In 2013, director Ryan Coogler made a splash with his debut “Fruitvale Station” and was named to Time Magazine’s list of 30 People Under 30 Changing the World. Half a decade later, he’s being honored Jan. 4 with Variety’s Creative Impact Award at the Palms Springs Intl. Film Festival, along with Emily Blunt.
Coogler’s impact since his initial breakout cannot be understated. He brought new life and direction to the “Rocky” franchise with 2015’s “Creed,” followed that up in February by writing and directing the critical and box office smash “Black Panther” and finished the year executive producing “Creed II.”
He tries not to think about his work in terms of its impact. With that first film five years ago, “I was just trying to make the best movie I could make and get as many people to see it as possible,” he says.
Coogler is original ambitions lay on the gridiron; he attended Saint Mary’s College of California and then Sacramento State on a football scholarship as a wide receiver. Now, instead of executing plays called by others, he’s the one calling the shots.
“I think that a lot of football is applicable to filmmaking,” he observes. “I see filmmaking as a team sport, something you do with a lot of people. You get your crew together, you’re all trying to do your own specific job but it’s all got to fit into the whole, telling the story, moving the story forward.”
A hit film is one thing every director wants, but “Black Panther’s” impact runs deeper than box office receipts; it has inspired a generation of children who see a hero that looks like them and ignites their imaginations.
“I came up consuming a lot of pop culture and being that kid who would beg his parents to take him to the movies,” Coogler says. “So I couldn’t help but to see myself in the young folks that were dressing up, going to the movie and really enjoying it — it’s hard for me to put into words the feeling that gave me.”
The way kids responded to the film’s sophisticated politics surprised Coogler. “It was a little bit humbling,” he notes. “I really underestimated how smart kids are these days and what they’re able to handle. It was also kind of a reminder that you’ve got a big responsibility when you’re telling stories in this medium right now.”
Coogler recalls as a kid growing up in Oakland seeing the Tim Burton “Batman” films and buying comic books, but felt a cultural void. “There was a gap there in terms of what was being represented in these films versus what my reality was,” he remembers. “Where I grew up didn’t look like Gotham City in terms of the people populating it. The cultural fulfilment came from the films that a lot of young black filmmakers were making at the time.”
Citing influences such as Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” John Singleton’s “Poetic Justice” and “Boyz n the Hood,” Coogler says he wanted “Black Panther” to operate in a space that was a combination of those films and superhero films. “I was so excited to be able to make it,” he says, “because I couldn’t get both things in one movie at that time.”
Looking ahead, Coogler has multiple projects in the works, and while the world is hungry for any details about the next “Black Panther” movie, he’s reticent to discuss his upcoming work in too much detail, preferring to talk about projects once they’re completed. “For me, I like to just focus on talking about things when they’re ready to be talked about,” he says. “It’s better for me and my process to not talk about it so much. It’s better to do and then talk about it.”
While keeping his directing projects close to the vest, he’s happy to discuss a project he’ll serve as a producer on, the next chapter in another classic sports franchise, “Space Jam 2,” with LeBron James stepping into Michael Jordan’s shoes to star alongside Bugs Bunny.
“ ‘Space Jam’s’ an awesome project,” he says. “We have an amazing filmmaker, Terence Nance, who’s spearheading the project, and LeBron, who is one of the most important people on the planet when it comes to entertainment and so many other things. I’m excited for folks to see what we’re working on.”
Another Coogler project on the horizon is “Wrong Answer,” a smaller, more intimate story based on real-life events telling the story of a teacher and the lengths he goes to for his school and students.
Coogler’s big year has positioned him to make an impact for years to come. “What I do is I just try to stay true to myself,” he says. “I’ve always made the films that I really wanted to make, that I was really obsessed with at the time, and I’m just trying to do that same thing now.”