When it comes to Black Panther, the latest release from Marvel Studios, there is no shortage of big names attached to the project. Some of the big names are the film’s stars, actors like Michael B. Jordan or Lupita Nyong’o, while another big name is rapper Kendrick Lamar, who curated the film’s soundtrack. Yet perhaps one of the most interesting names involved with the movie is it’s writer and director Ryan Coogler.
Coogler has very quickly made a name for himself in Hollywood despite only having directed two movies prior to Black Panther. It’s only been a few years since Coogler made his debut with Fruitvale Station, the true story of the last day of Oscar Grant III’s life. The film was one of the most talked about movies of 2013 and also featured a breakthrough performance by Jordan, a veteran of television shows like The Wire, Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. Coogler and Jordan teamed two years later for Creed, a Rocky spin-off that helped pave the way for both men to be involved with Black Panther.
Black Panther is Coogler’s coming out party, though. The film is one of the most anticipated movies of 2018 and nearly every early review has been positive. It’s currently scoring a 97% at Rotten Tomatoes with 94% of users saying they are excited to see it.
Here is what you need to know about Ryan Coogler.
1. Coogler Played Football in College, Even After the First School He Played For Got Rid of Their Football Team
Coogler is originally from Oakland, California and has made California his home for his entire life. He is one of three children, all boys, born to Joselyn Thomas Coogler and Ira Coogler. His mother is a community organizer and his father is a probation counselor at a juvenile correctional facility.
Growing up, Coogler was active in sports, playing football and running track. He went on to play football on a football scholarship for Saint Mary’s College of California, where he red-shirted his first year. In 2004 though, St. Mary’s dropped it’s football program, a move that came as a surprise to everyone, including the team’s coach, Jay Lawson.
“I was shocked,” he said at the time. “I had no idea that they were even considering giving up football.”
Coogler was quick to move on. He transferred to Sacramento State, where he was given a scholarship to play wide receiver. He played four seasons for the Hornets, finishing his college career with 112 receptions, six touchdowns and over twelve hundred yards. Coogler graduated in 2008 with a degree in finance.
2. Coogler Became Interested in Film-Making While in College
Back when he was at St. Mary’s, Coogler had been encouraged to take up screenwriting by his English professor and after transferring to Sacramento State, he continued to purse screenwriting, taking film classes when he was able to. Coogler says that he also used write and when he was younger, he’d write comic books and coming up with alternate story lines for stuff he watched on television and read.
“Before playing football, I didn’t fit in anywhere,” he said in 2013. “My parents didn’t have a lot of money, which they spent on our education, to send us to catholic private school in Oakland, mostly black. The other kids had more money than I did. I started school early, I was young. So I’d come back to my hood and read.”
After graduating, Coogler went on to study film-making at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. He directed four short films while at attending USC: Locks in 2009, and in 2011 he directed Fig, Sculptor and Gap. He wrote both The Sculptor and Locks.
Of the four films he directed, three of them either won and an award or was nominated for one. Locks was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and Coogler took home the Dana and Albert Broccoli Award for Filmmaking Excellence. Gap won the Jack Nicholson Award for Achievement in Directing, an award that Sculptor was also up for. Fig was nominated for Outstanding Independent Short Film by the Black Reel Awards, which is annual awards ceremony hosted by the Foundation for the Augmentation of African-Americans in Films.
3. Coogler’s First Teamed Up With Michael B. Jordan For His First Full-Length Film ‘Fruitvale Station’
Fruitvale Station was being developed at the same time Coogler was shooting Locks. The film tells the story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old black man who was killed by a transit police officer in Oakland on New Year’s Day 2009. The incident led to riots in the Bay Area and for Coogler, the story was deeply personal and immediately resonated with him.
“When I watched the footage, I couldn’t help but to see myself in Oscar. We’re the same age, from the same location, wearing the same kind of clothes, his friends looked like my friends,” he said in 2013. “I imagined: what would happen if I didn’t make it home to the people that I cared about.”
The film is a unique look at Grant’s death, with Coogler choosing to focus on the events leading up to the shooting, as opposed to focusing too much on the shooting itself. In 2013, Coogler said his decision was influenced by some of Spike Lee’s movies, movies like Do the Right Thing, The 25th Hour and Inside Man. Coogler was intrigued by the idea of following Grant through his day, allowing the audience to learn more about him by seeing him going about his day, thus creating a deeper connection with Grant.
“I thought there was lot of inherent irony in the fact it happened on New Year’s Eve, a day when people are thinking about the future, they’re the optimistic, best version of themselves, looking forward to a clean slate. I always knew I wanted to tell it in that format, spend time, let things breathe, let the audience spend time with the character.”
The film was shown at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize, as well as the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film. Soon after the film’s rights were purchased by The Weinstein Company for $2 million. Fruitvale Station would go on to win several awards, including the Humanitas Prize at Sundance, a Rising Star Award from the Black Film Critics Circle Awards, Best Directorial Debut from the National Board of Review, a Best First Film award from the New York Film Critics Circle Awards and Best First Feature Award from the Independent Spirit Awards.
Fruitvale Station would also be the first of three films Coogler would make with Jordan and based on seeming Jordan’s work on The Wire, where he plays the confused and troubled young drug dealer Wallace, he knew Jordan was perfect for the role of Grant.
“Mike was perfect for the role,” Coogler said in 2013. “In telling the story I knew I wanted to approach someone capable of carrying the film, he’s on-screen 98% of the film, the audience would have to relate to him.”
Coogler knew Jordan was going to be a star, that he “was ready to be a lead” and was more than willing to give him that opportunity.
4. Coogler’s Memories of Watching ‘Rocky’ Movies With His Father Inspired Him to Write ‘Creed’
After the success of Fruitvale Station, Coogler’s next move was to do a movie that had a deep connection to his childhood. Creed wasn’t just an opportunity to pump new life into the Rocky franchise, it was Coogler’s chance to produce a movie that brought back childhood memories.
“My dad and I were always really close growing up and, since I was really young, he would make me watch ‘Rocky’ movies,” Coogler said in 2015. ” ‘Rocky II’ specifically — that was his favorite movie. If I had a big football game, he’d have me watch ‘Rocky II.'”
As he was close to finishing film school in 2011, Coogler’s father suffered a mysterious illness. Later they would discover it was a severe vitamin deficiency, but at the time, the illness left Ira Coogler unable to walk.
“I was dealing with seeing him become weak, and our relationship changed as a result of it,” Coogler said. “I had to kind of deal with his mortality.” Coogler began thinking of ways he could put together a movie that his father would love and it was an easy decision to try and do something that was related to Rocky. It wouldn’t be easy though and it would be a couple years before his dream became a reality.
The first obstacle was getting some traction in Hollywood. Well, with Fruitvale Station he got traction and then some. The next challenge was getting Rocky Balboa himself to sign off. When Coogler first pitched the idea to Sylvester Stallone, he could tell the Hollywood legend was a little skeptical.
“I could tell Sly was like, ‘This kid is out of his mind,'” Coogler said. “But I was like, ‘It’s all good. At least I got a picture with him that I can show my dad.'”
Stallone had written all of the Rocky movies in the franchise and had a hard time handing it over to someone else. He reportedly wrestled with the idea for a year. But that someone else was a newcomer and an unknown, two things Stallone was when he wrote the first Rocky. That kinship helped seal the deal.
Creed was released in November of 2015. Stallone was nominated for an Academy Award for supporting actor. The movie earned $173 million worldwide.
5. After ‘Black Panther,’ Coogler Will Work With Jordan Again in ‘Wrong Answer’
After Black Panther, Coogler is once again working with Jordan. The increasingly formidable duo’s next project will be Wrong Answer, their fourth collaboration. The movie will be written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has been the writer for the new Black Panther comic book series, and will be based on a 2014 piece from the New Yorker. The movie is about a group of high school teachers in Atlanta who participated in a standardized-test cheating scandal in 2006. Wrong Answer will be produced by Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B.
According to Variety, Jordan will play a math teacher in the film. The teacher, Damany Lewis, “joined the effort in order to prevent his school from shutting down under provisions of the No Child Left Behind law. Overall, eleven teachers were involved in the scandal.
Jordan will star in HBO’s Farenheit 451 this spring.