Ryan Coogler said that he has a “natural fear of public speaking” when he took the stage on Monday night in London, U.K., but the standing ovation he received was proof that, nerves or not, his inspiring words had landed with impact.
The occasion was BAFTA’s annual David Lean lecture, whose previous speakers have included Martin Scorsese, Lone Scherfig, Paul Greengrass, David Lynch, and Spike Lee. As such, Coogler – back in London following the release of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” – felt “humbled” and “deeply unworthy” to accept the honour of giving the speech, a decision he humorously said was made “in a rush” and without “enough thought” as he was finishing his latest film.
Nonetheless, a comfortably uncomfortable Coogler proceeded to do a fantastic job of taking the audience through the journey of his filmmaking life that helped shape him into the storyteller he is today. To do so, he divided his speech into five categories that are factors in all of his films: identity, community, ritual, fear, and time.
During the lecture, Coogler spoke of how he found his first tribe – and a nickname he still has today, “Coog” – through American football, before noting the pride he felt in joining the community of Black filmmakers.
“I didn’t know if I would be a Black filmmaker that made independent cinema or a Black filmmaker that made major motion pictures. But I knew that I was joining a very important group,” he said. “I felt it when I shook John [Singleton’s] hand for the first time, and I felt it when I shook Spike [Lee’s] hand for the first time.”
Coogler recounted a story of how Singleton had sent him a message a couple weeks after “Creed” had been released. “It started with a picture of the tickets that he had bought for him and whoever he went with. And he said ‘This is a ritual, we always do this for each other.’ It was Black filmmakers showing that they go out there and buy the ticket, because it means something.”
A mentor to Coogler, Singleton died in 2019 after suffering a stroke. And Coogler was visibly emotional as he recounted the rest of the message. “He told me that it was our duty to continue to mine our collective experience. And he said he was proud of me. Reading that earlier today, I realized what a gift that message was.”
Coogler also shared how he had to create a ritual for himself that could motivate him through the entire, exhaustive process of making a movie. “I like to start off every movie that I do with the question. A question that burns. A question that I don’t have the answer to. A question I’m afraid to ask.” For “Wakanda Forever,” the question was even more complicated than usual. “How do you move on when your very existence, your very identity, was defined by another person, and you lose them?”
In speaking about the late, great Chadwick Boseman – who died from colon cancer in August 2020 – Coogler fought back tears as he noted the unique bond between a director and actor. “I found myself in a position where I was uncomfortable. I was a director without a lead actor, tasked to make a film about a hero when we’d just lost ours.”
Coogler noted the serendipitous nature of how events in his life led him to significant people at just the right time. “If I hadn’t gotten started when I did, and graduated film school at 24 and made ‘Fruitvale Station’ at 25 and then ‘Creed,’ I never would have met Chadwick, who has had such a profound effect on my life.”
Coogler concluded by telling the audience – which was a mixture of industry professionals and cinephiles – to act on their creative impulses now. “All of you that aspire to communicate with film language through your work, through your art… there’s no time like the present. Make that movie. Hit that audition. Criticise whatever you like to criticise. Go, go, go, go, go, go ,go. Don’t wait. Do.”