Banner Photo by Jim Wilson, New York Times
Welcome to the premiere article of Movies with Mark, a monthly column where I discuss my appreciation for film directors! This month, I’ll be discussing the style of Ryan Coogler, the writer and director behind Fruitvale Station and Creed, and a filmmaker I’m excited to see more work from.
‘Fruitvale’ and Creed are the only two Coogler films released in theaters, but, even with his relatively limited experience, I’m able to discern his distinctive style. This is something impressive, especially with one film being indie and the other a sequel to a tentpole franchise (I say this because creativity is usually stifled in one of these two types of film—I think you can guess which one). But the stories of a Black Californian getting undeservedly shot by a police officer, or the boxer son of Apollo Creed trying to forge his own legacy, do not inherently command good stories. It’s Ryan Coogler who makes them so.
One might look at the subdued color palette of Coogler’s photography, or the relatively stationary stance of his camera, and decide his directing is rather pedestrian. I’d counter that notion by saying that Coogler is powerful at directing because he’s so subtle with it. He tends to shoot his movies in a documentary-like fashion—you know, hand-held style. But there’s a purpose to the seemingly simplistic photography. Coogler, I’ve noticed, is not really one for excessive cutting. To give you an idea, there’s a boxing scene in Creed that goes uncut for a full five minutes, without any parlor tricks to “hide” cuts. In other words, it happened in real time, which is astounding, considering he kept my eyes glued to the screen the entire fight. And that’s precisely what makes his directing technique so brilliant: by allowing his actors to really act, sans the always-present magic of editing, the director pulls the audience in so that we’re not just observing, but are also present in the scene. Of course, the dialogue is not all medium shots like movies in the 50s; these scenes are close-up, so we get the full range of emotion or action needed to become absorbed.
I think one of Ryan Coogler’s greatest strengths as a director thus far is that he is also his own writer. Though his movies are not directly inspired by his own life, he tends to insert elements from his past to enhance his filmmaking. For example, Creed opens with a juvenile detention fight; Coogler’s father used to work as a juvie counselor. It’s fascinating how the scene opens from black into a wide shot of a drab white hallway, and then the alarms go off and the camera hurriedly follows a security guard as he runs to the chaos in the cafeteria. It’s an effective opening as it starts from inaction to sudden movement very quickly, but perhaps describes the volatile nature of juvie as seen through Coogler’s eyes. In terms of Fruitvale Station, Coogler described that, having been raised in the Bay Area, the story of a black man being shot in the same area spoke to him. He said of the Oscar Grant story,
“I wanted the audience to get to know this guy, to get attached, so that when the situation that happens to him happens, it’s not just like you read it in the paper, you know what I mean? When you know somebody as a human being, you know that life means something.”
From reading that, I feel that Coogler knows how to tell a good story, especially one that are based on human, flawed, and real characters. With his two films, he gradually builds to a climax that the audience wants to see, because he’s sprinkled in spectacular character moments that lend credence to the audience’s investment. Would we really care about Adonis Creed’s chance to go the distance against Ricky Conlan if we didn’t see the complexity of his relationship to his dead father? Also, I think we would care if Oscar Grant got shot, regardless of whether or not we knew him, but Coogler writes Grant as a loving man—it hurts that much more when Grant is shot. There is substance.
In case you couldn’t tell, I’m a huge fan of Ryan Coogler. I believe he’s one of the greatest young directors of today, and I can’t wait to see his next movie, Black Panther, in 2018.
MARK BAUTISTA | KXSU Arts Reporter