The Humble Hero Maker: How Director Ryan Coogler Is Shaping Pop Culture

The Humble Hero Maker: How Director Ryan Coogler Is Shaping Pop Culture

Art Streiber/VARIETY/AUGUST

Each of the director's first three films has been not just been bigger and more successful than the one that came before – but also arguably better

Each of the director's first three films has been not just been bigger and more successful than the one that came before – but also arguably better

Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya has a simple explanation for how director Ryan Coogler, 31, got so mind-blowingly talented.

“He’s an alien,” says Kaluuya, who plays W’Kabi in Coogler’s Black Panther, which took just six weeks to become the highest grossing superhero ever in the U.S., and has already taken in more than $1 billion worldwide. “This is a man who made this movie at 30 years old – come on, man! Are you kidding me? Doing Fruitvale, Creed and Black Panther before you’re 32? What is that?”

Indeed, maybe not since Steven Spielberg has a young filmmaker arrived so hot right out of the gate. Each of Coogler’s first three films has been not just bigger and more successful than the one that came before – in Black Panther’s case, by an order of magnitude – but also arguably better. He seems like a director who’s going to be making great films for a very long time. “Ryan is a super humble guy who will talk about how much he learned from everyone involved in the process,” says Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige, a producer of Black Panther. “But the truth is, he made us a better studio and better filmmakers. The way he deliberates and thinks things through, the way he communicates with his cast and crew – everything about the movie radiates that.”

“He’s intuitive, man,” says Daniel Kaluuya, who plays W’Kabi in Coogler’s Black Panther. “He just has this vision.”

Coogler was born in 1986 in Oakland, California. His mom, Joselyn, worked for a faith-based non-profit, where she started as an executive assistant and worked her way up to CFO. (“My mom is mad impressive,” Coogler says.) His dad, Ira, was a counselor at a juvenile detention facility. “It was a job he enjoyed, but it was also intense,” says Coogler. “A few of the kids he was closest to ended up losing their lives.” When Coogler got old enough, he worked there, too. “It can traumatize you in ways you’re not even realizing,” he says of the job. “Anytime you’ve got to repeatedly put handcuffs on children...”

In high school, Coogler was a star wide receiver and captain of the football team who earned a scholarship to St. Mary’s College in Oakland. He planned to study chemistry and become a doctor, but his freshman year, a creative-writing professor who was impressed by his work told him he should think about becoming a screenwriter instead. Coogler tried it and liked it. “I was interested in telling stories about characters like I grew up with,” he says. “Stories about people of color, but multilayered.”

After graduation he started film school at USC. One Christmas, he was home in the Bay Area working as a bouncer at a rave when a friend told him an unarmed black man had been shot and killed by police on an Oakland subway platform. Oscar Grant was 22, the same age as Coogler, and the director was struck by how easily it might have been him. Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, about Grant’s final hours before he was killed, went on to win Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize in 2013.

“For me, movies often start when I’m dealing with something deeply personal,” Coogler says. For Fruitvale, it was Grant’s tragic death and the way the criminal justice system too often fails young black men. For his follow-up, the 2015 Rocky reboot Creed, it was his father’s love for Sylvester Stallone’s franchise and a life-threatening illness his father suffered, which inspired Rocky Balboa’s bout with lymphoma in the film. And for Black Panther, it was Coogler’s struggle to understand his own identity as an African-American and the racial disparities he’d seen at the juvenile facility. “So I’m like, ‘Yo — I get to make a movie about this really profound stuff, that speaks to what I loved about comic books as a kid and what I love as a filmmaker now, and I get to work with this awesome studio and learn things while I make it?’ ” Coogler recalls thinking. “It was too good an opportunity to pass up.”

Actors love Coogler for his incisive, hands-on style. “He just sees people,” says Kaluuya. “He sees your core, sees what you’re about. And he knows how to tap into that and engage it for you.” He’s not afraid to get literally hands-on, either: “He’ll do anything to get you going,” says Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman, who tells stories of Coogler sparring with him on set to get him fired up before big scenes. “My athletic days are long behind me,” Coogler says. “But if you get in front of a fighter and weave a little bit, their body can’t help but weave back. So I’d do that with Michael [B. Jordan] when we did Creed, and I did that with Chad.”

Even working inside a multibillion-dollar Disney conglomerate like Marvel, Coogler has kept his process impressively intimate, drawing on the same tight-knit young crew he’s used for all three of his films — among them composer Ludwig Goransson, production designer Hannah Beachler and director of photography Rachel Morrison (who recently became the first female cinematographer nominated for an Oscar). But so far, his most important collaborator has been his muse Jordan, who’s starred in every Coogler film — playing the leads in Fruitvale and Creed, and arguably stealing Black Panther as the sympathetic villain, Killmonger.

“We’ve got a good thing going,” Jordan says. “I was lucky enough to find my director so early. We want to make each other’s movies for the rest of our careers. It’s been a fun ride, and we feel like we’re just getting started.”