Scene by Scene explores an auteur’s finest moments — the scenes that let you know you are in the hands of a master storyteller. This week, Sam honors Ryan Coogler, whose latest film, Black Panther, continues to break box-office records and inspire audiences across the globe. It is currently the highest-grossing movie ever made by a black filmmaker.
Coogler has three feature films under his belt, and each one is a visionary masterpiece. From a raw, devastating urban drama to a refreshing sports story and a timely comic-book tale, his films are distinct and unforgettable.
Here are some standout scenes from his filmography thus far. He’s bound to have plenty more movie magic up his sleeve in the years to come.
FRUITVALE STATION: STRAY DOG
Coogler’s heart-wrenching feature-film debut tells the tragic, infuriating story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man who was shot in the back by a white police officer while lying face down on a subway platform on New Year’s Day in 2009.
Fruitvale Station details the events leading up to Grant’s death. This scene, in which he sees a dog hit by a car, emerges as the most visually poetic moment — a poignant example of innocence snatched away in an instant. It foreshadows Grant’s fate and the untimely deaths sweeping the nation to this day.
Coogler took inspiration for the scene from a story his brother told him. In a Huffington Post interview, Coogler explained: “He told me he was at a gas station and had an interaction with a dog and then saw the dog get hit by a car. At that moment I thought about Oscar. I thought about all of the black males who die in the street and life goes on.”
The dog in the film is a pit bull — a breed Coogler found to be symbolic of black men in the way it’s stigmatized.
“You never hear about a pit bull doing anything good in the media,” Coogler said. “In many ways, pit bulls are like young African-American males. Whenever you see us in the news, it’s for getting shot and killed or shooting and killing somebody — for being a stereotype. There’s a commonality with us and pit bulls — often we die in the street.”
With this brief yet haunting scene, Coogler emerges as a true auteur. His voice comes through loud and clear in this quiet, intimate moment.
CREED: ROCKY’S SICK
Coogler grew up with the Rocky films, watching them with his father, Ira, to pump himself up for his school football games. When Ira was a young man, he watched these movies as his mother lay dying of cancer, finding comfort in Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed’s triumphs over physical and emotional obstacles. Little did Coogler know he would have a similar experience, forging a deeper bond with the films when Ira fell ill.
In a New York Times interview, Coogler said: “I was dealing with seeing him become weak, and our relationship changed as a result of it. I had to deal with his mortality. That’s when I came up with the idea of Creed.”
Coogler’s pain courses through this scene in which the titular Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) discovers Rocky is sick. This moment arrives like a punch to the gut, brimming with the kind of painful authenticity that comes only from personal experience. It also features the most tender, deeply felt acting of Sylvester Stallone’s career. Coogler draws a performance from Stallone that transforms Rocky from a larger-than-life icon into an achingly human character. Meanwhile, Jordan makes Creed’s heartbreak our own when he learns that the legendary boxer may not have any fight left in him.
BLACK PANTHER: A KID FROM OAKLAND BELIEVING IN FAIRY TALES
In this scene, mercenary Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is transported from the plains of Wakanda back to his childhood home in the projects of Oakland, California. He’s reunited with his father (Sterling K. Brown), who was killed when Erik was a little boy.
“No tears for me?” his father asks. “People die every day,” Erik responds. “That’s just life around here.”
This painfully intimate moment encapsulates the power of Black Panther — its ability to quietly remind us of real-world issues amid explosive comic-book spectacles.
Before this dialogue exchange, we see young Erik looking through mementos from his father’s home in Wakanda, daydreaming of escaping the urban decay around him. In this moment, we come to understand his ruthless desire to rule Wakanda, and we see him as more than a mere villain. We see a scarred kid from Oakland wanting to run free in a fairy-tale world.
From building Oscar Grant’s backstory in the wake of his death to exploring the emotional pain behind Adonis Creed’s fighting career, Coogler infuses each of his characters with a rich, poignant history. And even when he’s working within a mythical comic-book world, he makes it feel lived in and achingly real.