Students: We don’t have an African American Studies program here.
Students: There is no African American Studies program here.
Coogler: … (nods slowly; rubs forehead in disbelief)
Coogler: Ya’ll doing something about that, right?
Director and screenwriter, Ryan Coogler, visited the University of Chicago students last week to deliver the annual George E. Kent Lecture. Twenty-nine and currently a force in the film industry, he walked to the podium—the creator of two award-winning films, and holding the keys to a Marvel movie—and told us he was nervous. Wait, what? That sounds like one of those obligatory somethings a “regular” guy would say; an artifice of humility that folks use when they’ve been asked to do something important, like speak to young black students at a major university that lacks an African American Studies program.
As the night progressed, we all in attendance learned that Coogler’s feet are, in fact, planted firmly on the ground. The audience was continually impressed by how “regular” he is. After giving a few words of encouragement toward the plight of black students at a predominantly white institution and giving thanks for being invited as the speaker for such a prestigious event, he casually asked his fiancé if she had lotion with her. She tossed a small tube up to him on stage and, after applying a bit to his palm, he tossed it back to her before taking his seat for the Q&A with Chase Woods, political chair of the Organization of Black Students at the University of Chicago. It was a “blackest moment ever,” if ever there was one.
Another was his long-noted expletive when asked what new media he was consuming. He drew a blank. 2015 was a blur since he’d both shot and released Creed the same year. After racking his brain (and with a bit of help from the audience) he remembered Kendrick Lamar and Drake released music, and even mentioned some comics he’s into. Coogler’s list of all-time favorite movies exemplified his randomness as a human, and complexity as a director. The crowd responded with gleeful laughter when he mentioned The Mighty Ducks and respectful applause when he mentioned La Haine: a film often referred to as a French Do the Right Thing. His range had everyone by the ears.
What may have been the most affecting aspects of Coogler’s appearance were 1) his thoughtful attention to each question, and 2) his unabashed black identity. Coogler’s tendency to answer intelligently and completely was refreshing, given the current campaign season. The conversation veered toward some of the socio-political happenings of the day and he encouraged us as the thinkers and seekers of answers to “pop the hood” on some of the bigger questions; to get to the root of the something , such as The Academy Awards, and find out its components. Ask how it’s possible that there are no people of color nominated for any major categories. When the director was asked what he thought of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, there was a pregnant pause. A nervous laughter bubbled in the crowd, tinged with anxiety that he may try to execute a socio bob and political weave. Nope. He asked if there were history majors in the audience. Then followed up by explaining history as a series of evolving “movements.” He drew connections between slavery and the exploited free labor of the prison system. Left hook. He made clear the link between the minority student frustration on campus (see leaked racist emails) and the importance of an African American Studies Program at UChicago. Right cross. He stressed that the hashtag is simply a symbol of the need to “go get it,” whatever “it” may be for this generation. Uppercut.
Coogler admits growing more inquisitive with age. The relentless desire for answers dictates the content of his films. He uses filmmaking as the vehicle to seek those answers (i.e. how Oscar Grant can be shot and killed while handcuffed and lying on his stomach was seed for Fruitvale Station). But when it comes to his film’s audiences, he doesn’t compromise the question for the sake of appeasement. Becoming a change agent is a difficult choice, but Coogler refers to films as “acts of journalism” that get people discussing subject matter that needs action or resolution.
Following the lecture and Q&A, was a reception that consisted of a more intimate group of students and program board members invited to chat with Coogler and his fiancé at the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. Perhaps among 25 people, he spoke more candidly about some of his experiences growing up and how he battles the identity crisis within “a system that divides successful African Americans from their people” (thanks for the quote, George). It’s easy to get a bit of notoriety and separate from who and what one knows, but he’s found his balance. His brother now inhabits his old bedroom from their childhood home, and has since fashioned it into a makeshift music studio to produce songs for the soundtracks of both of Coogler’s films. His relationship with his father spawned the idea for Creed. And he also let us know that his perspective is his greatest asset. Blackness and youth present a unique view to the Academy’s older, white demographic; the writer/director possesses a cultural currency that they need. Minority status does have advantages. Being able to seek, connect, and collaborate with other minorities is a benefit and he encouraged students to do the same on campus, because the dynamic doesn’t change after graduation.
As the night wound down, after revealing that Sylvester Stallone had actually thanked his director in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, informing us how he was able to reflect authenticity in his characters, discussing the gender politics that exist in the film industry, and referencing the pressure of placing the crown and burden of race or gender on any one person (see Ta-Nehisi Coates or Ava DuVernay), I was able to ask Coogler a question: given the way he speaks (his Bay Area accent is quite prominent), his youth (he was 24 when he began shooting Fruitvale), and his undeniable blackness (remember the lotion?)—how was he able to walk into a room full of old white people and convince them to let him spend their money to make a film? To put it plainly, he was comfortable. He knows he’s good at his job and the other people in the room aren’t doing him a favor; they’re going into business with him. It’s a collaborative effort that is a boon for all parties involved. Once he gained the cachet of respectability politics, he was and is able to walk into any room, whether in a suit and wingtips or jeans and sneaks, and belong there. Coogler deserves his place in the industry just as much as anyone else. And for that, I am proud.