On the talents of Ryan Coogler: from Sundance to Wakanda

Ryan Coogler is a history maker. Barely a week and a half since its release, his gargantuan Black Panther has already broken various records, with an early box office taking to rival that of Star Wars and a near-perfect score of 97% amongst critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Much like Star Wars, or perhaps Lord of The Rings, Black Panther is the kind of media that transcends ‘film’ and becomes a cultural event; the kind that is impossible not to discuss with friends, colleagues, or family. The reception to Coogler’s contribution to the seemingly endless Marvel Cinematic Universe is well-deserved; Black Panther is phenomenal. It is arguably the most outwardly political film in the MCU’s history (and is all the better for it), features a fantastic cast and utilises every one of them to create likeable, multi-dimensional characters, and also includes one of the most memorable antagonists of any recent superhero movie. Put simply, Black Panther is an incredible film and stands out amongst a sea of tired Marvel features.

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In the wake of its success, attention has rightfully been turned towards Coogler; a director that I have admired since his debut in 2013, with the devastating Fruitvale Station. Coogler’s first feature is a stunning piece, one which pulls no punches in telling the true story of a young, unarmed black man killed by a police officer on New Year’s Eve. It stars Michael B. Jordan, who may well turn out to be the De Niro to Coogler’s Scorsese, as Oscar Grant, the victim of the shooting, and is easily one of the most heart-breaking movies of recent years. Coogler made the decision to chronicle just twenty-four hours in the life of Grant in Fruitvale Station, yet, by the time we reach the film’s finale, it feels as if we have spent years with him, for we know of his wants, his mistakes, his past, and his dreams. There is not one part of Coogler’s debut that feels unbelievable, not one bit that appears unrealistic. Every moment feels authentic and the howl given by Octavia Spencer, as Grant’s mother, following the confirmation that her son is dead, is terribly real. Ultimately, Fruitvale Station is a deeply moving, quiet tragedy and helped to showcase Coogler’s immense talent long before Black Panther was even on the cards.

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After Fruitvale came the film that would catapult Coogler into the mainstream and move him away from Sundance into wider circles. In 2015, Creed was released and saw Coogler reunite with Jordan in what some feared would turn out to be another disappointing entry in the Rocky series, much like the anthology’s fourth and fifth instalments. However, thanks largely to Coogler’s brilliant direction and Jordan’s impassioned performance, Creed was a success with audiences and critics alike. Where some of the recent Rocky sequels had failed, where they felt manufactured and melodramatic, Creed felt as if it was made with genuine care by Coogler. It returned the series to its roots by focusing on the story of the underdog without a trace of sentimentality. With Creed, Coogler proved that he was capable of making films outside of the indie world but that he was not the type to sell out, either. Even with a large budget, and a major audience, Coogler managed to resist falling foul of any tropes and also successfully employed the emotional subtlety that made Fruitvale Station so great. Creed signalled what was to come in Coogler’s Black Panther, by showing us just what Coogler could do with a huge, mainstream piece.

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With two heavily lauded films under his belt at the age of twenty-eight following the release of Creed, it appeared that there was nowhere for Coogler to go but up. Since then, up, indeed, is where Coogler has headed. In little under two weeks, Black Panther has taken the world by storm and will surely be remembered as one of the finest entries in the MCU. Praise must go to Coogler for his ability to elevate Black Panther beyond the clichés of Marvel and create a truly fantastic film; it is no easy feat to make something so original and memorable when under the thumb of a major studio, so often preoccupied solely with making money. While more blockbusters may come calling, it is clear that Coogler will not let go of his artistry for the sake of widespread entertainment. A director such as this is a rare find and, so, we should treasure Coogler’s talents while he sets the future on fire.

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