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Bay Area’s Own Ryan Coogler Honored at SFFILM Awards Night

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A man in a suit and glasses poses next to a woman against a promotional backdrop
Zinzi Evans (R) and director Ryan Coogler arrive at SFFILM Awards Night at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Dec. 05, 2022 in San Francisco, California. (Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images)

Ryan Coogler received a hero’s welcome.

At the 2022 SFFILM Awards Night on Monday evening, the Bay Area-raised film director was honored with the Irving M. Levin Award for Film Direction. “I’m from here, so this hits very different,” Coogler said while accepting the award for his body of work to date, which includes Fruitvale Station, Creed and both Black Panther films.

From behind the podium at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, Coogler reflected on his early days as a struggling filmmaker: Moving back in with his parents in the East Bay after attending film school in Los Angeles. Being saddled with student loan debt while working a day job in San Francisco. Wondering if his dream to be a filmmaker would ever be realized.

Then, Coogler recounted, “I ended up getting into the Sundance Institute Screenwriting Lab. That’s where I met the great Anne Lai.” Lai – at the time working with Sundance, now SFFILM’s executive director – made the introductions that led to Coogler’s first filmmaking grant from SFFILM, then known as the San Francisco Film Society. The grant proved pivotal, helping him move out of his parent’s house and into production on his first feature film, Fruitvale Station.

Director of Programming Jessie Fairbanks, actress Danai Gurira and Executive Director Anne Lai arrive at SFFILM Awards Night at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Dec. 5, 2022 in San Francisco, California. (Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images)

One of Coogler’s guests for the evening, along with his wife Zinzi Evans, was one of his former college professors, who he thanked for having “a profound impact” on his life. “I didn’t know I wanted to make movies seriously until my professor, Rosemary Graham, suggested it,” Coogler revealed. Graham retired this year after 30 years teaching English and Creative Writing at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, where she taught Coogler as a freshman in 2004.

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After the event, Graham remembered the impression that 17-year old Coogler made on her. “His writing really stood out from the beginning,” Graham told KQED. “Very cinematic action, emotion, dialogue. It was all there.”

Graham remembered telling Coogler that he should go to Hollywood to write screenplays, “and I don’t know what possessed me,” she said. “I had never said it to anyone before, and I haven’t said it to anyone since.”

Graham’s comments echoed actor Danai Gurira’s effusive, poetic praise for Coogler when presenting him with the award. “His uniqueness is contagious,” Gurira repeated multiple times between stories about Coogler’s character, work and impact. Gurira, who stars as Okuye in the Black Panther films, added that “it is beyond rare to find someone whose sum parts are wildly talented and simultaneously solid, honest, direct, gentle, deeply thoughtful and grounded in integrity.”

A woman in a black top and long black skirt poses in front of a promotional backdrop
Actress Margot Robbie arrives at SFFILM Awards Night at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Dec. 5, 2022 in San Francisco, California. (Steve Jennings/WireImage)

Other honorees Monday night included Canadian writer, actor and director Sarah Polley, who wrote and directed Women Talking; actor Stephanie Hsu of the fantastical indie blockbuster Everything Everywhere All At Once; and actor Margot Robbie, who’s gotten early Oscar buzz for her performance in Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, out later this month.

Robbie thanked Chazelle for giving her “the role of a lifetime” with the character Nellie, who “dreams of being a part of something bigger than her. Something that means something.” Robbie added: “I feel that way too. And I think cinema at its best can do that.”

In the end, though, it was Coogler who got the audience on its feet — twice. Expressing his gratitude for filmmaking grants like SFFILM’s, and citing himself as living proof of their impact on an artist’s career, Coogler concluded his remarks with an acknowledgment of the influence he now has.

“I promise,” he said, “to continue to pay it forward.”

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