Ryan Coogler is the king. Of box office, that is. When his adaptation of the Marvel’s Black Panther comic book series hit theaters in February no one, let alone the director of Fruitvale Station and Creed himself, could have predicted just how big it would be. Defying all expectations, both in its opening ($202M where experts had low-balled it in the mid-100s) and it’s still going strong, having spent its 12th week in the box office top 10. It’s at $694M in the US alone and is the highest grossing superhero/comic book film of all time. It showed earlier this week as part of the festival’s Cinema de la Plage in a packed beach screening.
When Coogler sat down with Elvis Mitchell on May 10 at the Cannes Film Festival it was revealed to the packed audience (that included Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, aka Grammy-award winner The Weeknd) that he had brought 30 film students from Paris and Africa with him to listen and watch the interview. But his choice was two-fold; not only was he giving these burgeoning filmmakers a great opportunity to attend the world’s most prestigious festival but for Coogler it was also because he’s done many talks and at many festivals and “it can be challenging when you look out and you don’t see people with faces that look like yours. I remember being in film school and my first time out of the country was at this festival. It changed my life as a filmmaker.”
When asked what the most daunting aspect of making Black Panther was he responded, “Every movie is daunting. Around the time you say yes, it’s crazy. There’s a good chance my life will be different after this. My wife made me go back to the comic book shop in Oakland to remind me of the awesomeness of Black Panther and when I discovered it. You gotta find that kid, go back in time, and tell him he’s going to direct Black Panther.” Another moment was that, on the first day of shooting in Georgia, they were just down the street from the church where Martin Luther King, Jr. is buried. If that shadow wasn’t enough, his daughter came to the set to meet Coogler.
When Mitchell asks Coogler about the strong female characters in Black Panther, who take over during a section of the film, Coogler responded gleefully, “That part of the movie you feel like you’re watching something fresh and new,” he said. “That part of it was exciting. We have these actresses who could easily carry their own movie,” he said, mentioning Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, and Angela Bassett. “Some of them have before. We were so fortunate. I would watch a movie with them!” Pushed by Mitchell if he would consider an all-female spin-off he said, “Oh man,” Coogler said. “That would be amazing if the opportunity came up. They did it in the comic-book version.”
One of the best moments of the interview was the affection with which Coogler talked about his family and neighborhood and how Oakland culture tied into his first experience in Africa. “My relationship with my parents was the most important thing in my life until I got married,” he said. “My mom was IMDb before there was IMDb. She went to The Fugitive with my dad and came home and acted it all out for me. She loved gangster movies, everything Scorsese.” On his first visit to Africa (in Capetown, South Africa) he remarked that he was staying in a “Disney-approved hotel. Looked like I was still in San Francisco.” He ventured out into the suburbs and found “They had a ritual I attended but I called it a house party. Kids in the front of the house. Women were cooking. Older women were running the show, the younger women were their princesses. The men were in the back cooking the meat, drinking. All from the same beer. We passed the bottle around the same way. It wasn’t beer, it was Hennessy but still, it was the same. Oh, this is an African thing we’ve been doing the whole time, like we invented it in the states.” He said that when he would speak and his ‘Oakland accent’ came out people would sort of dismiss him since he didn’t speak the language. So, he stopped talking. “I stopped speaking. People would come up to me and speak different languages. I felt a sense of connectedness, it happened all over the continent.”
Asked by Mitchell what his influences were for Black Panther, and specifically for Wakanda, Coogler said that he used The Godfather to help him focus on creating the crime family drama elements and Baraka, Planet Earth and Planet Earth II to achieve the look of a Wakanda, Africa. He also said he was inspired by Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, and Jordan Peele during the making of Black Panther as each of those filmmakers was finding major success and accolades at the time. “Ava, Barry, Jordan. I had people who were inspiring me the whole time. Listening to Kendrick’s music. Making me feel emotions and telling our stories. Staying tapped into our community.”
By the 90-minute Q&As end, Coogler made what I felt was an illuminating, if not surprising, statement. “I didn’t know there were any black people working at Marvel,” he said, to scattered snickering. But he found them and found allies in a mutual goal for Black Panther, to make a ‘James Bond’ film. “At the end of the day it’s a business and the business is informed by all these things that life is informed by,” he said. “Colonization, institutional, bias, racism. All these things. The business was built amongst all these things, but the truth is what I kept telling myself is because I was an athlete. I’m not anymore. There was a time. Now, I’m like ‘Can I make it up that ramp without falling?’ But, there was a time not that long ago that my dad would tell me that owners of American baseball teams would say ‘I don’t know if we put black and Hispanic players on the field that people would still come to the games.’ There was a time in basketball where there were no black people in the NBA and it’s because people thought people wouldn’t come to the games. I was born in ’86. I came up in the ’90s I think in the NBA everybody’s black. Everyone in the stands is usually a mixed bag, but mostly white but they have on the black players’ jerseys. That’s the world I grew up in. So, for me, it was ‘Why can’t film have more black movies?’ People say maybe these films don’t travel but for us, it was like, ‘I don’t know if that’s the case.’ And it was great to have partners in Marvel and Disney who were excited about that as well. We didn’t feel like we were the only ones banging the drum.”
Up next for Coogler: he’s producing the Creed sequel but handed over the reins to Steven Caple, Jr. and is working on Wrong Answer about an Atlanta math teacher who altered test scores in order to secure funding for his school.