One of the prompts asked by the Ladies Night segment of the Collider Movie News on YouTube is one I’m quite fond of:
Name someone who is changing the industry for the better.
There are so many great answers to this question. Ryan Coogler was the first name that came to mind. (Sorry, Zack Snyder, but you did come in at a very close second). The 35-year-old Oakland native has brought to life some of the powerful and thematically charged films. He’s raised the bar with each project. He shed a powerful voice silenced too soon. He successfully continued the legacy of Rocky Balboa, turning the spotlight on a famous supporting character’s bloodline. He helped the iconic King of Wakanda become the highest-grossing solo superhero film of all time. Coogler’s challenged himself with each project and has continually risen to the occasion. And yet, it seems without a shadow of a doubt, his films are shining a powerful and radiant light on black culture.
Fruitvale Station (2013) is based on the tragic story of Oscar Grant, whose life was taken too soon by a cop at Fruitvale Station in Oakland in 2009. I was not aware of Oscar until the press of this film. I was aware of the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012. As a black man, I knew this was too important to miss. I tip my hat to Coogler for making this film as his directorial debut. Coogler was a grad student at USC when the event happened and made it his mission to tell his story. We see a man who is just trying to get his life together. Grant is not perfect, but you can tell he has limitless potential. We get to know him, and we get attached. He isn’t a guy you read in the paper, but his life meant something. The film was truly a heartfelt experience. This film and the voices silenced before, then, and now are reminders of what needs to drastically change.
At first glance, one would think Ryan Coogler might be going crazy. Rocky Balboa is one of the most iconic characters in cinema history. The pivotal moment of Rocky running up the Philadelphia steps and the amazing theme are some of the most familiar images in popular culture. The character has appeared in six movies. The franchise made Sylvester Stallone a household name. We saw the metamorphosis of Balboa from rags to riches, victory to defeat, and losing loved ones. What more can you do with this character? Better yet, how do you create a narrative that continues the Balboa story, make the lead character black, and have that character be the offspring of the legendary Apollo Creed? Lo and behold, Coogler pulled it off. It doesn’t hurt that the 2015 film was lauded by critics, made some money at the box office, and got some accolade love during awards season.
The film follows Adonis “Donnie Johnson” Creed while he serves time at a youth detention center. He finds out that he was the result of an extramarital affair. His father was the legend Apollo Creed. A woman who used to be married to Apollo during the height of his career finds out where and who Adonis is and offers to take him in. He ironically follows in his late father’s footsteps and shares Apollo’s arrogance and confidence. He poetically ends up tracking down his father’s close friend Rocky Balboa. That is where the fun begins. Coogler expertly creates a new narrative while re-imagining the franchise. Creed was born out of greatness but is trying and fighting to see if he was ever worthy of it. He doesn’t want to be a mistake. Balboa is fighting his own battles, and both lift each other. Add in some great score and a killer soundtrack, it is a winner against all odds.
I would have nearly fainted like Alan Grant when he realized the dinosaurs are real. What a gut punch to your reality. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has successfully brought together a group of heroes with a compelling story in 2012. In 2014, they managed to modernized Captain America and made the Breakfast Club in space. In 2015, the most charming, lovable, and charismatic Paul Rudd made people believe he can be a superhero. The next challenge is to have the lead of a superhero film be African American, and have the majority of the cast be black. No pressure at all. Coogler and his amazing team pulled off the impossible, thus opening the floodgates to the kind of diverse stories that are possible in Hollywood.
The late but forever great Chadwick Boseman portrays T’Challa, a warrior from the hidden kingdom of Wakanda. He apprehended the person responsible for his father’s death while narrowly evading the chaotic events of the Civil War. He has returned home to take the throne and lead his people to greatness. Unfortunately, old sins cast long shadows as the past comes back to threaten the future of Wakanda and maybe the world. This film is ripe with African culture, music, sounds, and sights. The glorious might of the all-female army of the Dora Milaje is too amazing to behold. But this is a Ryan Coogler film. He does something amazing and drops the most incredible allegory akin to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It shows how a paradise featuring the might of black people is flawed, as they know about the plight of African Americans outside Wakanda that has plagued the world for centuries. To top it all off, he continues the ever-growing MCU and what is to come.
I would highly recommend listening to the Maltin on Movies Podcast starring esteemed film critic Leonard Maltin and his daughter Jesse Maltin. Ryan Coogler was a guest, and it was an amazing hour-long listen. You can’t help but admire the guy. You can tell he wants to be the best he can be and seems to surround himself with great people. How poetic that Forest Whitaker helped make Coogler’s first film and then got to star in Black Panther. Google continues to fight not only for the culture on-screen but off-screen as well. He was a producer on the Oscar-winning film Judas and the Black Messiah and the sequel to Space Jam starring Lebron James. He is currently directing Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. I am thankful to be alive, knowing I get to see this filmmaker’s wonderful grace and power ignite inspiration in the hearts and minds of millions.
Onward and upward, Coogler!