Director Ryan Coogler On Women In Hollywood, Whitewashing Characters, & ‘Black Panther’

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For the past couple of years there have been many women in Hollywood talking about the incredible gender bias behind the camera. The incredible gap between female and male directors even in 2015, where only 7% of the top 250 films were directed by a woman. EPIX recently featured a 6-part series exposed the long-standing gender gap when it comes to not just directors, but also writers, producers and cinematographers.

What really struck us about this series, as well as the ongoing conversation, is that among the female voices speaking up, we are starting to see more and more men join in. It seems the spread of awareness and enabled some men to understand just how big this problem is, and how they can play a part in changing the status quo.

Probably the most outspoken male voice on this issue has been director Paul Feig, who says it is a shame there aren’t more women directing movies. While there are certainly a number of men talking about the need for greater female driven films where women are the protagonist in a typically male-driven genre, the push for more female directors, writers and cinematographers specifically is a crucial aspect to breaking down gender bias in Hollywood.

Another director who has strong opinions about this because of his own experience is Ryan Coogler. The acclaimed director burst onto the mainstream with ‘Fruitvale Station’ in 2013, and in 2o15 breathed new life in the Rocky Balboa story in ‘Creed’. But his name is about to shot into the Hollywood stratosphere as he has been named as the first black director of a Marvel film, the upcoming ‘Black Panther’.

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In an interview with Fast Company, Ryan spoke about his ascent up the film industry ladder, the importance of hiring more women in key roles behind the camera, as well as his thoughts on the disturbing “whitewashing” trend in major films. Something incredibly cool about Ryan is that he worked with a female cinematographer on both ‘Fruitvale Station’ and ‘Creed’.

In his mind, this wasn’t about tokenism, it was about getting the best possibly result with as diverse a perspective as possible.

“You’re absolutely missing something [in a room that’s all men]. Too often, you find yourself in a room like that. Sometimes dealing with studios, you go to a session and there are only a few women, or sometimes there are none. That’s not really healthy for the creative process. That’s how stuff slips through the cracks,” he told FC’s Dan Solomon.

The fact that he hasn’t exactly made a huge noise about this, yet it is a part of his incredible success as a director, says a lot about the way he views the issue. Unlike the not-so-secret Hollywood Studio assumption that women can’t do action films like men, Ryan has proved the opposite is true.

“Everybody’s a prisoner of their own perspective. I can only see the world through my own eyes. The last few times I made a movie, I had a cinematographer who was a woman. And my editors, one of them is a woman, and the way those two view things and give notes are radically different, and when you have that balance, it’s really an asset,” he said.

We should also remind everyone that at the Academy Awards this year, it was a woman, Margaret Sixel, who took home the prize for Best Film Editing, and became only the 12th women in Oscar history to do so. And the film she edited? ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, ya know, one of those major blockbuster action films which has such a huge “boys film” legacy behind it. Well it turns out the action film genre is now well and truly a woman’s place also, and we have directors like Ryan Coogler and George Miller to thank for that.

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Aside from the gender issue behind the camera, on screen Ryan has some thoughts about the current trend of how Hollywood films tend to err on the side of choosing a white actor to play, say, a Japanese, Indian or Egyptian character. He has publicly expressed an interest in directing a live version of the uber popular Broadway musical ‘Hamilton’, and was asked by Fast Company about the way he too has changed the ethnicity of the lead character in an iconic story (‘Creed’s star was Michael B Jordan playing Adonis Creed).

“I have a real specific viewpoint on that kind of stuff. With making Creed, I wasn’t thinking I was gonna make a “black Rocky” movie, it was more that I wanted to make a movie about what me and my dad were going through, and my dad’s favorite character was Rocky, and it was kind of an allegory for us. And Apollo Creed was always there, and black people loved Apollo Creed. He was like a god to us, so it was another interesting way to bring that character back,” he said, putting to rest any dismissive arguments of him just using it as an excuse to push some sort of race agenda (trust us, this happens quite often in the media with black artists. Beyonce at the Super Bowl, anyone?).

Ryan also says what a powerful thing Lin-Manuel Miranda has done by casting only minorities in a story about the founding fathers of America, who were all white, which is different from what he did in ‘Creed’.

“I think in many ways it’s more powerful—so often, as a young black man, black people in history were often portrayed by people who didn’t look like the real people did. You could call it whitewashing—but when I close my eyes and think of what Jesus Christ looked like, it isn’t accurate to what that guy actually looked like. When I close my eyes and think of what ancient Egyptians look like, so many movies cast actors that are descendants of Vikings or something,” he said, referencing the outrage over Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings where the lead Egyptian and Hebrew characters were played by a Welsh actor (Christian Bale) and a white Australian one (Joel Edgerton).

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Of course there have been many of these types of examples, including Cameron Crowe casting Emma Stone as a half-Asian character in ‘Aloha’, and more recently, Scarlett Johnasson being cast as a Japanese anime character in the live action version of ‘Ghost In The Shell’.

The visual representation of characters on screen is incredibly powerful, and has the potential to shape how we see the world or view a person. Ryan says ‘Hamilton’ has done its own version of this and it is having a remarkable impact on audiences.

“What ‘Hamilton’ actually did is it reversed that, which is crazy, because I’d never seen it done so well and so effortlessly. So now when I close my eyes and think of Alexander Hamilton, I think of Lin. I think of Daveed (Diggs) when I think of Thomas Jefferson, which really shows the power of images and art,” he said.

“I have been on the other side of that so many times and didn’t even know it, or realize how powerful it was, the power that comes with seeing someone who looks like you doing something great. I left ‘Hamilton’ feeling incredibly empowered—more empowered than I ever had in making a work of art, and I realized this is the reversal of what happens so much,” he continued.

He mentions that there is a long history of stories of heroism on behalf of a person of color being “whitewashed” to appeal to the white audiences.

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“‘Hamilton’ is only one story reversed the other way, but throughout history everything good done by a person of color had been reversed like that. ‘Hamilton’ is so much greater than ‘Creed’ and so much more important, but because they’re different mediums, movies can go out to more people at a greater rate. They get released all over the world at once to thousands of screens,” he said, adding how many of his friends who have black sons sent him pictures of the boys boxing and punching pillows because they were inspired by seeing a man who looked like them (Adonis Creed) on screen.

As for how he is going to tie all of this knowledge and perspective into his biggest film to date, the forthcoming ‘Black Panther’, it seems he is going to call upon some of his own life experience as he did in writing and directing ‘Creed’.

“I think…a great creative challenge to me [is] to make this movie as personal as possible. It’s going to be my most personal movie to date, which is crazy to say, but it’s completely the case. I’m obsessed with this character and this story right now, and I think it’s going to be very unique and still fit into the overall narrative that [Marvel Studios are] establishing,” he said.

We can only hope that Hollywood takes Ryan Coogler’s advice and continue to mix it up behind the camera, hiring people of color, women, and LGBTQ community members as directors, writers, cinematographers, editors and executive producers. But in the meantime, we are thankful for the perspectives of a talented artist like Ryan, who are determined to use his own lived experience as a black man growing up in a white-dominated industry to change the status quo wherever he can.

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