Ryan Coogler is Black Excellence

Two years ago I had been itching to see Fruitvale Station.  While the rest of my family went to go see something that was probably terrible, I made my way into the old seats of The Magic Johnson Theatre in Baldwin Hills.  Though I had only heard rave reviews, I didn’t quite know what to expect from this small film from a new director.  Not only did the film blow me away, but I felt compelled to tell the world about it.  Many of the conversations I had in the weeks after seeing the film had some version of “Have you heard of this movie Fruitvale Station?”, “Have you seen Fruitvale?”, “Yo, Fruitvale Station though…”.  The film’s director, Ryan Coogler, proved to be a master filmmaker.

 

With Creed Ryan Coogler has done it again.


 

I’ll admit I’ve only seen one Rocky movie, and it was the OG.  So, I’m no die-hard fan of the franchise or anything, but Creed has made me want to dip back into cinematic archives and dig all six films out.  This is huge, especially because I am a firm believer that many franchises just need to die.  Having reboot after reboot of old films is crowding our movie landscape and creates less space for new ideas.  Though many sequels and reboots fall incredibly short (see the most recent Fantastic Four and Shrek 3 for examples), some do truly shine.  Creed is one such reboot. Creed could be to Rocky what A Different World was to The Cosby Show.    Here’s what stood out to me in Coogler’s film:

 

Coogler does justice to Black women:

There are too few Black directors, too few  women directors, and so few directors at the intersection that it’s dismal.  This greatly attributes to the misrepresentations we see of Black women on-screen.  I have ground my teeth through multiple films and television series that portray us as paper-thin stereotypes.  Creed’s Bianca, played by Tessa Thompson, gives us a layered, nuanced depiction of a Black woman.

Too often characters in film and television are only allowed to deviate from the White, cis straight, male, able-bodied norm in one way.  This is why we rarely see LGBTQ characters of color or females with disabilities.  Coogler breaks this mold in a big way with Bianca.  Of course as the female love interest , Bianca supports our male hero, but that’s not all she does.  Coogler gives the character her own dreams to live out, and Adonis is expected to support her and those dreams as well.  Further, Bianca has a disability.  Her progressive hearing loss is a part of her story line, without completely dominating it.  Though the trope of the person with the disability that in direct contrast to their passion (i.e. the blind painter, the deaf musician, the jock in the wheelchair) can be trite, the layers Coogler gives Bianca don’t make her feel like an overdone trope and her character never falls into “inspiration porn”.  Being a Black woman and lover of both film and television means constantly having to sort through distorted images of oneself, even ones created by well-meaning Black men (I’m looking at you Lee Daniels).

In this regard Coogler and his writing partner Aaron Covington are a breath of fresh air.

 

Coogler shows the Blackness of Philly:

Several films that take place in America’s urban centers are suspiciously devoid of the racial and ethnic demographics of the actual city.  Census data from 2014 states that Philadelphia County is 44.1% Black.  We can actually see this reflected in the film.  Further, Black people are everywhere doing everything.  They train Adonis in their family gym, they race bikes down the streets, they own cheese steak joints, they’re musicians, they’re boxers.

In an interview with  Variety magazine, Creed’s cinematographer Maryse Alberti discusses the film and Coogler’s goal of portraying Philly authentically.

The gym is basically — that’s the real thing. Not much production design was added. Maybe changing a few posters, but that’s all a real gym. And one of the trainers in the gym, like the pad man, he’s the real guy. He’s it. Ryan really wanted to find the real people and give the movie authenticity. The kids, the young men and one young woman on the bikes, are the real thing. They are in Philly and they ride those bikes. So we tried to find as much of the real Philly and the people as we could. All of the fighters and boxers training in the gym are real people.

Seeing those young kids racing their motor bikes down the street, reminded me of teenagers in my neighborhood who motorized their bikes and fly down the street.  The two men making cheese steaks at the joint Bianca frequents, remind me of all of those Black restaurant owners who put their soul in their cooking and treat you like family.  The film and its characters are authentically Philly, but we have the ability to recognize them as Black people from our own lives.

Coogler let’s Black people be Black:

Two moments in the film stand out in particular.  Before Bianca’s show during the tense exchange between the event headliner, Bianca, and Adonis.  The lead of the act Bianca is opening for tells her to “stop acting light skinned’ when she tries to brush off his obvious flirtation.  Woah.  This was important for audiences to hear.  This line illustrated a larger cultural problem with colorism and how it affects our perceptions and understandings of Black women.  To the White members of the audience I’m sure this exchange produced confusion, but that’s good.  Maybe they will want an explanation and look up the significance of the statement.  As Black audiences, we are always required to empathize with characters whose experiences do not mirror our own.  It’s time for White movie-goers to do the same.

Lastly, Coogler and Covington wrote a scene where Adonis helps Bianca with her hair.  This scene turned me into the heart eyes emoji.  As Black women our hair is often intrinsically linked to the formation of our identities.  Writing about the history and politics of Black hair could fill a small library, but to see a young, Black couple so naturally chatting and doing hair together at the same time really warmed my heart.  Not only is this imagery almost non-existent in popular culture, but it was the perfect blend of authenticity and intimacy that made Creed the film that it was.

 


 

I don’t know what Ryan Coogler’s next project will be (though there are murmurs about Black Panther).  It doesn’t matter.  I will be in the theatre on opening weekend.  Black directors are frequently locked out of the Golden Gates surrounding Hollywood, and are rarely given the opportunity to tell their stories, and when they do they are relegated to biopics and a Kevin Hart buddy comedy.  Coogler is a director kicking down doors in Hollywood, and I see him keeping them open for other Black directors like him.  Whatever your weekend plans are change them and go see Creed.  It’s a phenomenal film with Black people at the helm.  Whether you go to see BAE’s biceps during the training montages or for the nostalgia of the original, you will leave the theatre knowing that Ryan Coogler is Black excellence.

 

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