Cannes Report #2: Ryan Coogler at Cannes
Ryan Coogler first traveled outside the United States in 2009, when he brought his six-minute student short Locks to the American Pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival. Four years later, his debut feature, Fruitvale Station, was selected for the festival’s Un Certain Regard lineup, and this year, in the wake of the astounding recent worldwide success of his Black Panther, Coogler returned again, this time for a master class, moderated by Elvis Mitchell—an event that saw some folks waiting in line for three hours to attend.
Met with a standing ovation when he entered the Buñuel Theatre on Thursday, Coogler smiled and crossed his arms in front of his chest, greeting the audience with the now-familiar “Wakanda Forever” salute before sitting down for the conversation. It was a wide-ranging, nearly 90-minute discussion, for which Coogler insisted that the festival organizers invite some 60 film students—many of African descent—from outside of Cannes. He says this was because in his travels to film festivals over the years he found that the audiences at panels often don’t look like him.
Coogler elaborated on that first short he had brought here years ago. In Locks, shot on 16mm with no dialogue, a young Oakland man, on his way to a barbershop to get his dreadlocks cut off, passes through a neighborhood in which other young men, also wearing dreads, are being stopped and cuffed by cops, with the sounds of helicopters overhead. “At the time everybody had that hair, so it became a trend, but it also became notorious,” recalled Coogler, whose own dreadlocks at one point extended all the way down his back. “It got to a point where people started cutting them off because the police stopped you less if you didn’t have them. There was less chance of a mistaken identity.”
The California-born Coogler attended private schools, but lived in tough neighborhoods in the Bay Area and often felt like he was caught between two worlds. An athlete and comic-book nerd while growing up, Coogler says he didn’t consider a career in the arts until a school counselor saw promise in his writing. He had been interested in movies—such as John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood (1991) and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), which his father had taken him to see; and The Fugitive (1993) was the first VHS he ever owned—but it wasn’t until Fernando Meirelles’s City of God (2003) that his interest in foreign film took root. Soon he would also discover films by Mathieu Kassovitz, Jacques Audiard, Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Joachim Trier.
Though he was attracted to making Black Panther for many reasons (he’d read the comic as a kid, and was intrigued when Marvel executives told him that they saw T’Challa as their James Bond), Coogler revealed that many people, including moderator Mitchell himself, had discouraged him from accepting the assignment, and that his friend Ava DuVernay had left the project before he landed it. Nevertheless, Coogler saw in it a Godfather-esque narrative arc that he wanted to pursue. He was drawn to “the idea of succession, stepping into shoes that you think are too big to be filled.” Yet Coogler was afraid to share that inspiration for fear that people would say he was “aiming too high” for a comic-book movie. “Saying you want to make a comic-book movie that is like a crime movie, you sound crazy,” Coogler laughed.
In preparing to shoot Black Panther, Coogler watched early James Bond films—joking that he saw the 2002 Austin Powers movie Goldmember before he even saw Goldfinger (1964)—but he also was inspired by Ron Fricke’s Baraka (1992) and Samsara (2011), the BBC series Planet Earth, Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent (2015), and Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (2014), which he called “a perfect movie.”
Black Panther also allowed him to explore an aspect of himself that became more apparent as he approached his late twenties. “When I turned 30, I almost had a crisis because I never imagined myself being that age. Twenty-five was like the magic number. You are either dead or in jail by that time,” Coogler said. “I saw a lot of evidence of it, a lot of good people who didn’t make it past that age. Whether they went to prison or whether they were murdered. Death is always around us.”
Coogler continued, “What I realized is that the transatlantic slave trade represented a type of death for us. If that makes sense. It was kind of like the death of who we were. We were taught that we could never be who were. That died. And who we were, or not, was born when they strapped chains on our ancestors. For me, this film was about acknowledging that and also reclaiming that extended history.”
The director wants Black Panther’s monumental financial success—more than $1.3 billion worldwide—to stand as an example for an industry that he hopes will back more black movies. “At the end of the day, it’s a business right? And the business is informed by all of these things that life is informed by. Colonization, institutional bias, and racism,” Coogler said, drawing an analogy between film and professional sports, where teams of white players once dominated pro leagues for fear that fans wouldn’t want to watch black athletes.
“Why can’t film have more black movies?” Coogler asked. “People say maybe these films won’t travel. For us, I don’t think that was the case. It was great to have partners in Marvel and Disney who were excited about that. We didn’t feel like we were the only ones banging the drum.”
“It’s gotta change,” Coogler added, looking to Mitchell. “I hope that me and you can leave the business in a better way than we found it. I like to think that there will be more opportunities.”