Iconic director: ryan coogler
- By Eoin O’Donnell
In just half a decade and with only three feature films, Ryan Coogler has firmly established himself as one of Hollywood’s boldest and most promising writers and directors. Whether it’s adapting an intimate story for the screen or imbuing major studio films with his own distinct voice, Coogler is a creative force that has proven more than capable of making smaller, personal projects as well as massively successful blockbusters, without sacrificing any intimacy or sincerity along the way.
Coogler established his style and filmmaking sensibilities with a handful of short films immediately after film school. He focused on the dangers and hardships of the black experience in the United States, while still embracing universal, relatable themes and emotions, much of which would clearly carry over to his later work.
Following the real-life events of Oscar Grant, a young black American who was gunned down by a police officer in Oakland in 2009, Coogler’s feature film debut Fruitvale Station (2013) was what truly put him on the map in 2013. The story remains terrifyingly relevant, and the way Coogler weaves the true story into a cohesive, tragic narrative is as impressive as it is upsetting to watch. Growing up in Oakland himself, it’s clear to see how Coogler’s personal experiences and attachment to his home town connected with Oscar’s story, and his attempt at bringing that trauma out of news reports and into a real, tangible, personal experience clearly resonated with audiences.
The film also served to kickstart an incredibly fruitful and iconic collaboration with actor Michael B. Jordan. Starring in all three of his films and already signed on for his fourth, Jordan clearly enjoys working with Coogler, and the fruits of their labour speak for themselves. Jordan gives Coogler’s films a talented, bankable leading man, and the films themselves have kickstarted Jordan into stardom. Coogler has been consistently able to tap into the passion of his actors to bring out incredibly compelling performances. Jordan has given him perhaps his best displays, but he’s also drawn out some career highs from actors like Tessa Thompson, Andy Serkis and Lupita Nyong’o, as well as industry veterans like Sylvester Stallone, Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker.
With a critical success under their belt after Fruitvale Station, both Coogler and Jordan were approached by MGM to come on board for Creed, a spin-off of the iconic Rocky series. Approached partially because of his evident chemistry with Jordan, as well as his distinct voice as a young black creator in the United States. Coogler brought a much-needed jolt of energy to a franchise that, after six movies of varying quality over a period of 30 years, all before 2006, was decidedly down for the count.
The film focuses on Apollo Creed’s son Donnie, dealing with his own experiences as a young black man growing up in California, as well as navigating the boxing world with the baggage and legacy of his father’s death in the ring. Sylvester Stallone returns to his iconic character as a mentor, walking Donnie through the boxing world, serving as an emotional passing of the torch for the audience, revitalising the legacy of such a storied series. Coogler once again extracts fantastic performances from Jordan, Tessa Thompson, as well as Stallone, who surprised everyone, earning an Oscar nomination for his work. These elements come together to bring a surprising amount of heart and earnestness to a story that could so easily have come off as a lazy retread of a tired-out franchise.
As his first foray into Blockbuster territory, Coogler needed to balance his own proven dramatic and storytelling skills with a degree of excitement and marketability befitting of such a classic action series. Using his own history with athletics and with the Rocky legacy itself, he managed to turn his first experience filming action and fight scenes into a proper knockout punch. Creed’s second boxing match, following the perfectly timed and choreographed fight around the ring with a single unbroken five-minute take, is an incredibly impressive achievement, and the film’s climax somehow still manages to top it. Coogler’s skill in writing, direction and collaboration is never as perfectly displayed as it is in the last round of the final fight, where through spectacular editing, performances and the perfect use of one of cinema’s most iconic themes, he delivers a moment as unforgettable as any of Rocky’s own triumphs.
Black Panther, of course, is a film that needs no introduction. Setting the world on fire earlier this year, it’s already the ninth-highest grossing film of all time and will go down as a massive cultural touchstone in cinema. The eighteenth film in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther is the franchise’s greatest critical success, its highest-grossing domestic US release, and probably its most talked about film to date. Coogler managed to elevate the usual breezy action and entertainment expected from Marvel’s offerings to something far more culturally significant and emotionally impactful.
Set in a fictional African nation, Black Panther has received plenty of praise for its almost entirely African-American cast and crew, and its progressive and diverse depiction of a community that has been so underrepresented in film for so long. On top of this, somehow Coogler managed to steep his most mainstream, crowd-pleasing film with as much philosophical and moral depth as any of his other works. He tackles complex racial issues of inequality, colonialism and genocidal revenge through his villain, Killmonger. Played once again by Michael B. Jordan and once again bringing with him a slice of Coogler’s Oakland roots, Killmonger imbues the film with a surprising amount of sympathy and moral complexity, alongside the expected scale and spectacle of the perfectly-executed massive battles that define today’s superhero blockbuster.
Coogler is a creative powerhouse that in just five years has made three films that grew from a $16 million box office gross to $170 million, to $1.3 billion, never once losing his contemporary and artistic edge along the way. He’s certainly already made his mark on cinema as an iconic filmmaker this decade, but with yet another on-brand project with Michael B Jordan in the works, and a Black Panther sequel looming on the horizon, he’s also unquestionably a director to watch, with a long, bright career ahead of him.