Pop Stuff: Wakanda Forever
One of the many triumphs of ‘Black Panther’ is the rise of its director, Ryan Coogler
Black Panther, the superhero origin story of Marvel’s titular character as conceived by 31-year-old black director Ryan Coogler, in only his third feature, is being roundly viewed as a cultural revolution. Deservedly so. Black Panther carries in its vibranium-charged story and enduring character portrayals, the demise of a racist studio-made myth that a black lead cannot win the audience. It blew through the billion-dollar box office mark, making going to war with entrenched ideas feel like a night out. Coogler imagines a never-colonized African nation resplendent as afro-futuristic Wakanda, where, cloaked in gorgeous landscapes and superb action sequences, the central conflict between Michael B. Jordan’s African-American soldier and Chadwick Boseman’s Wakandan King T’Challa hinges on what home means for the enslaved. All the while he elevates women as warriors, spies and scientists. In a movie that feels like a movement, the phenomenon within the phenomenon is Coogler himself.
More than a cultural signifier in shifting times, Black Panther is testament that Coogler is in act one of a long legacy. It struck me mid-third viewing that in the pantheon of impactful films, there are few that have depth while bearing repeat watching, continually inspire wonder and consistently reassure. Coogler in demystifying why Wakanda is forever gives us this hard- won trifecta of a Forever Movie, a trifecta I last experienced as a child enthralled by E.T. Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi tale of a boy- hood friendship was an endless source of awe and comfort. This had as much to do with exceptional filmmaking as it had to do with a filmmaker giving his vulnerabilities over to a story to make it both intimate and magnificent. E.T. has been called Spielberg’s spiritual autobiography, drawn from a character he created as balm to his parents’ divorce. Coogler likewise, in seeking to heal what he’s described as the wound of not knowing his ancestors, pours himself in, grappling with his racial anxieties within a grand superhero narrative, captivating hearts and commanding attention.
Commercial auteurs such as Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan share an ability to mix substance and spectacle making hits out of seemingly intimate films like Taxi Driver or Memento and bringing epics like The Dark Knight or Goodfellas to screen without losing depth in scale. Coogler, only three films deep, has mastered the balance. In his first film Fruitvale Station, he recounted the final day in the life of Oscar Grant, a black man, Coogler’s age and from his home town, unjustly gunned down by a police officer on New Year’s day 2009. The breakout indie was a critical and commercial success. His second film Creed breathed legacy into African-America boxer Apollo Creed surprising naysayers with a Rocky spin-off that packed a punch. With Black Panther, Coogler managed story and scale leading a star cast and wish list of collaborators like Kendrick Lamar and delivering Marvel one of their most successful movies.
What catapults Coogler though, is his voice and commitment to a purpose without compromising his craft. Here is a young man who grew up with activist parents, cited the influence of Martin Luther King early in his career and until recently worked counseling incarcerated youth. His oeuvre is to shed light on the African-American identity well beyond those who live it. And he’s shown he has the skill to do it through the universal language of movies. I can’t say I’m dying to watch the Black Panther sequels that Marvel will doubtless churn out but I’m eagerly anticipating Coogler’s next film, another Forever Movie that won’t be easily forgotten.
The author is a film producer and journalist, and a former hedge fund COO. Twitter: @soleilnathwani