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.