrounded by powerful women. The Wakandans “can’t afford to repress any part of society,” said Coogler. “It’s ancient and new. You’ve got to bring the past and the present into the future.”
The filmmaker wanted to butt the two fundamentally different characters T’Challa and Killmonger against each other. “Those conversations are among the most important in the film,” he said. “T’Challa is a black man that doesn’t exist. Colonization affected every black person who lives today, who is touched.”
T’Challa confronts an American culture in which young black men like Killmonger (Jordan) embrace the likelihood that they may die before they reach 25. (Coogler compares self-created human super-villain Killmonger to “a poor Batman” who invents his own weapons.) “Death is constantly around us,” said Coogler. “The trans-Atlantic slave trade represented a type of death for us, of who we were, taught us that we couldn’t be who we were again.”
So far, Coogler’s worked only with women cinematographers on all three of his films. Rachel Morrison was the best DP he could get for “Fruitvale” — “she turned out to be phenomenal in every way and our dispositions matched” — and while he tried to get her for “Creed,” she was too pregnant at the time, so he shot with Maryse Alberti, who shot “The Wrestler” for Darren Aronofsky. Oscar-nominated Morrison (“Mudbound”) returned for “Black Panther.”
The high-powered women are even “more important to Wakanda” than the men, said Coogler, who is open to devoting a movie about them and admires Roxanne Gay’s “War of Wakanda” comics that let the women drive the story. The chunk of the film when the women believe that their king is gone is Coogler’s favorite in the movie: “You feel like you are watching something fresh and new. These actresses could easily carry their own movie. We had an embarrassment of riches. I would watch a movie with just them. That would be amazing if that opportunity came up.”
He had to learn how to communicate with his Oakland accent, he said, to a cast from all over the diaspora, from Newark-born Jordan to Mexican-Kenyan Lupita Nyong’o and Idaho-born, Zimbabwe-raised Danai Gurira. “I’d say something to Michael or Chad, they’d get the first time,” he said, “And Danai would say, ‘What?'” Eventually, they all got the hang of each others’ way of speaking.
On the first day of shooting, in which little boy Killmonger plays basketball in Atlanta, subbing for Oakland — Coogler found out that Martin Luther King was buried in the church next door, and was introduced to his daughter. “It was moving. She looked just like him.”
As he went through one daunting day after another — “it was hard, man” — he tried to stay in touch with the child who delighted in reading the comics, who would never believe he would grow up to direct the movie. “You find the kid in yourself to keep moving,” he said.
Disney’s high-wattage premiere of “Black Panther,” he told Mitchell, “was intense.” He had 50 family members there and met many new people in fancy outfits like Issa Rae. “It felt like the family reunion for a family you didn’t know you had yet.”
Next up: Coogler doesn’t know what he’s doing next. But as the hottest director in Hollywood, while a “Black Panther 2” seems inevitable, he has his pick of projects. (Long-in-the-works New Regency/Plan B project “Wrong Answer” with Jordan did not come up.) Coogler is open to doing more adaptations. “I’d love to do something original,” he concluded.