Even with the boundless new talent present in cinema today, it would be difficult to find an up-and-coming filmmaker with a track record quite as astonishing as Ryan Coogler’s. With just three feature films under his belt, he has managed to tell three outstandingly engaging and intimate stories, contribute to two major franchises, and thread one unique voice throughout.
Coogler’s journey to cinema is far from a straight line. The 31-year-old Oakland native spent his adolescence and young adulthood across Northern California, focused on sports, math, and science. He entered Saint Mary’s College of California on a football scholarship, sights set on majoring in chemistry. It was his creative writing professor who initially saw his potential for storytelling. After reading a story he wrote about his father nearly dying in his arms, she was taken by his writing style, and encouraged him to pursue screenwriting.
After Saint Mary’s football program vanished in 2004, Ryan transferred to Sacramento State, taking as many film classes as he could, between his hectic schedule of football and studying for his major in finance.
Post-Sacramento State, he made the trek down to Southern California to attend the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where three of the four short films he directed received some form of acclaim: Locks (2009) screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and won the Dana and Albert Broccoli Award for Filmmaking Excellence, Fig (2011) was nominated for an Outstanding Independent Short Film by the Black Reel Awards, and Gap (2011), which won the Jack Nicholson Award for Achievement in Directing.
His first feature film came two short years later: Fruitvale Station (2013), a real-life story that hits close to home. The film recounts the last day in Oscar Grant’s life, before being killed by a police officer in Oakland on New Year’s Day 2009. Acclaimed actor Forest Whitaker, who produced the film, lauded Coogler for his “unique voice,” declaring him an “auteur” as well.
It’s hard, if not impossible, to disagree with Mr. Whittaker on this sentiment. After Fruitvale Station’s wins at Sundance Film Festival and Cannes in 2013, Coogler, along with the film’s star Michael B. Jordan, was declared one of Time Magazine’s most influential 30 people under 30. With a budget of just under one million dollars, the film grossed $17 million worldwide, and earned a near-perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes. Clearly, his writing professor had good instincts.
In 2015, Coogler and Jordan reunited for Creed, a spin-off within the Rocky film series. Coogler co-wrote and directed the film, inspired by his father, who had him watch Rocky II before any major football games. The film earned him the “New Generation Award” from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, as well as a Best Director award from the African-American Film Critics Association.
The following year, Coogler signed on to an even bigger venture: co-writing and directing Black Panther, a superhero film within the massive expanse of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, centered around T’Challa, African king of the fictional nation of Wakanda. The film garnered immense and impassioned anticipation in the months leading up to this week’s release, in no small part due to Coogler’s established skill behind the camera, as well as the powerhouse ensemble cast of incredibly talented actors, a groundbreaking majority of whom of African descent. Excitement has been palpable along every step of the film’s development, each bit of news a celebration, and the opening premiere a Royal Ball. Black Panther has been built up to be a historical event, a colossal moment — and it has not disappointed.
Between these three features, these three distinctly different worlds and circumstances, there is a thread of personal honesty that keeps each story so compelling, so engrossing, so easy to be enamored by. In his own words, Coogler has noted that, “in retrospect […] a lot of what I deal with as an artist is with themes of identity” adding “I tend to like movies where the filmmaker has a personal connection to the subject matter.” Coogler masterfully demonstrates his throughout his work, from depicting the unjust end to Oscar Grant’s life, to the sweat-soaked journey of a young boxer, and into the supernatural terrain of Black Panther. Especially working within this latest, larger than life landscape, endowing the story with personal truth has given that special allure, that magic that can hook a room of hundreds.
Ryan Coogler has made exceptionally good use of his three decades on this earth thus far. He has risen very high very fast, but more importantly than any monetary or critical success, are the stories he has been able to share. Filmmaking is, in its best moments, an opportunity to enter into a new world, experience a new point of view, in the hopes of developing a newfound sympathy, refining an opinions, expanding your perspective. In the western world, this platform has been so rarely granted to people of color. Let us hope that, among the many budding contemporary filmmakers coming onto the scene today, Ryan Coogler’s outstanding work helps to open the floodgates, and let these voices be heard. There’s undoubtedly a demand; it’s time to support the supply.