It was more than a decade ago, but Professor Roberto Pomo still clearly remembers the day Ryan Coogler, the young man who would grow up to create the superhero masterpiece “Black Panther,” walked into his classroom at Sacramento State.
He sat in the front row. He paid close attention. He asked a lot of questions, even though he was a business major in a film studies class.
But what Pomo remembers most was Coogler’s vision.
Unlike many of us who go off to college hoping to first find and then define ourselves, Coogler arrived on campus with a clear idea of who he was and what he valued. He undoubtedly was channeling the lessons he had learned from his parents – a probation officer and a community organizer – and from growing up in the take-no-prisoners political stew of Oakland.
“Ideologically, Ryan never took the easy way out. He was a deep thinker,” said Pomo, who has become one of Coogler’s mentors and biggest cheerleaders. “For him, the black experience was very important.”
In short, Coogler has been “woke” for years. Unapologetically woke and unapologetically black, just like the many social movements that for generations now have come out of Oakland, from the Black Panther Party to Black Lives Matter.
The Washington Post asked this past week: “Is Ryan Coogler the greatest young director of his era?” I’d argue that, with “Black Panther” opening in theaters this weekend, the rest of America is just catching up with him.
Coogler is a man ahead of his time.
“The vision he had for ‘Black Panther’ is the same he had for all of his films,” Pomo said.
At just 31, Coogler cut his teeth writing and directing a handful of critically acclaimed, but mostly small budget films. Among them, 2013’s “Fruitvale Station,” which expertly told the story of Oscar Grant, a young man who was killed by a BART police officer in 2009, and “Creed,” a spinoff of the “Rocky” franchise about the son of black boxer Apollo Creed.
But now, with record-breaking ticket sales, the Sacramento State grad is the director du jour. He’s a rising star whose work is expected to bring about real change in #OscarsSoWhite Hollywood by unapologetically exploring the stories of black people from the perspective of black people.
Can I get an amen? Or maybe a Black Power salute?
After the election of President Donald Trump and the subsequent rise of a constellation of emboldened racists, from the alt-right to white nationalists, a movie that celebrates Africans and African Americans is more than welcome. Consider the fictional African country of Wakanda our safe space.
This is why civic groups have been buying out entire theaters so black children can experience the film together. Why black fathers are taking their black sons, and black mothers are taking their black daughters. And why people have picked out out elaborate African-themed costumes to wear to the movie.
Can you blame us? For the better part of a year, black Americans – along with many Americans of color – have felt as if we’ve been under constant attack by the federal government.
After eight years of largely inclusive policies under the Obama administration, we’ve watched the Trump administration try to make it easier for financial institutions to discriminate in housing, shred the social safety net, walk away from consent decrees to address police brutality, and even threaten to renew the war on drugs by cracking down on marijuana. And let’s not forget about that bit about “shithole countries.”
It’s no wonder then that black people have been drifting further and further from the political center. Where in the past, many people were hesitant to be unapologetically black, today, being unapologetically black is the only way to be unapologetically woke.
This is why teens at C.K. McClatchy High School spoke up about that racist science project, and why students and parents turned out by the hundreds to stand with a Pleasant Grove High School student who said teachers didn’t seem to care that she was being called the N-word and that nooses were found hanging from trees.
“Black Panther” speaks to this frustration and impatience with having to fight just to exist, and the desire to address the hatred directly.
Coogler told The Washington Post that his movie is, at its core, about the relationship between Africans and African Americans. Specifically, what it means to a people to be enslaved and what it would look like if that never happened. How would our values and ideals change? What would motivate us? What choices would we make?
T’Challa, the African king behind the mask of the Black Panther played by Chadwick Boseman, represents “an African that hasn’t been affected by colonization.” He doesn’t bow or bend. He doesn’t have a master; no one he knows has, and with that, comes a psychological freedom that African Americans have never had. He’s proud and strong. But he has a moral code.
It’s a message that, I imagine, would have resonated in Oakland long before other parts of the country. The East Bay city where Coogler spent the first eight years of his life before moving with his family to nearby Richmond is a place where radical is normal, and where the hard work of social justice is a way of life.
Pomo says he understood this about Coogler from the start.
He describes Coogler as an exceptional human being, with a work ethic that didn’t leave room for complaining, even when he was living in his car on campus because he couldn’t afford housing.
“Ryan is not the type of person who thinks about greatness,” Pomo said. “He’s just the kind of person who wants to get the work done as best as he can.”
Just like a superhero.