When I watch Ryan Coogler’s films (2013’s Fruitvale Station, 2015’s Creed and 2018’s Black Panther) the palpability of feeling he puts into portraying key elements of the black experience washes over me. His movies examine how a father’s death affects his child’s life. They capture the vacuum of love created when a child’s father is taken away in a brutal fashion. Ultimately, death leaves behind a legacy of unfulfilled paternal love and that is the legacy many black fathers leave their children. It’s the undercurrent that runs just beneath the surface of all of Ryan Coogler’s films, much like the all-too-real anger that burns in many black men, forced to grow up without fathers who are either dead, or long gone.
So many times I have watched Fruitvale Station with non-people of color and noticed how Oscar Grant’s murder by bigoted police officers weighed heavily on them. As the credits roll, they inevitably offer some variation on the same idea: “I can’t imagine what that type of racism is like.” I understand the sentiment behind these (and let’s call them what they are) proactive condolences. But I think that misses the point. Coogler does show the effects of police brutalisation on black men in the climax of the film and it is a key scene. But he also makes it clear that instance of blatant bigotry and hate is not the point.
Throughout Fruitvale Station, Coogler shoots Oscar Grant’s last day alive as a slow build toward the inevitable, consuming effects race has on black Americans. Grant is an ex-con trying to live a clean life but is unable to gain a job and get back on track. And that’s because the track is not built for him. The difficulties he experiences during the course of his day are the result of systemic, racist factors that inhibit black people from rising above their station.
All of this leads to Oscar Grant’s senseless shooting on the BART Station platform. Coogler chooses to continue the film after Grant’s death to show how his family would have to live with the tragedy of his murder. Oscar Grant became another murdered black man in America, another statistic. And his girlfriend and daughter were left to remember his life. His legacy could only be the memories they made together.
Coogler’s second feature length film, Creed, explores the aftermath of losing a parent. Creed is an exploration of how black sons carry the weight of the loss of their fathers. Adonis Creed struggles to accept his father’s legacy throughout the film. But Coogler slowly reveals that it’s not the burden to claim his father’s mantle as a world champion fighter that consumes Adonis. It’s the struggle to prove he is “not a mistake” as his illegitimate son.
In Creed, Coogler recounts the stories of many black men in America who lose their fathers, be it to guns, drugs, etc. There is a particularly poignant scene towards the end of the film when Adonis is in jail after getting into a fight over being called a “Baby Creed”. Coogler lets the camera linger on Adonis as he simmers in the jail cell. Balboa confronts him and his anger succinctly stating the problem that has plagued Adonis at his core the entire film: “you’re mad with somebody who ain’t here, Donnie, who can’t defend himself”.
Like in Fruitvale Station, the point of the film is more nuanced than it appears at first glance. Adonis Creed is not angry at his father for dying in the ring and leaving him without a father. Adonis rages with the desire to prove to himself that he is “not a mistake”. He struggles to honor the idea of his father, an idea that might not have ever existed in reality to start.
Coogler’s latest film, Black Panther, manages to discuss the colonisation of black cultures by white empires. The film succeeds in creating characters that react with real feeling to racism, condescension and imperialism. Black characters that stand in for black people. It is as much a depiction of black regality as it is an illustration of the effects of colonialism on the destruction of the black family.
To that point, Erik Killmonger is broken by the loss of his father. He is corrupted by his father’s legacy; his radicalised vision of the actions Wakanda’s technologically advanced civilisation (and weaponry) could take to liberate black bodies across the world. Like Adonis Creed, Killmonger is driven by an idea of his father and ultimately, it causes him to almost destroy what he dreamed of creating: a unified black culture, free from oppression and subjugation.
Ryan Coogler’s debut trio of films are resonant because they articulate elements of the black experience that have rarely been so artfully depicted on screen. His films show the impact of legacy. They show how in the black community, the loss of a father can poison’s a child’s view of the world irrevocably. Coogler knows that in the end, a child’s dreams of their father are the only legacy they can truly create. Unfortunately, dreams are rarely remembered as they actually occurred.