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Is Ryan Coogler an Auteur Director?

Nowadays, the term auteur in moviemaking is commonly assumed to be referring to the director’s ability to leave an unmistakable mark of his/her individuality on the cinematographic pieces that he or she oversees being put into production. As Van Der Pol noted: “Directors are given the distinction of auteur for… creating a distinguishable personality and propelling an interior meaning within their film” (20). The commercial logic of the movie industry’s development suggests that, as time goes on, it will be increasingly harder for directors to be endowing their cinematographic creations with a strong authorial spirit. This implies that, as of today, only a few contemporary movies do have what it takes to be deemed, auteur. May the films Fruitvale Station, Creed, and Black Panther by Ryan Coogler be counted among them: something that would, in turn, establish Coogler as an emerging auteur director? In the author’s opinion, even though the first of these suppositions do not hold much water, the second one indeed makes much sense. That is, although all of the mentioned films cannot be considered auteur per se, they do contain several authorial cinematographic elements. This paper will explore the validity of the above-suggested at length.

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Every time the concept of auteur cinema is being evoked, this brings in mind the great films of Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, and Federico Fellini, which were produced through the 1960s-1970s. Nothing is surprising about it: the most prominent conventions of the auteur style in moviemaking have been envisaged in France during the late 1950s. This explains the term’s actual etymology.

The most typical indications that a particular movie is indeed auteur are as follows:

  • Contextualism. That is, the strong role of mise-en-scene in defining the messages, conveyed by every scene/shot within the movie. This, in turn, requires the audience to focus on the film’s contextual overtones, as the actual pathway to grasping these messages.
  • Intellectual progressiveness. Auteur directors often claim that it is specifically their desire to make this world a better place motivates them the most, within the context of how they work on a particular movie. As a result of having been exposed to it, the audience is expected to attain a better understanding of the surrounding social reality and its place in it. According to Rountree: “Auteur directors are interested in transforming, enlightening, and often healing to empower their audiences through the channel of an ‘alert consciousness’” (127). This partially explains yet another peculiarity of an auteur film: the unconventional/controversial sounding of the themes and motifs, contained in it.
  • Visual expressionism. It represents a common practice among auteur directors to rely on the specifically expressionist/constructivist approaches to ensuring the spatial and psychological integrity of the plotline in their films.
  • Representational consistency. In this regard, the reference is made to the fact that, as it was pointed out in the Week One FILM 2401 2019.

lecture: “Great movie auteurs typically show visual, aesthetic and thematic consistencies across their body of work” (12). The films of Quentin Tarantino exemplify the validity of this statement. After all, despite being concerned with exploring different plotlines, these movies nevertheless exhibit a distinct casuistic pattern, concerning how the director has gone about ensuring that they will appeal to viewers.

Once tested against these criteria, all three of Coogler’s films will appear to be authorial to an extent. Fruitvale Station is probably the most notable, in this regard. The rationale behind this suggestion has to do with both the movie’s quasi-documentary format and the fact that the director wanted this particular film to serve as a powerful warning about the evils of subtle racism and racial profiling. Enough, there were many political implications to the theatrical release of Fruitvale Station in 2013, with at least a few of them having been extrapolative of the particulars of the director’s ideological stance. There, however, is even more to it: the concerned film contains at least two easily recognizable authorial signatures. The first of them is the director’s decision to use the hand-held shooting technique in a number of the film’s scenes. This, in turn, increases the psychological plausibility of the on-screen action and causes the audience to regard Fruitvale Station as being rather memorable.

The second one has to do with the fact that the discussed movie features the abundance of silent scenes, in which the characters are seen looking at each other for a long time as if they were indulging in some kind of telepathic conversation. This correlates with the authorial tradition of encouraging viewers to focus their attention on the unspoken or contextual aspects of the film’s overall message to the world. Hence, yet another notable feature of Fruitvale Station: Coogler’s decision to take advantage of the non-verbal means of conveying messages to the audience. That is, in the discussed film, “stories told partially through gestures and body movements” (Week Six FILM 2401 2019 11). At the same time, however, Fruitvale Station cannot be regarded as such that fully adheres to the conventions of the auteur style in cinematography. The reason for this is that there is too much spatial integrity to the director’s approach to constructing the sequence of takes, shots, and scenes. While making it much easier for the audience to follow the on-screen action, the deployment of such an approach results in making it much harder for the director to come up with a personal statement, as an integral part of producing a movie.

Coogler’s film Creed appears to be the least authorial of all three, despite the fact it was named the director’s memory of his father having suffered from a neuromuscular disorder that inspired him to write a screenplay for it (Hastie 75). The main reason for this is that the movie’s themes and motifs are much too conventional (as for Hollywood). In its bare essence, Creed is the story of a young African-American man, who succeeds in becoming a famous boxer: all due to the sheer strength of his commitment to proving himself a worthy man in his own eyes. One does not need to be a film critic to recognize the archetypal nature of the outlined motif: something that alone stands out strongly opposed to the main provisions of the auteur genre, as a whole.

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Nevertheless, a few authorial signatures can be found in Creed, as well. The most prominent of them is the director’s tendency to accentuate the non-verbal particulars of how the featured characters socialize with each other in the informal settings, just as is being the case in Fruitvale Station. For example, there is plenty of scenes in Creed, where the two main characters (Rocky Balboa and Adonis Creed) are shown reaching a mutual understanding over one or another debatable issue without having to say a word to each other. Another authorial signature of Creed is that it features a few expressionist-styled blacks and white shots in which Adonis is seen punching the bag.

At an initial glance, it may appear that Coogler’s latest film Black Panther does not have what it takes to qualify as auteur, by definition. After all, the director’s foremost priority in this particular case was ensuring that the movie will prove to be commercially successful. Nevertheless, it is specifically Black Panther that leaves very little doubt about the director’s deep-seated attraction with the auteur moviemaking style. In this regard, one can mention the expressionist-styled recollections of the past, on the part of the film’s main character T’Challa, consisting of the photographic shots of him wearing a Western suit and experiencing emotional angst as a result. There is no “center of meaning” that supposedly binds these shots together, in the discursive sense of this word, except for the one that exists solely in the director’s mind.

Black Panther is also rich with the “wordless conversation” scenes, just as is the case with the earlier mentioned films. What makes them much different from the ones featured in Fruitvale Station and Creed is that they are filled with implicit symbolism, which in turn appears to be reflective of the director’s worldview. For example, while in the altered state of consciousness, T’Challa travels to what may be described as the “Africa-centered heaven” and talks to his deceased father, who before his son’s arrival had the appearance of a black panther. The motif of a black panther resurfaces throughout the film’s entirety while connoting the message of Afro-Centrism in a truly unique way. This alone suggests that Black Panther is indeed affected by the auteur genre in cinema.

Nevertheless, even though there are elements of this genre to be found in all three of Coogler’s movies, the latter cannot be regarded as auteur per se. The reason why it appears to be the case is different with each of these films. For as long as Fruitvale Station is concerned, the director was not at liberty to have too much on his individuality showing in it, to begin with. After all, it is based on a true story, and Cooler wanted it to be as representationally accurate as possible. Creed also falls short of the definition as an auteur movie: its themes and motifs are much too archetypal to be deemed characteristic of the director’s unique style. Black Panther is a phantasy flick, with its main purpose being the generation of commercial profit (Robinson and Neumann 4). This once again suggests that the director was not in the position to focus on exploring his creative genius in it.

Therefore, it will be appropriate to conclude this paper by confirming the validity of its initial thesis: Rayan Coogler cannot be considered an auteur director as of yet. However, it may be the case that he will become one in the future. After all, as one can infer from what has been said earlier, Coogler is indeed aware of what the authorial cinematographic conventions stand for and he never hesitates taking practical advantage of them when the opportunity presents itself.

Works Cited

Hastie, Amelie. “Ryan Coogler’s Creed: Showing the Love.” Film Quarterly, vol. 69, No. 4, 2016, pp. 72-77.

Robinson, Marsha, and Caryn Neumann. “Introduction: On Coogler and Cole’s Black Panther Film (2018): Global Perspectives, Reflections and Contexts for Educators.” The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 11, no. 9, 2018, pp. 1-12.

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Rountree, Cathleen. “Auteur Film Directors as Contemporary Shamans.” Jung Journal, vol. 2, no. 2, 2014, pp. 123-134.

Van Der Pol, Gerwin. “Spectator’s Trust as an Indicator of Film Authorship. Is Vinterberg a Film Auteur?” Studies in European Cinema, vol. 12, no. 1, 2015, pp. 19-34.

Week One FILM 2401 2019.

Week Six FILM 2401 2019.

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