Ava DuVernay’s Heartfelt Tribute to Ryan Coogler: "I'm Happy to Be on This Journey With You"

Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler at Vulture Fest - H Getty 2017
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The ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Wrinkle in Time’ directors shared a conversation at Vulture Fest on Sunday.

Neither Ryan Coogler nor Ava DuVernay could have predicted that they’d be making two of 2018’s biggest movies — not when they were 10 years old, and not even four years ago, when they met for the first time at Sundance in 2013.

Coogler’s feature debut, Fruitvale Station, was making its world premiere at the festival, where DuVernay’s breakout, Middle of Nowhere, had opened the year before. They knew each other only from their work but introduced themselves with a long hug “as if we had known each other [personally],” DuVernay said Sunday, in a joint conversation with Coogler for Vulture Fest L.A. “There were so few like us, doing what we do. We were like kindred spirits.”

Now they’re neighbors, sharing editing suites across from one another on the Disney lot, where Coogler is putting the finishing touches on Black Panther, out Feb. 16, and DuVernay is in postproduction on A Wrinkle in Time, which will be released exactly three weeks later, on Mar. 9.

Both directors recognize the import of being handed the keys to the Magic Kingdom to create worlds that feature people of color in heroic roles. It’s a duty that Coogler said helped him to connect to his superpowered title character. “You find him at a time when Wakanda [the fictional African nation where Black Panther, aka T’Challa, is king] is struggling with its identity,” he said. “He’s aware of the responsibility and what he’s trying to do — like Ava and I.”

For DuVernay, Wrinkle presented the opportunity to re-imagine Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 fantasy classic with a biracial protagonist (Storm Reid as Meg Murry). “The opportunity to explore some real black girl magic on screen? I’m not mad at that,” said the filmmaker, who noted that Meg’s brother is played by young actor Deric McCabe, who is Filipino American, and the story’s immortal trio of Mrs. are multicultural thanks to Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling. “We took liberties to be true to the spirit [of the source material] but freed our imagination to bring these fairytales and fantasies into the current time, which is one that should be much more inclusive.”

DuVernay added that Meg is modeled after her niece Molly, down to the topknot and glasses, for whom, in part, the movie was made. “I want her to see all that’s possible for her and not have to wait until she’s 32 years old to figure it out,” said the Oscar nominee (The 13th), who famously didn’t pick up a film camera until the age of 32.

Coogler said he couldn’t have imagined the existence of Black Panther on the big screen when he was a kid growing up in Oakland, Calif., and even now, actually making the movie himself has resulted in plenty of pinch-me moments. “I have to play mind tricks on myself so that I don’t break down and lose time,” Coogler said, citing one memorable early rehearsal for a scene in which star Chadwick Boseman and veteran South African actor John Kani, who plays his father, spoke to one another in Xhosa. “Realizing that we have a father and a son having a conversation in a South African language in a Marvel movie, I was like, ‘I can’t fall to pieces right here.'”

Working on their respective films in close quarters has provided ample opportunity for mutual admiration, from the professional (“She’s like, ‘I just came from Queen Sugar, now I’m going to work on Wrinkle,’” Coogler said. “Meanwhile, I was here all day stressing about my one movie”) to the edible (Coogler’s editing suite has the best snacks, according to DuVernay).

But most significantly, having a peer who can relate to the rare background and responsibility that both directors possess has been invaluable. “I just want to thank you publicly,” DuVernay said to Coogler as the designated hour drew to a close. “To be able to look in your eyes and know that we’re doing the same thing in the same space has been so nourishing and bolstering in good times and bad. There hasn’t been a lot of bad times —you make all the times good, and I’m happy to be on this journey with you.”