On a Thursday evening in October, as the Oscar campaign for “Black Panther” began to unfurl, Kathleen Kennedy took the microphone in a packed room of award voters. The Lucasfilm president had volunteered to host a reception for “Black Panther” at the London hotel in West Hollywood, and her eyes alighted on the 32-year-old director Ryan Coogler.
“Ryan Coogler’s dreams and courage have made ‘Black Panther’ one of the most significant films to be released in the last decade,” said Kennedy, who noted that the critically acclaimed superhero movie has grossed well over a billion dollars, smashing preconceived notions of how a black-led blockbuster could be received across the world.
“Ryan, you are a good man with a good heart,” Kennedy said, quoting from the film. “And it’s hard for a good man to be a king.”
Several feet away, Coogler’s wife, Zinzi, and the Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige beamed with pride. Coogler, on the other hand, looked like he wanted to sink through the floor.
A few days later, when I met Coogler for coffee, he burst out laughing at the memory of his modesty. “It’s easier to listen to compliments about somebody else,” he said. Indeed, Michael B. Jordan told me that he and his “Black Panther” co-star Lupita Nyong’o take constant delight in praising Coogler to his face, “just to make him squirm.”
Other directors might bask in accolades, but Coogler, a high school football star who switched vocations in college to pursue a film career, has never quite shaken the humility drilled into him by sports. “It’s so rare to get compliments from your coaches,” he said. “You’re kind of trained to not hear that, and even on a touchdown, you want to hear your coach say, ‘You should have stuck your foot down earlier than you did.’”
When it comes to award season, Coogler is of two minds on the subject. “You don’t ever want to get too comfortable sitting in rooms and listening to people telling you how great the work is,” he said. At the same time, Coogler is aware that if “Black Panther” scores major Oscar nominations, it could open the door for more directors of color. To what extent should he play the game?
Coogler’s friend, the director Ava DuVernay, said, “Many of us are conflicted about what award season is and what it means, even more so when we tell stories of a certain kind, and when we’re filmmakers of a certain kind.” Only a handful of black directors have been nominated for an Academy Award, and never more than one in the same year.
This season, another prominent contender is the “BlacKkKlansman” director Spike Lee, an idol of Coogler’s with whom he could make Oscar history. Still, the fact that Lee has never before been nominated for a best director Oscar says plenty about why Coogler is justifiably wary of award season and why, it’s rumored, he turned down the invitation to become an academy member himself. (When asked about it, he wouldn’t say.)
Just a few years ago, Coogler and Jordan earned Oscar buzz for their “Rocky” revival “Creed,” yet the only person nominated from the film was Sylvester Stallone, one of 20 all-white acting nominees in 2016, the second consecutive year of #OscarsSoWhite. Decision makers at the academy have taken great pains since then to diversify membership, but will they come around on Coogler?
Despite the fact that he has made a landmark film, organizations like the Golden Globes and the Directors Guild of America have so far excluded the “Black Panther” director from their final five. True to form, Coogler is less concerned with his own chances and would rather take advantage of this award season to tout the contributions of his crew, many of whom would also make history if they find favor with Oscar.
“I’m not a painter or a novelist — I work in an art form where I have a lot of help,” Coogler said. “I’ve got hundreds of people helping bring this film to life, and a lot of people on the street don’t know that.”
MOST SUPERHERO MOVIES only have one significant role for a woman, and that is another mold that “Black Panther” is happy to break: Though the film’s lead is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the young king of Wakanda seeks the counsel of many wise women around him, providing Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright and Angela Bassett with prominent parts.
Coogler, too, likes to surround himself with accomplished women, and the crew of “Black Panther” is unusual among blockbusters for its large number of female department heads. They include the director of photography Rachel Morrison and production designer Hannah Beachler, who both worked on Coogler’s first feature, “Fruitvale Station,” as well as Ruth E. Carter, the veteran costume designer responsible for Wakanda’s striking looks.
“We liked to joke that we were his Dora Milaje,” said Morrison, referring to T’Challa’s female bodyguards. “Me and Hannah would probably both take a bullet for him.”
The 40-year-old Morrison, who became the first woman ever nominated for a cinematography Oscar last year, for “Mudbound,” is also the first female director of photography to work on a Marvel Studios film. Beachler, 48, was the first woman to work as a production designer for the superhero studio.
“I loved looking around every day at all these women in positions we’ve worked so hard to get to,” Beachler said. “Because of that, we worked extra hard for Ryan and for the opportunity we’d been given, but we can do this. We are professionals alongside our male counterparts.”
The 58-year-old Carter has been working as a costume designer since Spike Lee’s 1988 film, “School Daze,” yet the many female department heads of “Black Panther” felt to her like the start of something new.
“We cut past any of the normal bureaucracy of male dominance, where they may want to overtake the conversation or need to be leader of the idea,” Carter said, praising Coogler’s willingness to listen to women. “You don’t have to be overbearing to get your point to him — he’s open in that way. With that calmness and humility, the gate opens: ‘Hello, I have this to offer.’”
Coogler is quick to duck credit for employing so many women in major roles. “In each one of the circumstances where I’ve worked with these incredible filmmakers that happen to be women, they were the best people for the job,” he said. Then why is it so hard for other directors to follow suit? “I don’t know that I get it myself,” Coogler said. “If you aren’t opening up to find people who are truly the best, then that can limit you.”
While the rest of Hollywood tries to make its film sets look more like the real world by employing inclusion riders, Coogler has simply hired diverse crews and casts all along. With collaborators like Morrison and Beachler, as well as actors like Jordan, Coogler sees what they have to offer and makes the industry see, too. “But if you think that’s easy, you don’t know anything about Hollywood,” DuVernay said.
She noted that even before “Black Panther,” Coogler was using “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed” to center black men who are not periphery players but heroes, lovers, fathers and sons — a rarity in this industry. “He has this effortless thing about him,” said DuVernay, “this breezy quality that makes people feel comfortable even though he’s pushing the envelope inside a system that does not make it easy to tell those kinds of stories.”
Carter has another way of describing the director. “He comes from Oakland, he wears his high fade with locs on the top, and he plays football so he has an athletic build, but he is a gentle spirit,” she said. “And a gentle soul is not something we’re accustomed to celebrating in black men.”
THERE ARE ALL sorts of ways to make a movie. Many directors are notorious screamers, and even some of the most respected auteurs in Hollywood direct defensively, as though the other people on set might water down their vision instead of contributing to it.
Coogler goes about things differently. “My experience is that most directors who lead with ego are not so secretly very insecure or self-conscious,” Morrison said. “Ryan’s comfortable in his own skin and confident in who he is, and that allows him to turn to his D.P. and ask what she thinks of the script, or ask the writer what he thinks of the cinematography.”
“For Ryan, it’s important to have a lot of different perspectives around the table, not just his,” said Beachler. She recalled a moment on “Black Panther” when a line gave her pause and Coogler suspended shooting the scene to discuss her concerns. “He took the time to make sure I felt good about it, and safe,” Beachler said. “And that does not happen on other sets.”
For Coogler, this approach is common sense. “The more angles you have when you’re making something, the more it helps the film cut through, in my opinion,” Coogler told me. “I think that’s why this is made for the audience, at the end of the day: Film is a collective experience.”
It’s been that way for Coogler ever since he grew up in the Bay Area, when his parents would throw movie-marathon house parties for him, his two brothers, and their cousins. “I was watching high-quality stuff at an early age,” Coogler said, crediting his mother, Joselyn, for helping him become a cinephile. “We used to joke and call her IMDb, because before IMDb even came out, she used to say, ‘You see that actress there in the back corner? She played this person in that TV show.’”
When Coogler speaks about the crucial people who have helped him develop as a filmmaker, many of them are women, including his wife, Zinzi, who weighs in on casting decisions, and a college teacher, Rosemary Graham, who encouraged Coogler to take up screenwriting and still reads many of his drafts. According to Jordan, his longtime friend and muse, giving female perspectives priority is a throughline that began in Coogler’s childhood and extends throughout his work.
“The strongest warriors in Wakanda are the women, and the smartest,” Jordan noted, likening that lineage to the matriarchies found in many African-American communities. “That’s how it is in our households and our culture, and that’s what our family dynamic is made out of.”
Even today, Coogler continues to live in the Bay Area near his parents. “I’m thankful to have a big family that’s still honest with me,” he said, noting that “Black Panther” pivots on the conflict between T’Challa and Jordan’s orphaned Killmonger, both of whom he can sympathize with. “The fundamental difference between those two characters,” Coogler said, “is that one grew up with a community that loved him and nurtured him, and the other had the opposite.”
Having been so nurtured, perhaps it’s no surprise that Coogler wants to pay it forward. In 2007, Coogler, about to begin film school at the University of Southern California, told the East Bay Times about what he hoped to achieve in Hollywood. Instead of settling down in Los Angeles someday, his goal was to bring the film industry back to the impoverished parts of Richmond and Oakland, where he grew up.
“It will be something the people can point to and kids can see it, saying, ‘I can do that,’” the young Coogler said then.
As my coffee with Coogler concluded, I pulled the article up on my phone and noted that at the end of “Black Panther,” this is exactly what T’Challa does. After grappling with the Oakland-born Killmonger and coming to understand the crucible he was forged in, the young king flies to his defeated enemy’s home city, where he starts a high-tech outreach center that will inspire the community. By making “Black Panther,” then, Coogler has moved through T’Challa to realize a long-held goal.
As I told him that, Coogler blinked. “That’s a lot,” he said, having never considered the connection. “That’s a lot.”
And then he let out a laugh. It was a laugh I’d heard Coogler deploy every time he was paid a compliment, a laugh he uses when he doesn’t know how else to react. And then, after letting himself take in the idea for just a moment, Coogler moved on.
“Hopefully, there’s more to do,” he said.
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