From the Bay and back: Ryan Coogler’s love for the Bay Area as seen in his films

Ryan Coogler illustration, with Black Panther behind.
Hannah Cooper/Senior Staff

While “Black Panther” is remarkable for its box office accomplishments on a global scale, it also has a special place in local hearts here in the Bay Area.

After familiarizing audiences with the history of the fictional African nation of Wakanda through a spectacular sequence carried out by what can only be assumed to be vibranium sand, the film shifts to Oakland, California in 1992.

On opening weekend, the audience at Berkeley’s California Theatre erupted into cheers and applause upon seeing the word “Oakland” emblazoned on the screen in bold font near the film’s opening. Just a few miles away was this very city, one to which many of those in the audience could claim close connections, inserted into a film that was rightfully predicted to be a game-changer.

The inclusion of Oakland in the film is a bold directorial decision by Ryan Coogler, who hails from Oakland. The original Marvel Comics actually shied away from politics, even going as far as renaming Black Panther to Black Leopard for a while to avoid affiliation with the Black Panther Party in the 1970s.

But as Doreen St. Félix writes for the New Yorker and as Benson Yi and Anna Ho wrote in a recent feature for The Weekender, Coogler’s decision to change Erik Killmonger’s birthplace from Harlem — his birthplace in the comics — to Oakland is a distinctly political one. Considering Coogler’s background, however, his choice is also arguably a personal one.

A Bay Area native through and through, according to the biography on his IMDb page, Coogler was born May 23, 1986 in Oakland. He grew up in the nearby city of Richmond and attended Saint Mary’s College High School in Albany. He then went to Saint Mary’s College of California — also located in the Bay Area — on a football scholarship.

In his interview with Trevor Noah, Coogler said it was here at Saint Mary’s College that he met the mentor who encouraged him to pursue writing and filmmaking: English and creative writing professor Rosemary Graham.

Graham told The Weekender that she met Coogler when he was a freshman in her writing class at Saint Mary’s College in 2004. In his interview with Noah, Coogler talks about a story that he wrote about his father, which Graham to tell him that his writing was “visual.”

“He wrote a narrative where the external action was clear, and at the same time, through dialogue and movement, he was conveying sentiment and emotion,” Graham said. “It was a narrative about his family, so it really did make me think of screenwriting: action plus emotion.”

“He wrote a narrative where the external action was clear, and at the same time, through dialogue and movement, he was conveying sentiment and emotion.”

— Rosemary Graham

Unfortunately, Saint Mary’s College discontinued its football program in 2004, prompting Coogler to transfer to Sacramento State. According to Sacramento State’s website, he obtained a degree in Business Administration in 2007. During his time there, he was awarded the Big Sky Conference All-Academic award a grand total of three times.

“Ryan was an excellent student in every subject,” Graham added.

Eventually, he attended the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where he wrote and directed the short film “Locks” in 2009. Unlike the flashier “Black Panther,” Coogler’s earlier film is much more subdued, and Graham noted that it had a very low budget.

But judging by all that he was able to pack into a film not even 10 minutes long, the limited budget was hardly an impediment. Like the earlier work he wrote for Graham’s class, “Locks” is about selfless love between family members.

“Locks” takes place in Oakland. Toward the beginning of the film, the camera breaks away to briefly show a “Welcome to Oakland” sign. As Dante, the brother, goes on the emotional journey necessary to part with his hair, the camera takes audiences on their own journeys through Oakland that eventually converge with Dante’s.

There are landmarks that physically orient audiences, such as the aforementioned “Welcome to Oakland” sign, as well as a sign for Adeline Street and a shot of a moving BART train. But Coogler also shows audiences the political landscape of Oakland when he shows Dante frantically putting on his hoodie as he watches two Black men being handcuffed by a white police officer.

“Locks” was released before the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012 — an incident that fundamentally changed the significance of hoodies and their relation to Black men. But the question is raised: Is Dante putting on the hoodie to avoid being seen by the officer, who might apprehend him as well, or is it an act of shame at not being able to assist these Black men who have the same hair as him, an indication of community within this film? Perhaps both.

Coogler’s first feature film, “Fruitvale Station,” released in 2013, returns to Oakland and the police brutality threatening to tear its stitches apart. But the film, more than tackling race and racism, concerns itself with the desire to move past one’s past and the systematic obstacles that prevent one from doing so.

Like in “Locks,” Coogler often pans to Oakland’s many street signs. And he shows audiences the kind of community that Oakland is: one that compels people such as Oscar Grant III, portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, to call their grandmothers to help strangers make a fish fry.

But this city, like many others, is also the kind where police officers will pull unarmed Black men off BART trains and shoot them dead. The basis of “Fruitvale Station” is not an abstract one — the film is based on the murder of the real Grant. The film actually includes videos taken by bystanders who witnessed Grant’s murder.

According to Michael C. Healy’s book “BART: The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System,” Grant had been going home from New Year’s Eve festivities to celebrate the coming of 2009. At Fruitvale Station, he and his friends were pulled off the train they were on after BART police got reports of an altercation onboard.

In the ensuing chaos, BART police officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed Grant. The Alameda County district attorney charged Mehserle with murder, and a Los Angeles court eventually found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter, sentencing him to two years in prison. The murder of Grant sparked outrage in the community, inciting protests that began peacefully but often turned violent.

It was a harrowing moment for Oakland and the Bay Area, and Coogler’s adaptation of it encapsulates well the terror and pain that wracked Oakland. But in opposition to the distress, Coogler depicts a tight-knit community of people helping strangers and hurt dogs and families getting together for birthday dinners.

“Black Panther,” released in 2018, also explores issues of race — the injustices faced by Black men continue to inform Coogler’s portrayal of the city.

When Killmonger enters the ancestral plane, only to end up in the dingy Oakland apartment from the beginning of the movie rather than the open fields and purple skies that mark T’Challa’s ancestral plane, he talks to his father. At one point in their conversation, Killmonger says, “Everybody dies around here.”

His statement seems to contain traces of the anger and hurt prompted by Grant’s murder and the treatment of Black men in general.

This is the Oakland and Bay Area that Coogler grew up in and depicts, but the region’s history stretches far back into the past. For as long as Oakland has been an American town, the Black community has had a significant presence. According to Beth Bagwell’s book “Oakland: The Story of a City,” the first inhabitants of the region were the Ohlone. In the mid-1800s, the railroad was transforming the United States, and Oakland was no exception.

In fact, Oakland was the final train stop for people heading to San Francisco. In Bagwell’s section on the initial diversification of Oakland, Bagwell writes that Pullman porters were all Black by policy of the Pullman Company, which was in charge of creating the Pullman cars that made up the era’s trains.

“Naturally enough, many (Black men) chose Oakland as the place to live when they were not traveling, attracted by nearness to the railroad, the pleasant climate, and California’s relative social freedom,” Bagwell wrote.

“Naturally enough, many (Black men) chose Oakland as the place to live when they were not traveling, attracted by nearness to the railroad, the pleasant climate, and California’s relative social freedom.”

— Beth Bagwell

From there, the Black presence in Oakland grew significantly. According to the 2010 census, 28 percent of Oakland’s population is Black or African American, making this racial group the second largest.

This is the Bay Area that Coogler portrays in “Locks,” “Fruitvale Station” and “Black Panther.” The Black population is an integral part of the community, yet the institutions that are supposed to protect it all too often tear it apart. Coogler’s Bay Area is one that holds the love between its citizens in high esteem, but it is also one that makes his audiences aware of the inescapable violence enacted upon the Black community.

As much as the Bay Area informs Coogler’s works, his films are shaping up to leave an impact on the region — and even our generation, too.

“I’ve had students say things like, ‘I want to be your next Ryan Coogler,’ even before (the release of) Fruitvale Station,” Graham said.

His pride for his hometown manifests itself in even more direct ways. On the opening night of “Black Panther,” Coogler showed up to Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre, San Francisco’s Metreon and Emeryville’s AMC Bay Street 16 to greet moviegoers.

As Coogler’s films continue to catapult him into the global limelight, the Bay Area seems a constant anchor, holding its place as his muse and his home.

Contact Ericka Shin at [email protected].