“Something impacts me emotionally, art is a kind of outlet, and I figure it’s the same for a lot of artists. The way my mind deals with things is cinematic.” – Ryan Coogler
If contemporary cinema were defined by a group of essential filmmakers, Ryan Coogler would certainly be among the artistic talent. He is, in fact, yet to make a critical bad film, garnering international success for each of Fruitvale Station, Creed, and the Oscar-nominated Black Panther. His debut picture, Fruitvale Station, recounting the evening of Oscar Grant III a 22-year-old murdered by police officers on New Year’s eve, remains his very best and would establish the director in the highest echelons of contemporary filmmakers.
Developed and produced by Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker, the film star said of the filmmaking debutant that “I’ve worked with a number of truly unique voices, true auteurs, and I can tell when I’m talking to one”. A gut-punching cinematic force, Coogler’s film would catapult him to success and a directorial role on the future Rocky sequel, Creed, as well as on Marvel’s first depiction of an African superhero in the cultural milestone of Black Panther.
Founder of Blackout for Human Rights, a collective of filmmakers and artists, who each came together in October 2014 following incidents of racial injustice, including the police killings of black men like Eric Garner and John Crawford, it is clear that Ryan Coogler is a filmmaker deeply focused on telling pertinent stories of civil justice. Speaking to Vice, Coogler commented, “Whether folks take it directly on their shoulders or not, I think it comes with the territory for artists to reflect on things that are going on in the world at large,” he once said. “In general, artists who represent, or come from minority communities, tend to have that pressure on their shoulders a little more.”
With a rich future in filmmaking, we revisit Coogler’s talk with Indie Wire, detailing the five films that changed his life,
Ryan Coogler’s 5 favourite films:
A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009)
Cannes Grand Prix winner, Jacques Audiard film depicts the gruelling life of a young 19-year-old Algerian man sent to a French prison only to become involved with an organised crime ring.
A brutal, contorted coming-of-age film that shows the rise of Malik (Tahar Rahim), from an invisible number to a dominant figure of the prison, A Prophet acts as both a vicious social realism and compelling prison drama. It is likely this metamorphosis of the film’s excellent central character that attracted a young Ryan Cooger who comments that “it’s the film I go back to the most…I saw it during my first time out of the country. It’s a big deal to me.”
Boyz n the Hood (John Singleton, 1991)
Just like Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, Boyz n the Hood was a cultural milestone that established John Singleton as a major Hollywood director and catapulted acting sensation Cuba Gooding Jr to further success.
Following the lives of three young men living in the Crenshaw ghetto’s of LA, Singleton’s iconic film dissects questions of race, violence and future prospects, highlighted by a famous ‘gentrification’ speech by Lawrence Fishburne written years ahead of its time. A highly enjoyable yet shocking film, Coogler’s thoughts on its staggering conclusion are explicitly clear (and spoiler-heavy), “I was just inconsolable when Ricky died,” he said. “It wasn’t a movie to me, I was seeing black folks on a hundred foot screen. I was just devastated after ‘Boyz’”.
Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
Possibly the most influential Black filmmaker in cinema history, Spike Lee is a director focused on telling stories that predominantly tackle issues of civil rights and social justice.
Recognised as his greatest film, Do the Right Thing tells the story of the hatred and bigotry that boil and brood during the hottest day of the year on a street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Capturing the streets of the city in rich vibrant colour, Coogler was hypnotised by the film’s energy, commenting “The way [Spike] made Brooklyn feel. I had never been to New York, but seeing that as a kid, I was like: ‘I gotta go to that place.’ It just felt alive, it felt like home”.
Clearly having a direct impact on his career as a filmmaker, Coogler went on to comment that “when I wanted to make movies, I wanted to make a movie that felt like home and felt as real as ‘Do the Right Thing”.
Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
Deepening our understanding of the world around us helps each of us to become more honest, sympathetic and knowledgeable individuals, and for Ryan Coogler, Andrea Arnold’s Palme d’Or nominee Fish Tank was significant in helping him to further understand the female experience in contemporary life.
The film itself is a rich character study of a young 15-year-old girl, Mia, whose life is complicated upon the arrival of her mother’s new boyfriend. A powerful kitchen-sink drama for the 21st century, Arnold’s film is described by Coogler as “one of the first movies I ever saw that made me understand, it made me feel like I understood women more”.
Continuing, he comments: “That’s the best way I can describe the feeling I had watching it. It’s one of those films, like [Gina Prince-Bythewood’s] ‘Love and Basketball,’ like [Julie Dash’s] ‘Daughters of the Dust,’ that’s a rallying cry of why the world needs women filmmakers.”
Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1993)
Ryan Coogler’s appreciation for Spike Lee’s Malcolm X comes as little surprise considering the directors own interests in the civil rights movement, with Lee’s classic biographical film powerfully charting the life and work of the influential Black Nationalist leader.
Marking his uprising through his early as a small-time gangster, to his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam, the story of Malcolm X’s life was truly inspiring for a young Ryan Coogler who describes sitting on his dad’s lap as he was “too small to see over the seat”.
Speaking of the film, Coogler commented: “Malcolm X was a big one for me, because I’d never seen a black man that powerful”. The director also recalls being “inconsolable” when the titular individual was killed, though became inspired by the film’s ending in which children proudly shout ‘I am Malcolm X’, to which Coogler realised: “‘Oh, this is a movie.’ Seeing the kids saying that was a big deal. It was more than a movie”.
Realising the power of art in inspiring such an influential message, it is no doubt that Spike Lee’s Malcolm X would inspire Ryan Coogler to produce such provocative film’s as Fruitvale Station, and bring to life such cultural monolith’s as Black Panther.