Filmmaker Ryan Coogler Inspires SMC Community

Former Saint Mary’s student and acclaimed director of "Black Panther," "Creed" and "Fruitvale Station" sat down for a conversation with his former English Professor Rosemary Graham in the Soda Center on Wednesday, May 16. When Ryan Coogler arrived at Saint Mary’s in 2003 as a football player and a chemistry major, he had aspirations of becoming a doctor so he could give back to his community and to his parents, who he says worked tirelessly to put him and his siblings through private school. An assignment for a required English class with Professor Rosemary Graham would inspire him to rethink his plan.

“The assignment was to write a narrative of an emotionally challenging personal experience. Ryan wrote about a life-threatening medical emergency in his family home,” Graham recalled. “His sure-handed writing demonstrated an ability to convey both action and emotion. His piece had a strong visual quality. Put most simply, he knew how to write a scene.” 

Graham suggested that Coogler consider screenwriting. Soon after, SMC ended its football program and Coogler transferred to California State University, Sacramento to study business before eventually making his way to the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California (USC). Graham takes great pride in knowing that she saw something special in Coogler. “I sometimes tell my students, half-jokingly, ‘Listen to me. I give good advice.’” 

Now a successful film director and screenwriter, Coogler has several critically acclaimed films to his name, including Fruitvale Station, his 2013 film about the tragic death of Oscar Grant that won the Sundance Film Festival’s Audience and Grand Jury Prize awards; Creed, the 2015 successful reboot of the Rocky franchise; and Black Panther, his 2018 box office mega-success featuring a Marvel superhero.

On Wednesday, May 16, Coogler and his former professor reconnected in front of a crowd of over 600 students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the College for the special event  “Ryan Coogler - Artist, Athlete, Activist in Conversation with Professor Rosemary Graham.” President James Donahue expressed pride in Coogler’s intimate connection to Saint Mary’s. “You are a superhero to all of us,” Donahue told Coogler as he welcomed him to the campus. “Every superhero has their own origin story and we couldn’t be prouder to have a piece of Ryan Coogler’s story right here at SMC.”

Desmond Hatter '18, president of the Lounge, SMC’s open-mic program, and a member of the Black Student Union, followed Donahue’s greeting with a compelling spoken-word, hip-hop-influenced introduction. “It's great that you can catch a ball but can you put the pen to paper? Can you catch a hundred yards? Rosemary don’t care...” The crowd laughed along with Hatter.

“Thank you for gracing us with your presence today,” Hatter continued. “This is for you. You are black excellence. You are black excellence. You are black excellence,” he said to Coogler, calling him to the stage.

The rapt audience listened as Graham and Coogler settled into a thoughtful and humor-filled conversation that covered everything from Coogler’s non-linear path to filmmaking to how he creates a level of intimacy between viewers and characters in his films.

Coogler said it took him a long time to get it right as a filmmaker. For his first assignment at USC, instead of producing a five-minute soundless film as he was instructed to do, he produced a 12-minute piece with sound.

“I was afraid I was going to get kicked out of school right away, but I stuck it out and just kept going,” he said. In 2008, Coogler won recognition for his six-minute film Locks, a powerful silent narrative of a man having his dreadlocks cut off at a barbershop, affirming his solidarity with a little sister undergoing chemotherapy. “A lot of people call that my first film, but it was really like my eighth,” Coogler continued. “I made a lot of really bad films before that. I think people should know that. It will always be a process and you have to keep going and going and going to get it right.”

During a brief Q and A session, Coogler engaged with Saint Mary’s students. “I took my son who’s in kindergarten to see Black Panther the weekend it came out. He told me to tell you, ‘Wakanda Forever,’” said Desiree Castro-Manner ’18. “I took him because I wanted to show him characters that looked like him that were strong and triumphant and not just tragic and flawed. It had this really profound effect on his understanding of being black, to the point where the next day I found him looking at his bottom lip in front of a mirror to try to find his Wakanda tattoo.”

“So my question is, as a storyteller, is this something that you envision your work doing, or deliberately planned for your work to do, in not just providing a story for the here-and-now, but also influencing the identity formation of younger generations?”

Coogler complimented Castro-Manner, an ethnic studies major, on her question. “It’s always hard to predict what audiences will think of a work and even harder to predict how they will respond to it, but . . . like any filmmaker, I always hope it will have an impact,” Coogler said. “Panther is a comic. There’s something about mythmaking that human beings are attracted to. There’s something about it that has a longevity that’s greater than other works. I think that’s why people like comic-book movies.”

The event wrapped with enthusiastic applause for Coogler, who, gracious with his time, posed for more than a few selfies before leaving the crowded Soda Center. 

Khameeka Kitt-Hopper '02, who earned her undergraduate degree at SMC and has now joined the faculty as an assistant professor of biology, said she left the event feeling inspired. “It just takes one class, one assignment, or one individual to make a difference in the life of a student,” Kitt-Hopper said. “With his tenacity and drive for success, Coogler is a powerful role model for all—especially for students of color.”