2016 Film Essays

Ryan Coogler and Black Intimacy


After Oscar snubbing and a subsequent Chris Rock drubbing, everyone recognizes the problem Hollywood has with the black community. “Sorority racism” — a veneer of tolerance while the racist machinations behind the scenes manifest in phrases like “fiscally unfeasible” and “for an urban audience” — haunts the industry. Let’s be very specific. Hollywood doesn’t trust modern movies about black stars featuring black love interests. And that’s not to say these stories aren’t being told. In fact, we’ve found ourselves at the ignition of a new master’s career: Ryan Coogler.

Breaking the mold and raising his cinematic voice by embedding black intimacy in his movies, Coogler, in Creed and Fruitvale Station, uses mothers, girlfriends, children, squads of friends and Michael B. Jordan to create community. He shows loss, disappointment and togetherness in black households, building characters through relationships in movies that evoke black bodies in different, violent ways.

The eloquent Hunter Harris wrote a piece for Indiewire lamenting the lack of modern middleground and sincere black romances. From the historically vital to the Kevin Hart-farcical to the preachy Tyler Perry, there are so few options for young black relationships to be taken seriously but not homiletically. There’s no “normal.”

Ryan Coogler revels in the normal. From picking up his daughter and racing her to the car, to having innocuous spats with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) before dropping her off at work, Michael B. Jordan’s home life as Oscar Grant III in Fruitvale Station develops an effortless routine with the actors’ easy rapport and Coogler’s loving framing. Helping Mom with the dishes or talking smack about sports with family friends, everything’s tight, squeezed in, always touching but never uncomfortable — something immediately relatable to those young and less affluent.


Throughout Fruitvale Station, whether it’s a goodbye kiss or back-room sex while Grandma watches the daughter, the spaces are confined, warm, and more familiar than the typically sterile modern films that Harris lists in her call for more black romances. The same goes for the burgeoning relationship in Creed. We glimpse the little moments between Apollo (Jordan) and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) that signal the delicate intermediate steps between infatuation and love, which are invariably close moments, either dancing in Tessa’s apartment or tenderly unbraiding her hair.


Bianca and Sophina have their own style, their own characters and their own agency, intrinsically entwining feminism with the possibility of realistic romance, even in male-dominated movies. Their career goals, inner lives and proactive sexualities (rather than reactive) deepen their relationships.

On the platonic side of things, Coogler meshes the messy machismo with the warm loyalty in his on-screen friendships. The transition from the bottle and aux-cord sharing dance party on the train to the grudge match against a white supremacist covers the spectrum of male closeness. Even the joking but not hateful “we’re gay too” rebuttal of Oscar’s friends when unknowingly hitting on a lesbian couple normalizes black male closeness. It’s no accident that Fruitvale Station’s violence, from the prison flashbacks to the climactic murder, is all white-on-black. In Creed, where more symbolic violence pounds a black man, friendship develops between Sylvester Stallone’s mentoring Rocky and Apollo. But the closest Apollo feels to anyone, the true sign that he’s made it, is when he trains on the streets of his new city, surrounded by a black group of dirt-bikers. The camaraderie is accompanied by the triumphant horns of the Rocky score, clearly intended to be the moment of ultimate belonging to modern black culture.


The importance of embedding close, realistic black intimacy in films that aren’t necessarily love stories is another step in getting to that new “normal.” Each step of the movie-making process almost has to be remade when the subjects aren’t overwhelmingly white. Ann Hornaday wrote a great essay about the cinematography of black bodies, how lighting and digital effects must shift to capture the intricacies of color. A similar normalization is taking place in Coogler’s films: the filming of black love outside of strictly romantic contexts. A sports film and a modern character study over a murder — neither NEEDED a love interest. But that’s what most movies do.

So Coogler approaches this angle, developing relationships that each possess an inherent quality that amplifies the rest of the drama — the ideal of any romantic interest — while reaffirming black cultural touchstones with their affection. Entwining these so deftly and effortlessly in the narrative, Coogler has created two movies that love their characters of color and love that they love each other. While these attitudes are still heavily in the minority of Hollywood films (especially considering it took a lot of scrappy indie funding to make Fruitvale Station), their critical acclaim and undeniable financial heft should (operative word) mean that we get an influx of millennial answers to Love & Basketball.

From AAA TV to Z-movies, Oklahoma City-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.


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