As wide receiver, a lot of times you run routes where you can’t even see the ball. You just got to hope that it’s there when you turn your head. You got to trust your teammates to do their job. You’ve got to trust that the lineman is going to block. You’ve got to trust that the quarterback is going to have the right read. And then when … the ball is in the air, you got to catch it. All those things, when it comes to filmmaking? It’s direct preparation.
— Ryan Coogler, director, Black Panther
Monday night is game time for Ryan Coogler. There’s a great deal at stake — and he knows it. The director/co-writer of Black Panther is finally showing his masterpiece to friends, cast members, taste makers and a few critics at the much-anticipated Hollywood premiere of his long-awaited film.
Coogler likely hasn’t felt this much pressure since he went up against Marshawn Lynch in a football game during his junior year in their Oakland, California, hometown. “I played against a lot of dudes that were really, really good,” the director said. “Marshawn was probably the best.”
But Monday night? It’s time to put points up on the board. Again.
In this new film, we are transported to the fictional land of Wakanda — and go deep into the story of the Black Panther, portrayed by Chadwick Boseman. But Coogler’s own origin story is one for the history books, as well. “A lot of kids struggle. Somebody asks you who you are, man, you got to be something, ‘Are you in the streets? Are you an athlete? What are you?‘ Growing up, it was always one of those two things,” Coogler said. “My father worked at juvenile hall. It would have broke his heart if I’d become that.”
Ryan Kyle Coogler grew up in Bushrod, which when he was growing up was a well-known predominantly black neighborhood in North Oakland. There was a parks and rec center that served as a gathering place for young people to participate in sports and other activities. “I started school … when I just 4,” said Coogler, 31. “I was doing fine academically, but I was having a tough time because I was smaller than the other kids. I got picked on … because I didn’t fit in. There’s a big difference between a kid at 4 versus a kid who’s 6. So I was dealing with that.”
But Coogler’s life was blessed. His mom Joselyn was a community organizer, and his dad Ira was a juvenile hall probation counselor who had played youth and prep football. Both parents were educated at California State University, East Bay, back when it was known as California State University, Hayward. But his life wasn’t a reality for many of his neighborhood friends. “Where we were living … there were kids that were on Section 8,” Coogler said from his office on the Disney studio lot. “There were housing projects … right behind us. I would play with those kids, but I would get teased … because I went to a nicer school. I had both parents in the house. So, I didn’t really fit in.”
And back then, his part of North Oakland didn’t really have a youth football team. At the age of 7, he ended up trying out for the nearby Berkeley Cougars because he thought the name was cool, and because it was a different team than his dad played for. For the young Coogler the team felt like home. Almost immediately. “I was a physical kid,” he said. “I had a lot of anger issues. I would get picked on, so I would fight a lot. I wanted to find somewhere where I could fit in. And football provided an outlet for both of those things.”
Football gave Coogler some balance. “I remember stepping on the field for the first time in Berkeley … it was one of the first moments where I was like, ‘Yeah, my life has changed.’ I found something that I’m good at, that I actually like, that I can look forward to. I felt like I belonged.” Coogler stuck with the sport, becoming captain of Saint Mary’s College High School Panthers, where he also excelled in track and basketball.
He was a standout student who had dreams of studying chemistry and going to medical school — if a professional football career didn’t pan out. By the time he hit his senior year in 2003, he was being heavily recruited by schools such as Harvard, Princeton and Penn — his academics were on point.
“I wasn’t tall enough, or fast enough … to really get Pac 10 offers,” said Coogler, who played wide receiver. “I came close, but I wasn’t good enough to get those rides. I got injured my senior year … missed a few of those key games. I actually ended up coming back to play against Marshawn our senior year, which was a great game.” He said it’s one of his fondest memories from high school. “We ended up tying.”
Coogler loved Penn, but got a full scholarship to Saint Mary’s College of California. “I could still be close to home,” he said, “and Saint Mary’s College, they’d just hired an African-American coach, which is a big deal to me.” Also at the time, Derek Mason, currently head coach at Vanderbilt, was the defensive coordinator at Saint Mary’s. “He was an incredible coach, man … I really admired him. I admired working with him, and thought he was so sharp.” Once in Moraga, California, though, the balancing act of being student-athlete kicked in.
“It was crazy hard. We were practicing all the time. I ended up playing as a true freshman, so I was having a tough time my freshman year dealing with the labs, and all of the crap that was coming with chemistry. My grades were suffering, so I was coming to the stark realization, ‘Man, I probably can’t do this major and be a football player.’ It just wasn’t going to work out,” he said.
A buddy of his was majoring in accounting. “He was like, ‘Man, switch up to this business school major, you don’t have to take these crazy labs. And you can still have a good career for yourself.’ So, I already was thinking of changing majors … and then we had to take a creative writing class at Saint Mary’s. That’s where I met Rosemary Graham. She read one of my assignments, and said, ‘I think you should write screenplays.’ That was how I realized that I had a talent for writing, and I realized, maybe I want to find out how to make movies.”
It was 2004, though, and something major happened that shocked everyone on his team — the school decided to drop the football program.“Devastating,” Coogler said. “I realized how little control you have over your life as an athlete.”
Coogler didn’t have to sit out. Because the season was good, and because, as he says, he “had some really decent takes against a real good opponent,” he ended up being recruited again. New Mexico State, Brigham Young University, and Sacramento State were the schools that came calling. He ruled out New Mexico State because they wanted him to play defensive back — when he was at Saint Mary’s, he played receiver, defensive back, and he returned kicks.
Brigham Young wanted him to return kicks. But Sacramento State worked best because it was close to home, Coogler is tight with his family and he would still get to be near his two younger brothers, Noah and Keenan. It was a good move for him — in his four years there as receiver, he grabbed 112 receptions for 1,213 yards and six touchdowns.
Yet, it wasn’t all about football. “Sac State had some interesting film production programs, too. I majored in finance … and took some of those film classes,” he said. But it was football that disciplined Coogler. The sport taught him how to deal with negativity. It gave him confidence, and a fulfillment like nothing he’d ever experienced.
It didn’t take long for Coogler to find something else that fed him the way football did. Exactly 10 years after he left high school — where he’d been elected to the homecoming court and won Best Smile and Best Physique — a new game plan kicked off.
It was in 2013 when his debut indie film Fruitvale Station, won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was the story about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, the young Oakland man who was killed on New Year’s Eve in 2009 by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer. His story was brought to life by actor Michael B. Jordan, who, before this moment, was likely best known as Vince Howard in NBC’s Friday Night Lights, and of course as tragic corner boy Wallace from The Wire.
“Ryan’s the truth. He’ll never say it. He doesn’t like compliments that much, and he’s real low-key and humble, but Ryan, athletically, he was a stud,” said Jordan, who has become a frequent collaborator with Coogler, most recently on their successful reboot of Rocky with 2015’s Creed. “He played with Marshawn Lynch in college — not on the same team, but against each other. [And] he holds some record at Sac State. Ryan’s that guy!”
Coogler also is quite competitive on set, Jordan said, laughing because they’ve waged bets on foot races and wrestling competitions while working on films together. “He’s our head coach on every production. It starts with him and it trickles down. He gives you the feeling of trust,” said Jordan, who portrays a villain in Black Panther. “If he tells me to run through that wall, it ain’t gon’ hurt, I’m going to believe him. I’m going to go right through it. There’s something about him that makes you want to follow him as a leader. That’s superimportant as a director.”
And now, perhaps, here’s Coogler’s biggest moment. He’s co-written and directed one of the most anticipated films of the year — a predominantly black film with a Marvel-sized budget and Marvel-sized expectations. The pressure is real.
And Coogler is a perfectionist who knows what’s on the line. If this film does what nearly everyone is expecting it to do — a box office stunner that’s well-received critically and paves the way for other such films to get the greenlight — then a major shift in Hollywood is on the horizon. A lot of eyes are on him, but he’s keeping his cool — for now. Because football taught him how to do that.
“A lot of the things I’ve learned, I learned from playing football. You gotta lead a group of people against sometimes insurmountable odds. Every week, you’ve got to prepare for an opponent. You watch game tape. You prep. You get all your players up. But you get out there, you never know what to expect,” Coogler said. “I’m 31 years old … this is a high-intensity job. You’re responsible for a lot of money. You’re responsible for a lot of people’s livelihoods, and more importantly, you’re responsible for the audience’s dreams and expectations. There’s no way I’d be able to do this job if I hadn’t had the experience I have from playing organized sports. I’d be a different person.”