Filmmaker Ryan Coogler Engages SMC Community at Special Evening

The superstar director returned to SMC to talk about process and mythmaking with his former professor.

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, hoping to 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 inspired him to rethink his plan.

“The assignment was to write a narrative of an emotionally challenging personal experience,” Graham recalled. “Ryan wrote about a life-threatening medical emergency in his family home. 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 the discussion, 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 Black Panther, his 2018 box-office mega smash, which featured a black Marvel superhero; Creed, the 2015 successful reboot of the Rocky franchise; and Fruitvale Station, his 2013 film about the tragic death of Oscar Grant, which won the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award.

On May 16, Coogler and his former professor reconnected in front of a crowd of 600 students, faculty, staff, and friends of the College for a 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 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 in appreciation.

“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.

Graham and Coogler covered everything from Coogler’s nonlinear path to filmmaking to how he creates a level of intimacy between viewers and the 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 instructed, 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 to affirm 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&A session, Coogler engaged with Saint Mary’s students. Desiree Castro-Manner ’18 said, “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.’ 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.

“As a storyteller, is this something that you envision your work doing, 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 up with enthusiastic applause for Coogler, who—gracious with his time—posed for more than a few selfies before leaving the crowded Soda Center. —Sharon Sobotta