Ryan Coogler and the Empathy Machine of Story
Updated: Sep 24
“We are born into a box of space and time. We are who and when and what we are and we're going to be that person until we die. But if we remain only that person, we will never grow, and we will never change and things will never get better. Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else's life for a while. I can walk in somebody else's shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief. This is a liberalizing influence on me. It gives me a broader mind. It helps me to join my family of men and women on this planet. It helps me to identify with them, so I'm not just stuck being myself, day after day.”
My love of movies will always be a byproduct of my obsession with story. Anything with a good tale to it immediately strikes my interest, and I've spent a few years now exploring that feeling and the reasons behind such a connection to the stories we tell. The above quote by Roger Ebert accurately pinpoints one of the main attractions story has over me in that, it gives me the ability to see life through someone else's eyes, and have an experience even slightly different than my own, however fictionalized or distant it may seem. James Baldwin once wrote, “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” And while literature (and music) allow for a certain type of escapism, it is film that sometimes incorporates all the senses of the body and soul to truly transport the imagination of an individual into something purely magical and different. Altogether fantasy, but as real as we let it become.
Ryan Coogler is a director who not only understands the advantages of this specific type of cinematic brush, he is also swept up by its escapist sensibilities, even down to the simplest act of writing words on paper about people who don't exist, but whom we interact with every day. Coogler has recently received a plethora of fame due to the success of his most recent film, Black Panther, the latest installment in the ever-expanding MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), which now stands at an impressive 18 films with two more on the way this year alone. While the superhero flick is extraordinary for a variety of reasons, I have been a very big fan of the writer/director's work, and wanted to take some time to look at Coogler's career leading up to this unforgettable marker in cinematic history, as well as discuss why his films are so powerful.
Ryan Kyle Coogler was born on May 23, 1986, (just twelve days after this very writer), in Oakland, California, (as far from this writer's birthplace as you can possibly get, in more ways than one). When he was eight, his mother, a community organizer and his father, a juvenile hall probation officer, relocated the family to Richmond, CA, where he started running track and playing football. As Coogler has stated, in his new home you either played football “or otherwise.” He described his childhood as one of constantly feeling as if he was stuck between two worlds: the private Catholic school of Saint Mary's College High where he attended, while living in a self-described “difficult” neighborhood. Playing football was a way for him to feel as if he truly fit in somewhere. Through the sport and a proficiency in math and science, he got himself a scholarship to Saint Mary's College of California, where he studied chemistry, with an eye on becoming a doctor. This is where it gets interesting, and we are afforded an artist's very own superhero origin story.
At college, Coogler was required to take a creative writing course. An assignment to write a story about something emotional and personal eventually led to him being called in to meet with his professor. During the meeting, she asked Coogler the dreaded question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” He told her about wanting to be a doctor to which she inquired, “Why?” As a Black 18-year old from the Bay Area, this was not a question Coogler was used to hearing. He contemplated for a moment, answering that he thought it would be a good way to help a lot of people, and make a good living while doing it. She told him his story, which he wrote for the previously mentioned assignment, was insanely captivating and moving, and that sort of raw talent is far more rare than his skills in math and science; she believed that he may be able to help even more people with his voice as a writer, than he could with his mind as a doctor.
He returned to his dorm room, walls adorned with rap posters, and thought of all the books spanning his professor's walls. He liked books. He liked movies too. Why didn't he have any? A trip to Circuit City and $20 in his pocket led to a young Coogler picking up a special edition DVD copy of Quentin Tarantino's, Pulp Fiction (a copy this writer also owns and knows all too well), which included a CD-ROM file of the film's entire screenplay. Coogler read the script on his computer, copied the format onto his word processor, and began writing screenplays until 3am nightly. This would bring about a few years of short films, his first, Locks (2009), you can and most definitely should watch here. He eventually developed a script of the story of Oscar Grant, the 22-year old Black man who was shot and killed by a police officer in Oakland's Fruitvale BART station on the first day of 2009. Well-known actor and national treasure, Forest Whitaker, helped to produce the film and Coogler’s directorial debut, Fruitvale Station, was born.
“What makes a human heart lose sheen to be a beast?
It's compassion, light and love for the other.”
The story of Oscar Grant is a tumultuous one. Fruitvale Station (2013) sets out to dramatically cover his final twenty-four hours before meeting an unfortunate and tragic end on the platform of the titular train station. Coogler cast actor Michael B. Jordan as Oscar, (a collaboration the artists would continue on over the director's next two films). Jordan’s immersive performance and ability to charm has led to him becoming one of the most exciting and talented young actors working today, possessing an extraordinary range and those coveted leading-man chops. Jordan's approach to portraying the tragic young man, was based more on utilizing Oscar as a representation of a type of man living in this type of world, not necessarily a straight-up imitation of the man himself. A few of the scenes are fictionalized, (although, still quite breathtaking and emotional), expanding on who Oscar was, while painting a portrait of the character that represents what the themes of the movie are discussing, without ever exploiting the real man's life.
People close to Oscar Grant contributed their impressions and memories of the man to help build the narrative and characteristics of his film version. Ryan Coogler found the threads of opposing views, stitching together the pieces of both the martyred victim, and that of the drug-dealing criminal, to find the man who loved and was loved, with an instinct to protect himself and those loved ones, but who was constantly being beaten by either his surroundings, the systems in control, or (more often than not) his own decisions. This is something everyone can connect with, especially when considering Oscar was merely 22-years old. These are emotions that can run parallel to anyone, and affect even the most reserved of emotional tendencies, regardless of the specific demographic differences between the viewer and Oscar. He messed up. A lot. He continued to mess up. At the beginning of his final day, he begins to understand how his actions are negatively affecting himself and others, the very thing he swore to protect them from. He sets out to course correct, slowly, naturally. He makes amends with those he has wronged, he helps those he may have neglected in the past, and he abandons his ill-advised plans to maintain security for his family, in favor of the unknown but morally just and hopeful. He's kind to strangers, going as far as giving his grandmother's fried fish recipe to a woman buying fish at the grocery store he was recently fired from. Were it not for the events at the train station in the film's final moments, Oscar may have been victorious in conquering his demons and becoming the man everyone around him knew he could be.
Speaking of the film's final moments, once we reach the train, ho boy, do things start to get tense quick. It is an amazing emotional roller coaster of pacing, brought to full force agitation at the arrival of Kevin Durand's (LOST, 3:10 to Yuma) Officer Caruso, whose presence is immediately showcased to be one of “the shit has hit the fan.” A towering, intimidating man, he is the stand-in for the real life bogeyman that is the American police officer: one situated in a position of power, protected by laws far beyond the ones he is employed to uphold, and far too comfortable in enabling tactics of both instigation and misdirection to achieve his desired results in any situation. If there was ever a more terrifying portrayal of this harsh truth, I challenge you to find it. When the gunshot finally rings, it brings a devastating halt to the tense escalation that has been over-boiling for what feels like an eternity. In this moment, after spending Oscar's last day with him, after coming to understand and truly see what kind of person he is, time is slowed, both for himself and his friends, as well as the audience. We are faced with one of the worst possible outcomes to these events. Hope is ripped out from under our feet and Oscar, as well as we and all the people on the platform, are powerless to do anything to change it, restricted to being made to watch as the horrific inevitability of an all too familiar scenario continues to consume us.
To not feel the pain of such an act is to be truly lost.
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
Coogler's next project landed him in some decent spotlight, as he attempted to bring to life his idea to reboot the Rocky franchise by injecting it with a fresh take, while layering it in the things that make the series of boxing movies so special. Up front, I will proudly admit that I am a huge Rocky fan and Creed (2015), is undoubtedly one of the best of the series. Hell, I think it's one of the greatest movies made in the past 10 years. Utilizing the eyes of cinematographer, Maryse Alberti, (who had previously worked on the beautiful looking film, The Wrestler), Coogler brings a grit and realism to the underdog story that is the first in the series to nail the look and tone of the original 1976 film. Sylvester Stallone returns to his greatest role to knock it right out of the park. His previous installment, Rocky Balboa, showcased the actor's abilities to tune back in to one of the most popular fictional characters of all time, and still bring emotional depth to his story of perseverance and determination in the face of a world that seems set against him. That's what all the Rocky movies at their core have always been about: a fighter constantly fighting against everything in his life, including himself. As Rocky said plainly and simply, as always, in the highly underrated Rocky III, “Nothing is real if you don't believe in who you are.”
Creed takes these themes and pushes them further than they've ever gone before, making the internal fight of our hero, Adonis Johnson, the true climactic battle in a film filled with boxing rounds. Coogler takes the entire canon of tropes associated with the previous installments and subverts them to reflect his new vision of a fighter in Philly, seemingly fighting for nothing, but in actuality fighting against everything. Because, you see, Creed is more like other Rocky movies than you may think. None of the movies are really about boxing. Whether it's learning how to be a father, losing father figures, building trust with those previously seen as enemies, fighting for the right to do the one thing that makes you happy and that you know you're good at, or even just giving a good scratch to that Cold War itch the American psyche was feeling at the time, the movies are always more concerned with exploring these ideas than they are with getting to the next boxing match. Creed is about a man looking for a father figure, and coming to terms with his own understandings of being considered a mistake, made long ago by his legend father, Apollo Creed, one of the greatest fighters of all time. The film also finds Rocky Balboa, the series' previous hero, alone. He is as lost as he was in the very first few scenes of the original film. Rocky’s wife is gone, his family is gone, and his friends are few, (if you can even consider them friends). He too, is looking for a way to reconcile his sadness and pain, even if it is by finally joining his loved ones in the death that seems to finally be approaching.
But the true star of Creed is Michael B. Jordan, playing Adonis Johnson. He and Coogler construct a character of such moral depth and sadness, that we can feel his self-imposed isolation strangling him and pushing him in the wrong direction. His underdog story is quite different from Rocky's, which is interesting given the demographics at play. In the original film, Rocky is poor, desperate, (and respectfully), not very bright. Boxing, the one thing he does well, is really his only opportunity to live a meaningful life. Alternatively, Adonis is adopted by his father's widow, who is quite wealthy, allowing him to have a very nurtured upbringing in an environment free from the complications of his childhood (going in and out of juvenile detention centers for getting into fights). He has a loving mother figure, a great education and even starts out the film in a very successful job, for which he had just received an important promotion. In short, the kid is hardly down on his luck. But these things are not important to him. He wants to prove himself, (unknowingly at first), to his dead father, to prove that he is worthy of being a part of that legacy. To prove to everyone in the world, but specifically himself, that he is not a mistake; his quest to legitimize his very existence and his lot in life, is emotionally crushing and uproariously soul-lifting, all at once.
As Story Screen's resident “Daddy-Issues-Savant,” this movie really took me for a loop. Take that, and add the fact that it is yet another thrilling entry into one of my favorite film franchises, constantly pressing that, “Cry, you little baby,” button in well-deserved and believable ways, and Creed becomes a master class in building empathy with the audience. One of Creed's greatest strengths is that it works as its own movie entirely, while also servicing fans of the series, both intimately and intellectually. It is gut wrenching, heart breaking, and thought provoking, absorbingly tender and charismatically enjoyable on every level. It is especially so in its depiction of the sensual and intimate relationship that develops between Jordan's Adonis and Tessa Thompson's Bianca, whose story line is just as representative and emotionally uplifting as our main protagonist’s.
“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, cause they knew death was better than bondage.”
-Erik “N'Jadaka” Stevens, AKA Killmonger
Coogler's next film was the aforementioned Marvel joint, Black Panther, which catapulted his famed talents into worldwide recognition. Utilizing a nearly all Black cast, the film broke expectations of what a blockbuster movie can be, retrofitting the Sci-fi epic with Afro-futuristic design and a commentary on the racial divide felt not only in America, but also throughout the world. While my love of story and desire to connect with characters on-screen led me to become emotionally invested in the arcs and themes found within both Fruitvale Station and Creed, Black Panther presents a different, more specific route of connecting with Black culture and the ideas of diaspora which are permanently instilled in the African American experience.
As I was writing this article, I was afraid that in explaining my appreciation and admiration of Black Panther, and how it furthers the discussion of the representation of African Americans in cinema, that my opinions may inadvertently and unintentionally come across as exploitative or even encouraging appropriation in some critical way; “whitesplaining” as some would call it. I was hesitant beyond measure, and I wanted to be mindful and to keep a diligent amount of grace and respect for the topics that are heavily involved, not only in discussing the film, but in really experiencing it in the way it was intended to be by the director and artists behind it. I spoke with a close friend of mine and contributor to this site, Ali T. Muhammad, about these tentative and unsure thoughts and his advice was encouraging and simple: he told me he loved me, that he trusted me and that as a person who thinks the way I do I should write my truth and be honest on how the movie made me feel.
It was once written that, “It is a privilege to learn about racism instead of experiencing it your whole life.” The challenges of being aware of racial injustices, (however small or grand they may be), can be difficult for those who are not used to, or in fact required to, face them. This is precisely what many institutions have worked very hard to achieve. But by building these bridges of communication, understanding and empathy, we can see that we are all superheroes together. Just as T'Challa, our hero behind the mask of the Black Panther, says in the film's final moments, “The wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.” It is an obvious and poignant analogy for the divisive times we find ourselves in these past few years.
There is an amazing article, written by a friend of friend, Nicki Salcedo, for the Atlanta Loop, that I think perfectly communicates just what Black Panther does for African American audiences:
"Everything changed this weekend when I went to see 'Black Panther.' I decorated my face like Princess Shuri. I walked into a movie theater and closed my eyes. When I woke up, I was in Wakanda. I was there on the screen.
I was the child grieving over the death of my father.
I was the mother worried about the fate of her children.
I was the spy willing to hold my love’s hand as he grieved.
I was the sister. Silly and smart and best friend.
I was the warrior who thinks her country is worth fighting for.
I was the villain who dreams of fighting back and rising up.
I am the friend who makes mistakes.
I am the neighbor who might take you in when you have fallen."
I highly recommend checking out the full article as I think it really is one of the sweetest reviews of the film's power and impact on today's society that you are likely to come by.
Black Panther stands as a significant moment for the Black community, even if it is merely a stepping-stone towards a more representative Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera. Coogler's film has a Black Executive Producer, a Black Costume Designer, a Black Production Designer and an original Hip-hop album, created specifically for the film by a Black artist, Kendrick Lamar, which also showcases the talents of many other artists of color throughout its 14 tracks. The film stands as proof that a story featuring a more diverse cast than what we are typically used to in big budget blockbusters is an immensely powerful act of supporting marginalized communities. As the film closes, T'Challa stands in front of a young Black boy in the streets of Oakland, who asks him who he is. This is a slight call back to the closing moment of Marvel's first film, Iron Man, where Tony Stark stands before the press and announces unabashedly, that he is Iron Man. This scene, however, cuts to black before our hero can respond, because he is not just the Black Panther; he is possibility. He is the promise of hope and change and strength made physical, an embodiment of a hero that looks like so many children around the world, telling them that they too can be strong, that they too are important, that they too matter. This is the sentiment at the core of why representation is so vital to the well-being of all marginalized cultures and communities. It is the proactive act of fighting back against a system, one that seems designed to perpetuate the 100% false assumption that class should be based on race, gender, sexual orientation or any other demographic. It is using art as a political statement to fight back with cultural celebration in the form of a blockbuster movie event that is part of one of the largest and most successful film franchises of all time.
Also, it's a really good movie!
Black Panther utilizes the action and heart that Marvel has come to be known for, enthralling us with an original new world within the one we've spent quite some time in over that past ten years. Our hero T’Challa, is given a classic lesson to learn through the events of the movie, one that has hung above the great superhero tales of old: Peter Parker/Spider-Man's life motto, gifted to him by his Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Wakanda's highly advanced technology, a by-product of centuries spent developing different uses for the Vibranium that is found only in their country's area, has led their civilization to flourish. Even though their isolationist ideals has left Wakandans undamaged by the colonization that has historically ravaged the rest of their side of world, it has also held them back from helping those in need. T'Challa learns, (through the story’s villain), revelations of a haunted past that both his family and his country have kept hidden, even from its own people. He learns that using Wakanda’s technology, not only to help his people and people like them, but the world as a whole, is the only choice a good man can make when faced with the atrocities that seem to plague most corners of the Earth.
This is precisely what Killmonger, the aforementioned “villain” of the film, seeks to accomplish throughout the story, only he goes about it in a much more insidious way, his end goals being a bit more intense and aggressive than simply achieving world peace. While the film opens with T'Challa wanting to carry on with tradition in his new role as King of Wakanda, Killmonger seeks to use Wakanda's resources and technology to arm Black people worldwide, giving them a chance to balance the scales in the war being waged on them by the powerful. He even goes so far as to claim that Wakanda’s weapons might even allow their culture to rise above those who have previously oppressed them, forcing the current “masters of the world,” into the role of the subservient. Killmonger’s abandonment by his own people, and the soon-to-follow abusive nature of his upbringing in America, has filled him with a contempt and rage that many people watching the film will know all too well.
This is why you see so many people writing articles and tweets about how “King Killmonger” was right. To be clear, he isn't; he is viciously lashing out at anything that he can direct his well-honed targets at, ultimately becoming a twisted version of both him, and the tyrannical forces that have suppressed him and those like him for centuries. But, like, we get it. The dude's pissed off, and has every right to be. It can be hard to choose between the two key figures of a classic adage: “How shall we achieve the prosperity and equality we desire? By the sword, or by the extension of the hand?” Both kings are correct in their approach to how Wakanda can best service both themselves and the world, it's just that they are each on extreme opposite sides of where the true approach resides. If you have the power to help, and you do nothing, you are culpable to the events of the situation. Is genocide the way to go? Absolutely not. But hiding from the troubles of the world will never solve anything, and the world has tons of problems it needs to work out. Also, I don't really think Killmonger had a real plan for after all the weapons were dispersed to his people across the globe. I can't really see that guy leading a new frontier into the future, or at least not one I'd want to be a part of anyway. He kinda just wants to blow stuff up and get some of that sweet tasting vengeance. Helping to bring about a Black revolution on a global scale is a reasonable and ultimately, good thing to strive for, but his methods are toxic and his vision is blinded by the wrongs that have undoubtedly been done to him.
On the topic of Killmonger, Michael B. Jordan hits it out of the park again. Much of his villain's relatability comes from Jordan's charismatic performance, featuring equal moments of viciousness and vulnerability, creating a character that we may be rooting against, but still fully understand and at times, sympathize with. This element, of both writing and performance, is key to creating some of the best cinematic bad guy's we've ever been lucky enough to have grace our screens. Couple that with our big bad basically operating as a mirror for our hero T’Challa, forcing each of them to reconsider their own morals and virtues, and you've got yourself a damn good antagonist.
Coogler's film also gives us an immensely needed course correction as far as gender representation goes, gifting us with four strong, smart, loving and capable women who are every bit as important and heroic as our male protagonist. These are not characters simply designed to back up T'Challa, giving him moral support and some super cool gadgets. His mother, Ramonda, played by Angela Bassett, is a guiding force of courage and protection, a symbol to all Wakandans of unity and civility. Danai Gurira plays Okoye, the General of Wakanda’s elite group of female bodyguards, the Dora Milaje. She matches T'Challa's warrior abilities and virtuous demeanor, always putting the Kingdom of Wakanda's safety above her own. Lupita Nyong'o plays Nakia, a former love of T'Challa, who left the security of Wakanda's borders to help those around the world who could not fight for themselves. But the rock star of the group is most definitely Letitia Wright as T'Challa's younger and way funnier sister, Shuri. She steals every scene she is in, landing jokes and moments of key exposition with ease, making this writer very excited to see her again in just a few months, when she returns as the tech-savvy lil’ sis with a heart of gold in Avengers: Infinity War.
Ryan Coogler has given us three wholly different films in his professional career that spans a mere five years: a hypnotic and realistic look at a man doomed to always be under the boot of a system designed to keep him where he is, a reboot/sequel to one of the most iconic film franchises of all time, that also acts as a meditation on self-worth and building a family when we feel as though we have no one left. And a big budget, record-breaking-blockbuster-hype-machine that gives the popcorn eaters their money's worth while also delving into ideas of repressive rage, the impacts of colonization, historical racism, and still acts as a celebration of and loving tribute to Black culture, all while completely changing the game of what audiences (and studios) consider blockbuster cinematic spectacles to be. This guy is doing very, very good work, and we should all be very, very excited about what he's going to give us for the rest of his surely long and poignant career.
Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He lives in Beacon, NY with his cat who is named after Kevin Bacon's character from Friday the 13th.