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Ryan Coogler’s meteoric rise from indie film to Black Panther, explained

In only five years, Coogler has established himself as one of Hollywood’s most talented and sought-after directors.

Ryan Coogler directs Chadwick Boseman on the set of Black Panther
Ryan Coogler directs Chadwick Boseman on the set of Black Panther.
Marvel Studios
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Ryan Coogler’s rise through Hollywood is best described as “meteoric.” Before being selected to direct Black Panther, the director, now 31 years old, had only made two feature films: Fruitvale Station, which won accolades at Sundance in 2013, and Creed, the seventh installment in the Rocky series, which garnered rave reviews in 2015.

Disney’s tentpole properties have been selecting young directors who cut their teeth in independent film to helm major blockbusters (like Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok and Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi), but even by those standards Coogler is a newbie.

But it worked. Coogler turned his $200 million production budget into a movie that made $400 million worldwide on its opening weekend, with raves from audiences and critics alike. Clearly, he’s a force to be reckoned with.

Coogler’s success with Black Panther both secures his place in film history as a wunderkind and ensures that he’ll continue to be one of today’s most sought-after young directors. But it’s worth looking back at his two earlier films, which show that some of what distinguishes Black Panther has been part of his work from the start.

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Coogler’s first feature, Fruitvale Station, came out of nowhere. In 2013, Coogler was 26 years old, a former college football player and a graduate of USC’s film school, where he made several short films.

He took his first feature, then simply titled Fruitvale, to Sundance. It’s the story of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man who was shot in the back at point-blank range by a white police officer in Oakland while returning from San Francisco on New Year’s Eve in 2008. The shooting was captured on camera by several people, and the light sentence received by the officer who shot Grant sparked outrage and protests.

Coogler was attracted to telling the story because he felt an affinity with Grant. As he told the Dissolve:

Being from the Bay Area, obviously it affected me. I was at a closer range to it. Also, age-wise, he and I were born in the same year, so I had a really close perspective on what it’s like to be that age, that ethnicity, from that area, and to have moved in and out of all those similar places.

That Coogler feels deeply connected to his hometown is evident: The movie goes to great lengths to create the feel of the Oakland and San Francisco metropolitan areas, a move that makes perfect sense given that Grant died in a BART station that became the locus of protests afterward. It’s a movie that’s both named for and embodies a place, and that lends an extra specificity and weight to its story.

Michael B. Jordan — who has starred in all of Coogler’s features so far — plays Grant on the last day of his life, in a story that Coogler constructed after spending time with Grant’s family, many of whom Grant saw hours before he was killed. The movie starts with the actual cameraphone footage of Grant’s shooting, so the sense of dread builds throughout the film: as we watch Grant go throughout his day — play with his young daughter, celebrate his mother’s birthday, revisit his time in jail, interact with strangers — we know that this day is his last, and so his death comes as a particularly emotional gut punch.

Fruitvale won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and went on to do well in theatrical release (renamed Fruitvale Station). It also signaled the start of a number of fruitful artistic collaborations for Coogler. The most obvious, of course, is his work with Jordan, who was known largely for his TV work (in particular on The Wire and Friday Night Lights) before he starred in Fruitvale Station and attracted critical attention.

Fruitvale Station was also shot by Rachel Morrison, who would go on to become the first woman ever nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar for her work on Dee Rees’s 2017 film Mudbound. Though Morrison didn’t work with Coogler on his next film due to a production schedule conflict, she would rejoin him to shoot Black Panther.

Creed (2015)

Fruitvale was a small, low-budget independent film, but it garnered enough attention for Coogler and enough confidence in his abilities that he landed a much higher-profile movie for his next project. Creed is the seventh installment in the Rocky series, some combination of a sequel and a spin-off, which Coogler co-wrote with his friend Aaron Covington.

An ambitious young director with indie-film cred might not be an obvious choice to direct a sixth sequel in a franchise with diminishing returns. But Coogler had the brilliant idea to essentially reboot the franchise by focusing on Adonis Johnson (played by Jordan), the son of Rocky’s first opponent Apollo Creed, and letting Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone) be his reluctant trainer even as he battles lymphoma. (Coogler was inspired partly by his own father’s battles with an illness.)

Creed is a flat-out terrific sports film, one of the best in many years, with a particularly unforgettable four-and-a-half minute, one-shot scene in the ring. Jordan and Tessa Thompson, who plays his love interest Bianca, are magnetic, with a chemistry that echoes and may outshine Rocky and Adrian’s relationship from the first film.

And while Fruitvale Station was a film that felt deeply rooted in the Oakland and San Francisco area, Creed’s connection to Philadelphia — necessary for any movie with a link to Rocky — was undeniable. Writing about the “cheesesteak scene” in Creed at The Ringer, Robert Mays points out how Coogler nailed it:

What’s remarkable is how economically it all happens. Immediately after cutting from the apartment, there’s an establishing shot of Max’s Steaks, and, if that isn’t enough, Bianca lets Adonis (and everyone watching) know they’re in North Philly. She tells the guy behind the counter that she’s with a West Coast boy who’s never had a steak before. We get a shot of the steaks being slathered in pretty much every condiment available, and, on the way to the booth, Adonis asks what the deal is with how often Bianca uses “jawn.” She explains the local slang, and thus ends the most Philadelphia-packed minute imaginable. It’s easy to see the exchange as a boiled-down version of Coogler — himself a West Coast boy — navigating the city and its norms for the first time.

Coogler’s gift for evoking a place for outsiders would prove very handy in Black Panther as well. The movie takes place in two primary locations — Oakland at first, and then the fictional African country of Wakanda — and he renders both in marvelous detail, giving us a sense of the culture with a few key details: a basketball court, a train track. The whole world is built rapidly, and that’s what a director needs to make a film that is both successful and feels authentically lived-in.

With Fruitvale Station and Creed — and now the runaway success of Black Panther — Coogler has established himself as one of the strongest talents of his generation, garnering comparisons to directors like Steven Spielberg. And his next project, another collaboration with Michael B. Jordan, is already in the works: a film called Wrong Answer, about a 2006 testing scandal in Atlanta, with a screenplay by Ta-Nehisi Coates. There’s a bright future ahead of the young filmmaker, and everyone who loves movies stands to benefit from his talents.

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