I’ve been meaning to dive into the filmography of Ryan Coogler for a while now; from his interviews to his subject matter, he’s seemed like a filmmaker I need to watch, and one that I want to get into the ground floor on. So with the release and success of Black Panther, what better time than now to go through Coogler’s three films in order?
Coogler started his career with Fruitvale Station, an account of the last 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant III, who was shot and killed by police on New Year’s Day, 2009. Coogler has said that his goal here was to depoliticize Grant’s death, essentially attempting to do for this incident what Paul Greengrass’s United 93 did for that event – depict it honestly, calmly, and without sentiment, and without getting into the aftermath and the way the event was dealt with in the aftermath. On the whole, Coogler succeeds in this, I’d say (here’s a good article about how accurate the film is and isn’t, but the short version is, it’s largely faithful to the reality). Even if occasionally he hits the dramatic ironies a little hard, and even if the scene where Oscar comforts a dying stray dog feels like a bit much, Coogler does his best to depict Oscar not as a saint, not as a sinner, but as someone more complicated – a troubled young man with anger problems and a lot of boiling rage, one who might be turning his life around, or might not. It’s not the hagiography you might assume, but Michael B. Jordan’s charisma and the knowledge of where this is all going (Coogler opens the film with cell phone footage of the actual event) can’t help but make you empathetic for this human life that’s about to be pointlessly lost.
But it’s in the depiction of the event that Coogler’s talent is undeniably most seen. From the escalation to the horrifying moment of the shooting to the panic and chaos afterward, Coogler captures every second of it with an eye that never lets you forget what’s happening. But while what’s depicted is horrible, Coogler remains focused not on the event, not on the larger issues, but on Oscar – a young man who’s in his last minutes on Earth. That, more than anything else, is what makes Fruitvale Station so powerful and effective – the way it takes Oscar Grant III out of the narrative and reminds us that first and foremost, before he was a victim, before he was a moment, he was a human being – a father, a son, a boyfriend, a friend – and that loss in of itself is tragic and horrible, no matter what deeper societal issues it exposed in the process. (That being said, the outcome of this case is legitimately, incredibly infuriating on every imaginable level, so enjoy that.) And any refusal to admit that is removed by the film’s closing moments, which earns its final shot of Grant’s real-life daughter who’s growing up without a father. Sometimes, things deserve to be hit hard and shoved back into our faces, and the consequences of real-world news events forced back into our consciousness. Rating: **** ½
P.S. If you’ve seen The Wire, you should read David Simon’s very brief piece about the film, which is heartbreaking all over again in its final lines.
I’ve only ever seen the first Rocky film (which I really liked), so I can’t talk that much about how Creed stacks up against the rest of the sequels. What I can talk about is how much Coogler makes the film his own, taking what the original Rocky did – using a boxing story to explore a character, and delivering a character study with all the trappings of a boxing movie – and using it to follow his own interests. In this case, that’s the story of what it’s like to grow up as a young black man without a father, struggling to make his own identity. Once again uniting with Michael B. Jordan, Coogler follows the story of Adonis Creed, who’s attempting to grow up and make himself his own person, outside of the shadow of his late father. That leads him to seek out Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, of course), and ask him for training.
In taking on Creed, Coogler manages to somehow marry a mid-budget Hollywood tentpole film – an entry in a storied franchise – with all of his own passions and style, creating something far better than you would expect in the process. The relationship between Jordan and Stallone is beautifully handled, with nuance and depth, but also a rich humor that brings both men to life. Stallone, too, has rarely been better; it’s so easy to forget how great of an actor he can be, but even so, the way he plays Rocky here – lonely, older, feeling his age – is remarkable, bringing out the vulnerability in the character, but also his passion and pride. But his relationship with Jordan becomes more than the sum of their parts, with Coogler using it to play with the themes of father/son relationships and what they can mean – and what family can do for us. It gives the film a richness, thematically, investing us in each of these men and their arc. That the film does its best by Adonis’s love interest, a musician played by Tessa Thompson, is no small feat, nor what it does his mother, played by Phylicia Rashad; each woman is given a strength and motivation all her own, and even if they’re supporting characters, they’re handled far better than most films would even try to do.
But for the purpose of this review, I can’t help but discuss how much more assured and confident Coogler’s filmmaking is here, only one film later. The mid-film boxing sequence is incredible – a long, flowing single shot that weaves in and out of the action, gives us close-up shots, follows the action of the match, and gives it a tension and power all its own. It contrasts all the more with the final match, made up of reaction shots to the audience, as well as with each fighter, helping us understand that this match is less about the physical battle, and more about the emotional and mental stakes. That level of confidence goes throughout the film, as Coogler takes on montages, long shots, Steadicam shots, and more, truly stepping into his natural role as a filmmaker in a way that Fruitvale all but guaranteed.
I truly loved Creed, which I honestly didn’t expect; from its depiction of a weary Rocky Balboa to Jordan’s uncertain, questing fighter; from dazzling fight choreography to impactful, genuine emotional stakes; from strongly created relationships to thematic depth that explores real world stakes and issues; all of that and more turns Creed into a worthy successor to the original Rocky – a story of young men finding a way to prove themselves, and figure out who they are. I absolutely loved it, and was floored by Coogler’s growth and style as a director. Rating: *****
And now comes Black Panther, in which Marvel Studios finally cuts loose and generally lets a director make a Marvel product as personal as possible. I’ve long complained about the Marvel formula and the way it’s robbed movies of their individual flavor, and I won’t say that none of that applies to Black Panther. The big action climax of the film is overdone and bland – pretty much, it ends up feeling like it could come from half a dozen other comic book movies – and that goes doubly for the final showdown between our hero and the main villain, which becomes little more than a dull CGI whirl of action – a far cry from the intense, psychological battles of Creed, which married physical conflict with mental games. (That being said, there is a mid-film battle in a casino that unfolds in a dazzling long take that I enjoyed; it reminded me of what Coogler did in that mid-film bout in Creed, and to pretty great effect. It’s the one action set piece that really stands out in the film, and not coincidentally, the most engaging.)
But thankfully, moments like that are the exception in Black Panther, not the rule. Freed of almost any need to tie in to other Marvel movies (the mandatory end-credits scene aside, which can easily be ignored), Black Panther feels like no other Marvel movie to date, thanks in no small part to how deeply, truly African it is. Eschewing the usual generic cityscape of every other Marvel movie, Coogler fills the frame with colorful costumes, tribal fashions, and a rich tapestry of visuals that give the film a truly revolutionary feel. (I’m a straight white dude, so there’s no way I can speak to what this must feel like for so many other people, but to me, Black Panther felt truly like a film that got to celebrate black heritage and ancestry in a way that almost never happens.)
But as rich as the visual palette is, what really makes Black Panther work is the way that Coogler brings his wide, sprawling cast to life, filling his film with the sort of realistic, natural conversations that rang so true in his other movies. The result is that the film feels lived in in a way that Marvel rarely has for me; from the tribal priest, played by Forest Whitaker, to T’Challa’s sister Shuri (a scene-stealing, joyful performance by Letitia Wright), from Danai Gurira’s steely bodyguard to Winston Duke’s intimidating, surprisingly funny chieftain, Coogler takes the time to bring every character to life, letting them not just exist as plot points, but as characters and people.
But where that’s most evident, and most revolutionary, is in the film’s villain, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. (A side note: Andy Serkis’s portrayal of the secondary villain, Ulysses Klaue, is a blast – he’s chewing the scenery gloriously and having so much fun that it’s infectious.) Set aside the fact that Killmonger is portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, whose effortless and massive charisma (and, let’s be honest, physical attractiveness) instantly makes his Killmonger watchable and fascinating. What’s truly remarkable about Killmonger is how trenchant and valid his concerns are, and how obviously Coogler uses him as a way to smuggle in truly revolutionary and incendiary ideas.
After all, here is a character who is driven by the loss of a father who himself was infuriated by the treatment of black communities; who is angered by the way Wakanda has let black people around the world suffer while they’ve prospered; who wants justice and payback for centuries of racism and injustice. It’s hard to hear Jordan’s angry, violent rhetoric and not feel like he’s the voice of reason here…and what’s more remarkable is the way the film takes his concerns seriously, with characters acknowledging the truth of his ideas, even as they fear and deplore his methods. That debate gives Black Panther far more depth than you’d expect, and the way the movie ends up becoming a discussion about the responsibility of the well-off to care for the less fortunate, as well as a vicious commentary on how a history of racism has corrupted and angered a generation, is all the more incredible for what Coogler has managed to do within the framework of a Marvel movie, the most formulaic of genres. (Jordan’s final line of dialogue in the film is a nuclear bomb of defiance that sent shivers down my spine, and I can’t imagine what it felt like as an African-American.)
I’ve come all this way, and there’s more I could talk about – I haven’t even touched on Chadwick Boseman’s soulful performance, which finds him moving between royalty and grief, between a loving brother and a threatened head of state, nor the film’s glorious afrofuturism, which mixes so effortlessly and seamlessly with the rest. The short version is, yes, Black Panther is still a Marvel movie, but it’s the first one that has pushed back against the limits of the genre to any sort of success. And if it eventually falls back into some of the weakest elements, that only underlines all the more what Coogler got away with here – how many ways he got away with an uncompromised, unique vision and trenchant social points. It’s the sort of movie that, to me, actually represents what I loved about comic books growing up – not the battles, but the ideas, the intelligent voices, the rich characters, and just the incredible worlds of imagination. But best of all is the fact that Coogler does all of this while somehow still creating something that’s recognizably his. No small feat, that – and it bodes well for a long career that will give us interesting, thoughtful films both in and out of the studio system. Rating: **** ½