On Tuesday, Mandel Hall opened its doors to screenwriter and film director Ryan Coogler, the guest speaker at this year’s Kent Lecture presented by the Organization of Black Students (OBS).
Coogler is best known for directing critically acclaimed movies Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015). The 29-year-old Oakland, CA native focused the talk on his early life, his experiences and influences in the film industry, and Blackness in mixed forms of media like film and music.
“I really liked consuming the movie industry, even as a small child. But I didn’t see enough people like me. So when I realized I had a passion, I’d write a story that I’d see myself watching,” Coogler said.
The annual event was first organized by OBS in 1984 to honor the late George E. Kent, Ph.D., one of UChicago’s earliest tenured African-American professors and its first African-American professor of English. Since then, the lecture has served as a platform for other African-American luminaries to share their experiences and to offer advice to students. Past speakers include Gwendolyn Brooks, Dick Gregory, Cornel West, Nikki Giovanni, Michael Eric Dyson, Michelle Alexander, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Following his brief speech was an hour-long Q&A session, led by OBS Political Chair Chase Woods. The director discussed his transition into the movie industry, saying that he originally planned to become a doctor but had a change of heart after injuring himself playing college football. During his time off the field, Coogler noticed racial prejudices in his community and in the news and started writing short films based on those experiences. He says that his inspiration for directing Fruitvale Station in particular came from seeing racial and socioeconomic divides between people of different races.
Fruitvale Station is based on a true story about a young black man who was killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer. “I wrote this movie because I was thinking, ‘How could this happen?’ I didn’t have an answer when I wrote the movie, and I didn’t have an answer when I finished…. But I realized that the greatest thing I can do as a black man is educate myself,” Coogler said about the film.
Coogler says his inspiration for Creed, a spinoff of the Rocky film series, stemmed from his relationship with his father. In his opinion, the film is a story that tests family relations and a person’s will to persevere in a society where the odds are against him. The movie also stars Michael B. Jordan, along with Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, and Phylicia Rashad.
“It’s your duty to fight the system. You guys said you don’t have an African American studies major here, but if you want that, then you have to fight for it. And no matter how successful you are in the end, you are only as happy as your brother is,” Coogler said.
During the Q&A, Coogler also responded to questions about the role of films in society and whether or not he worries about making politically charged movies.
“Being labeled as a political director is not something I worry about. It takes more than one movie to change an atmosphere.... Something I’ve learned is that language, through different mediums, has an incredible power, and things morph over time.”
Other questions concerned the nature of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Coogler said he not only supports the movement, but believes that such political actions have existed for a long time.
“I am supportive, and I’ve always been interested in studying these issues. These issues and movements have existed forever, and when I say things morph over time, I mean that slavery can now be thought of as the prison industrial complex,” Coogler said.
Students at the event expressed hope that Coogler’s awareness and enthusiasm will encourage the University and the media to support the skill sets of minority groups. OBS Treasurer Kennedy Green hopes the event will foster greater awareness of achievements that should be celebrated. “This [event] is important especially in light of what’s been going on on-campus. And it’s Black History Month, which is often ignored in the media, so it’s important to bring people like Ryan here to restore some value to our accomplishments,” she said.
The lecture drew residents of Hyde Park and Chicago in addition to University students. Aspiring actress and creative director Tessa Gillett said her favorite part of the discussion was Coogler’s explanation of what he learned from his experiences. “There’s definitely a common language between film and other mediums, like art and music, and it’s so important to see that. The only way to know yourself and your craft is to explore those mediums,” she said.