Ryan Coogler’s first love isn’t cinema — it’s Oakland.
Born in the city across the bay, Coogler’s obsession with his NorCal home inspired the very beginnings of his career. He carried that burning torch through to his biggest movie yet, Black Panther.
It’s unsurprising that Coogler’s films are so intertwined with the ebb and flow that course through Oakland’s veins; the ferocity of its citizens, the strength of its community and the natural beauty that hides in plain sight within the sprawling urban jungle that so many people call home. The city comes alive in its unavoidably deafening Oak Town pride.
It makes sense that Coogler’s first feature film, 2013’s Fruitvale Station, tackles one of the most devastating and important moments in Oakland’s history.
Even in Creed, a movie that takes place on the opposite side of the country in Philadelphia, a city known for its own dependance on brotherly love, Coogler took inspiration from his East Bay roots to tell a heartfelt story that resonated with anyone sitting in front of the screen. As Coogler told the Mercury News:
“My father’s favorite movies were the ‘Rocky’ movies,” says Coogler, underneath a banner celebrating the Olympic exploits of Oakland boxing great Andre Ward (who appears in “Creed”). “It was a bonding thing. He’d always cry during those movies, especially ‘Rocky 2.’”
Good cities make for great characters and, when the city plays a fundamental role in the message a director is trying to get across in their storytelling like Fruitvale Station, cities have a newfound respect. We care for the city that nurtures the character we’re rooting for. We believe in Philadelphia because it sculpted Adonis Johnson; we stand tall for Wakanda — using Wakanda Forever hashtags to show our support — because T’Challa is willing to die to see the city stand another day.
We walk for Oakland because its citizens wept for Oscar Grant in Fuitvale Station.
Falling in love with a city
Fruitvale Station tells the story of Oscar Grant II, a 22-year-old from Hayward, California who was fatally shot on New Year’s Day in 2009 by trigger-happy Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officers. Grant’s death was a pivotal moment in the larger discussion on police brutality in America and, specifically, the growing divide between black Americans and the country’s police force.
Fruitvale Station was Coogler’s leap into feature filmmaking, allowing his unique vision to shine in a sea of forgettable movies.
Oakland is more than just a backdrop for Fruitvale Station, in the same way that Coogler wants Wakanda to be more than just a place where things happen in Black Panther. Coogler told the Mercury News that “growing up in the Bay Area gave me perspective on how a location influences the individual.”
“In leaving the Bay Area for school and work and then coming back, you realize certain things that make certain neighborhoods and certain places unique,” Coogler said. “For me, I wanted Wakanda to feel like a real, lived-in place. A country, but when the Wakandans leave Wakanda, they bring Wakanda with them.”
The haunting feeling that reverberates in your chest when you’re hundreds or thousands of miles away from home and you’re stopped by a familiar sense. It could be the smell of a dessert as you walk by a bakery or a familiar poster hanging behind the bar in a smoky pub, but some external force wafts over you so strongly, you’re reminded of where you grew up. The streets you spent your teen years walking down with friends; the restaurants you may have visited with your family; the smell of freshly mowed lawns recalling memories of soccer practices as a kid. It’s something you can’t quite place your finger on, but so utterly familiar that you can’t imagine ever forgetting it in the first place.
I call it the memory of your first love. We fall in love with a feeling before we fall in love with someone else. We obsess over the thing that makes us feel safe and comfortable, the thing that inspires and welcomes us. That’s always been Toronto for me, a city I was born and raised in. Toronto is my true love. The different markings, the scrapes and bruises that make up its core, are etched into my blood. I am a product of my city in the same way my city is a product of the millions of people who live and work there.
The same feeling is palpable and present throughout every shot in Fruitvale Station.
Good directors and writers find muses in the ordinary. They’re stimulated by a common experience or tangible view; the hulking skyscrapers that tower over Manhattan’s crowded streets become dancing characters in some of Hollywood’s most classic films, while the palm-tree lined streets of Los Angeles set the quintessential setting for modern cinema’s obsession with stardom. Cities are representative of ourselves. They form our character, house us through the best and worst periods of our life, propelling our future forward but letting us cling to our treasured past.
I’ve only experienced the wave of emotion and adoration I have for Toronto, and the strange but wonderful people who make up the city, once since leaving: when I visited Oakland. I can see the personification of his city come to life when revisiting Coogler’s movies. It’s a remarkable feat, especially for someone so young, but Coogler’s age speaks to his dedication to making his voice heard no matter what the film is about, an important facet of his filmmaking voice.
Time to get personal
Fruitvale Station is more than just Coogler’s first movie.
Coogler told Buzzfeed he was the same age as Grant when the shooting happened, and couldn’t stop the that-could-have-been-me thoughts running through his head. Coogler used filmmaking to help him come to terms with what happened, process this vicious act that happened in his own backyard that he holds so dear. Directing movies lets Coogler explore questions he’s tossed over in his mind since he was a kid, trying to understand the world as it happens.
Being vulnerable and empathetic enough to try and understand what an event or life is like for someone else is crucial to Coogler’s directing style. Emotions vibrate in every scene, even if nothing’s happening, and it gives Coogler’s movies a magical presence. His movies feel alive — they entertain, hurt and, to an extent, heal. Coogler told the Sydney Morning Herald that Black Panther is a vehicle that allowed him to confront these feelings sitting in the back of his mind and the pit of his stomach, waiting to be answered.
“To me it deals with the answer to a question that I’ve been asking myself since I was very young—what does it mean to be African? That idea, that concept, I was very interested in and drawn towards.”
He continued by saying, “I was able to explore that in making this film. It enabled me to fulfill a longlife [sic] dream of going to the continent of Africa—researching—for the first time. The things that I learned about the continent and the things that I learned about myself were invaluable. I tried to put some of that energy into the project.”
I haven’t seen Black Panther yet, but I already know what energy Coogler is talking about. It’s the same energy he wove into trying to understand what happened in Fruitvale Station and the same energy he approached exploring a young man’s relationship with his father in Creed. I’ve been anxiously waiting for Black Panther to arrive, just like so many other people, but it’s more than just the movie itself — it’s the man behind the camera.
Coogler’s greater goal is to bring some of Oakland’s magic to Wakanda. Oakland is a city built on the back of justice and a desire to achieve a better life for every single one of its citizens. Oakland is more than just a city; it’s the life source that runs through Coogler’s every being. Like Grant’s life and Fruitvale Station or Adonis Johnson and Creed, Black Panther and Wakanda are born out of Oakland’s spirit.