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Saturday, March 24, 2018

March 24-25, 2018: Black Panther Studying: Ryan Coogler’s Films

[Few pop culture texts have exploded into our collective consciousness more than Ryan Coogler’s film adaptation of Black Panther. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied this film phenomenon, leading up to this special weekend post on Ryan Coogler’s three films to date!]
On three striking choices that emblematize Coogler’s unique and vital American voice.
1)      Fruitvale Station (2013): I wrote about Fruitvale’s real-life subject Oscar Grant in this post, and about showing the film in my First-year Writing II class here. But while Michael B. Jordan’s complex, flawed, compelling, and always human Oscar is of course the film’s center, to me Coogler’s most important choice is to make Grant’s girlfriend Sophina (played with just as much complex humanity by Melonie Diaz) a second focal character and perspective on the film’s events. Along with Tessa Thompson’s character Bianca in Creed, Sophina reflects a filmmaker who, despite a clear focus on male protagonists, has always been deeply interested in creating strong female characters without whom these stories and films would quite simply not work. There’s a clear through-line from these characters to the many Black Panther female leads about whom I wrote in Thursday’s post.
2)      Creed (2015): I’ll admit that I was a bit concerned when I first heard that Coogler’s follow-up to Fruitvale would be a film in the Rocky franchise, which to my mind is an example of a series that began with a thoughtful independent film and had devolved into profoundly mindless popcorn entertainments. But Coogler, co-screenwriter Aaron Covington, Michael B. Jordan, and Sylvester Stallone delivered a film that very satisfyingly checks off all the sports movie boxes while honoring the spirit and voice of that very first Rocky. By far my favorite aspect of Creed is its emphasis on family, and not just in the obvious way that making Jordan’s protagonist Adonis Johnson the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed would necessitate. Instead, without losing any of its sports movie thrills Creed manages to ask hard questions about family, race, class, and community. There’s a clear through-line from that thematic richness in a blockbuster film to Coogler’s ability to bring the same depth to Black Panther.
3)      Black Panther (2018): All those through-lines have helped lead to Panther, and to the kinds of complex elements and choices about which I’ve written all week. So here I’ll highlight one other (SEMI-SPOILER-Y) choice that helps make Panther such a moving and multi-layered film: the many sequences in which key characters are ceremonially buried in order to visit the spirit world and their deceased fathers. Not only T’Challa but also Erik Killmonger gets the chance to make this ceremonial, spiritual, and deeply personal journey, and in each case the bravura sequences open up new sides to both these protagonists and their fathers, as well as to key themes and questions in the film. If there’s one thing that links all my points in this post, it’s Coogler’s ability to bring thematic and perspectival depth to multiple characters and threads within his films—and for that reason among many others I quite simply can’t wait for Creed 2, the recently announced Black Panther sequel, and wherever else Coogler’s career takes him and us.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Takes on the film or its contexts?

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