How ‘Black Panther’ Director Ryan Coogler Created an Ode to Black Culture for the Ages
The filmmaking genius behind ‘Fruitvale Station’ and ‘Creed’ has crafted a dazzling superhero blockbuster that both celebrates and pays homage to the black experience.
It was predestined that Ryan Coogler direct Black Panther.
As he told The Washington Post this week, after an older cousin got him hooked on comics, he visited a comic book shop and asked if there were any black superheroes. That’s when he discovered T’Challa, King of Wakanda, also known as the Black Panther. Coogler has always imagined he’d direct a superhero film and it’s kismet that it was Black Panther, because there’s no other director I can think of suited to deliver our first visit to Wakanda.
Much like Taika Waititi delivered a brand-new take on Thor that was dripping in his New Zealand culture and personal aesthetic with Thor: Ragnarok, Coogler has managed the same with his first Marvel film—and it’s not only unlike any other superhero film you’ve ever seen, it’s unlike any other film you’ve seen. For many directors, the Marvel machine can be grueling and bone-crushing but it’s no surprise that Coogler excelled in it. After all, we should’ve seen him coming.
In the wake of his stunning debut Fruitvale Station he threw himself into Creed, a spinoff of the Rocky franchise. It was clear the film had several beats it had to hit as a Rocky film; but Coogler was also interested in telling a story about a protagonist who looked like him. He wasn’t going to merely have Apollo Creed’s son replicate Rocky Balboa’s journey. He was going to give Adonis Creed, expertly portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, a uniquely black rite of passage.
From the scenes where Tessa Thompson’s Bianca introduces him to Philly cuisine to Adonis braiding her hair to Adonis’ conversations with his mom, it’s an unapologetically black film that offers a unique perspective on the franchise we once knew. Coogler exudes the knowledge of a genre fan while infiltrating it to tell a story that a younger him might have gravitated toward in a comic book shop.
He brings that same attention to detail and diversion from the norm with Black Panther. The film starts in Oakland after all, as he takes a moment to connect black audiences with a familiar surrounding before unmooring them and thrusting the world of Wakanda upon them. Even then, there are moments that feel unique to a superhero story as characters talk about the African diaspora, the slave trade, human bondage, and what we owe to our communities. But Coogler isn’t merely educating here—he’s replicating conversations that black men and women have had for decades in their barbershops, their salons, their cookouts.
It’s hilarious that black filmmakers are often thought of as unqualified for films that are traditionally meant for white audiences. By the very nature of consumer culture in America, the assumed audience is always white. Black filmmakers like Coogler have therefore ingested white culture in their films, their nuances, and how they tell stories. He knows how their cinematic nourishment works and in turn responds, “Don’t feed me yours, because your food does not endure.”
This is a film with a soundtrack by Kendrick Lamar. It’s a film that allows black women to be fully-realized characters and not merely exist but thrive. There may be more black women in this film than white women in the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (I wouldn’t be surprised). For Coogler, women are an integral part of the black community. You often see superheroes with love interests who give them a reason to fight or someone to save in the third act. But the women in Coogler’s films drive story and can save themselves. If our hero has them in his life, it’s not as an accessory—it’s as a living breathing part of his own aura.
Coogler has proven himself to be a world-builder—one who can even create entire communities and nations within the imaginations of other franchises. It’s not too dissimilar from Fruitvale Station, where he told the story of a black man’s life taken in a world that barely acknowledges black bodies. Coogler fully acknowledges the black body, whether it’s boxing, defending a nation, or delivering a poetic soliloquy to the restless bones of its ancestors.
Now that he’s breathed life into black bodies…what is next for Coogler? Hopefully Hollywood affords him the opportunity to continue to tell unique stories that his audience—and presumably his own soul—craves. He’s breathed his own life into the universes of others; the next step is creating his own universe where the black body doesn’t crave acknowledgment—it’s as celebrated as the royalty of Wakanda.