Ryan Coogler takes the time out of his day to discuss his dad taking him to see movies as a kid, watching Spike Lee classics, and how it felt seeing a powerful black man on screen for the first time.
When one thinks of film, few of them ever enter the annals of history as not only a cinematic splendor, but a social and cultural centerpiece. Films like Star Wars, The Godfather, and Avatar are but a few examples of films that have effervescently left their fixated place on screen and have instead entered public discourse and even fervor. Whether it’s the fanboys who line around blocks to nab a seat at the release of a new Star Wars flick or wise guys-wannabes who quote every line that Marlon Brando utters in The Godfather, these films have the rarified distinction of being cultural icons.
But even fewer films have the privilege of gaining that prestige before their release. And yet, Black Panther has become one such film. With CNN touting the picture as a movement and the Los Angeles Times naming it not only a cultural moment but also a disrupter to Hollywood assumptions, Black Panther is set to be one of the most celebrated pictures of our generation, commercially, critically, and financially. Director Ryan Coogler of Fruitvale Station and Creed fame has helmed what many are saying will be Marvel’s most profitable franchise to date. The way things are shaping up, it most certainly seems to be the case. In an event hosted by OkayAfrica and Dusse at the ornate and historic Brooklyn Academy of Music, Coogler sat down–with his icon Spike Lee in a front row seat–to discuss the five films that have had the most impact and influence on his cinematic vision and approach. Check out what the acclaimed filmmaker had to say below.
Un prophéte (or A Prophet in English) is a unique French film, one that many have overlooked over the years. While perhaps a number of cinephiles may have been exposed to—and eagerly devoured–the Academy Award-nominated flick during its tenure on Netflix, Un prophéte has often been heralded as one of the most earnest examples of prison dynamics and inter-cultural relations. To Coogler, it was so impactful that he kicked off his five-most-influential-films list with the Jacques Audiard-directed film.
From the intimate portrayal of Muslim-Corsican relations to the pulsing tale of a young man climbing the ranks of underground syndicates, Un prophéte is certainly a film that shines as a prime example of stylistic freedom that is refreshingly grounded in a spellbinding narrative. It screams analogously as both a French arthouse film as well as a hard-edged Scorsese-led drama.
Boyz n the Hood
Back when John Singleton (who happens to also be the focus of our July cover issue) released his groundbreaking social realist drama Boyz n the Hood, many pointed out its refreshing look into African American life and the reality that many young African American men face on a daily basis. It was a wake-up call to many in the African American community, one that was heralded by critics and audiences alike, gaining Oscar nominations for Best Director–making him the youngest and first African American to do so–and Best Original Screenplay, as well as raking in more than 55 million dollars on a modest budget of six and a half million dollars. Therefore, it came as no surprise that the Bay Area-native Coogler immediately connected with the California set film.
“I was just devastated after Boyz [N the Hood],” reflected the introspective Coogler. “I was crying all over the place,” remembers Coogler. But just when people thought it couldn’t grow more uncomfortable, it did. That’s when Coogler began reminiscing that “a white gentleman was sitting next to me and he told my dad that I shouldn’t be in there. My dad stands up with me in one arm and says, ‘I’ll beat your ass with this baby in my arm!’ And there’s only twenty minutes left in the movie! So now we had to sit for another twenty minutes next to this dude!”
Spike Lee has had a tremendous amount of influence on not only filmmaking but the African American experience. From She’s Gotta Have It to Red Hook Summer, Spike Lee has been a voice for generations of African Americans, showcasing what many in Hollywood ignore or overlook in their portrayal of black folk. Lee gained the accolade of colleagues and critics alike, who often enters the conversation of best filmmakers of the last fifty years, influencing generations of filmmakers. And it just so happens that Coogler is one of them. When Coogler mentioned Malcolm X, not only was the venerable (and BAM regular) Spike Lee in attendance, but the majority of the crowd let out a big whoop at the mention of the Oscar-nominated film.
“Malcolm X was a big one for me because I had never seen a black man being that powerful. It was a wild experience,” said Coogler. Coogler goes on to detail the moments of the film that truly impacted his life, noting that “there was a point in the film where Malcolm X showed up and everyone knew him–Spike Lee you know this part. He’s in prison and he’s got the glasses on, and that’s the first time that we see the Malcolm that we all knew. My dad went, ‘there he is!’ even though we had been watching the same man the entire movie.” The audience bellowed with laughter as Coogler himself recognized the humor in it all. But that’s also when the Black Panther director reflected, “when [Malcolm X] gets killed, I was inconsolable. It wasn’t a movie to me! I was seeing black folks on a hundred and forty foot screen and I was a baby. I couldn’t even comprehend it then.”
Do the Right Thing
Coogler kept the Spike Lee love train going with his next selection, Do the Right Thing. Beyond just being a wonderfully tactile and touching film that details the day-in-the-life of a Bed-Stuy neighborhood, the groundbreaking film laid the foundation for other African American filmmakers to realize that their voices could be heard–and acclaimed–by wider audiences. Singleton himself admits that when he was penning Boyz n the Hood, the studio commissioned the work as a follow-up of sorts to Do the Right Thing. And it seems that Coogler is set to be one of the frontrunners to carry the torch that Lee and Singleton had held before him.
“Another Spike classic that truly influenced me was ‘Do the Right Thing,'” proclaimed Coogler. The director explained that “seeing that place as a kid, I knew I needed to go to New York. It felt alive. It felt like home. It felt as real as anything else.” That seems to have been the sentiment that many individuals have for the film, which often ranks among the best films of all time.
Fish Tank is an oft-overlooked European art film that details the struggles that young women face in inner-city life in the UK. Coogler notes that “that movie was one of the first movies I’d ever seen that made me understand women more.” It was a standout critical darling, having won the Jury Prize at Cannes. It also picked up the BAFTA for Best British Film and often ranks among the UK’s most treasured films. Coogler mentioned Fish Tank as one of the films that most certainly swayed his filmmaking outlook, noting the film’s strong empathetic effect. The film particularly helped Coogler unpack the other tantalizing ways in which to tell the stories of underprivileged or underrepresented individuals. His realization that women’s stories are often unsung, is “the best way I can describe how I felt watching that movie,” according to Coogler.
Photo Credit: Travis Matthews (@bamcinematek)
Black Panther will open Friday at the Steinberg Screen at BAM’s Harvey Theater.