Marvel announced yesterday that Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) will direct the Black Panther film.
At first glance, this appears to be a really good get for Marvel. Coogler has an impressive resume, having just made an excellent film within a popular franchise. It’s a movie that is puntuated with fight scenes, and deals with one man’s journey to live up to his father’s very public legacy, a theme that would likely be significant in Black Panther. He got tremendous performances from a young male lead, the young female lead, the acting veterans playing the mentors, and a sports star making his acting debut (as the villain). And he’s also working on a graphic novel, so the dude likes comics. He seems like the most qualified Marvel Cinematic Universe director since Kenneth Branagh. This isn’t to suggest that other directors did a bad job: Many of them just didn’t look great on paper. James Gunn had made a few independent films. Joss Whedon had some cult TV shows, and one film sequel.
The only problem wih Ryan Coogler as a director of a major supehero film is that he’s younger than I am. And that is unacceptable.
There has been a preference for identity politics with Black Panther, with the suggestion that the film should be directed by a black man, and actor Anthony Mackie getting criticized for saying that race shouldn’t matter. Coogler’s a great pick as director, but it isn’t because he’s black. First, a Black Panther film isn’t culturally African-American, since the character comes from another continent. Weirdly enough, the most successful African Director in recent years has been a white guy: Neill Blomkamp.
August Wilson had an interesting argument for why Directors should be selected sometimes for who they are, in addition to their talents.
What to do? Let’s make a rule. Blacks don’t direct Italian films. Italians don’t direct Jewish films. Jews don’t direct black American films. That might account for about 3 percent of the films that are made in this country. The other 97 percent – the action-adventure, horror, comedy, romance, suspense, western or any combination thereof, that the Hollywood and independent mills grind out – let it be every man for himself.
His way explains the success of The Godfather, Raging Bull, Do The Right Thing, Schindler’s List and Annie Hall. On the other hand, Fiddler on the Roof was directed by a protestant, Once Upon a Time in America—about Jewish gangsters—was written and directed by an Italian, Django Unchained was written and directed by a white American, Brokeback Mountain—about a love affair between two men in Wyoming—was directed by a straight Taiwanese man.
There is another argument that African American directors need a leg up because there’s a bias preventing them from getting good jobs in the industry. I think there’s a pipeline problem more than anything else. A disproportionatley low share of black directors are given the opportunities that white directors get, for a variety of reasons (white film buffs are more likely to afford film school and get the networking opportunities, connected white guys have more resources, etc.) That means African-American directors are less likely to be in a position to be considered for a major studio release, because they’re less likely to have small budget films with name actors/ genre themes to use as a calling card.
We can point to Josh Trank, James Gunn, Marc Webb, Colin Trevorrow, Gareth Edwards, and Jon Watts as directors who jumped from a smaller budget film to a blockbuster with varying degrees of success, but their previous work can be seen as suitable auditions. However, Ryan Coogler is probably in this category. His debut film cost under a million dollars, had a recent Academy Award winner in a supporting role, and had a star making turn for Michael B Jordan.
We’re comparing apple seeds to apple juice in that promising black directors are compared to white directors who were able to direct blockbusters. The implication is that there’s discrimination if a white male gets a job, but a woman or a black man with a similar resume does not. The assumption is that every promising white male director gets that opportunity, when that’s not the case. A fairer comparison would be between two promising directors who haven’t gone for big budget films yet, just to see what happens to their careers. We could compare a promising black director to David Robert Mitchell, who got rave reviews last year for It Follows, but hasn’t announced a next project yet.
It is worth noting that Marvel does actually have another POC director in the pipeline for another film. Taika Waititi, currently in negotiations to direct Thor: Ragnarok is biracial. His mother’s Jewish, and his father is Maori (subset of Polynesian).