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'Activism Is Survival': 'Creed' Director Ryan Coogler on Blackout for Human Rights and #mlkNOW

We caught up with the director to talk about activism by artists and the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. today.

Director Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan on the set of 'Creed.' Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures

In just a few short years, 29-year-old Oakland native Ryan Coogler has attained a remarkable degree of success in the film industry. Following his Sundance-anointed true-life drama Fruitvale Station (2013)—about the police killing of unarmed 22-year-old black father Oscar Grant—and his acclaimed Rocky reboot Creed, Coogler has recently signed up for his biggest project to date: to direct the upcoming Black Panther movie, the first time a Marvel Studios movie will primarily focus on a black superhero.


Coogler is also a founder of Blackout for Human Rights, a nationwide network of artists, activists, faith leaders, and citizens who came together in October 2014 following incidents including the police killings of unarmed black men like Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Michael Brown. Through a combination of films, festivals, and direct action, the group aims to raise awareness of, and combat, human rights violations visited upon Americans across the. Echoing the economic protests employed by Civil Rights campaigners in the 1950s and 1960s, the group's first major action arrived when, in the wake of the non-indictment of Brown's killer, officer Darren Wilson in November 2014, it issued a call to boycott Black Friday, America's busiest shopping day of the year.Although the precise impact of the boycott was difficult to quantify, the group repeated the activity in 2015, adding free-to-low-cost film screenings and panels in New York, Los Angeles, and Coogler's home city Oakland.

Tomorrow, on Martin Luther King Day, Blackout for Human Rights is hosting #MLKNOW, a special event to celebrate and honor Dr. King's legacy, and explore how his messages resonate in today's social climate. The venue, Harlem's Riverside Church, is significant: It'ss where King delivered his famous speech " Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence," on April 4, 1967, a year to the day before he was assassinated in Memphis. The event is free to attend, though one must register for tickets (recommended donations include clothing, canned food, and toys.) It will feature historic speeches performed by leading actors, including Harry Belafonte, Creed stars Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson, Hamilton star/creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, Chris Rock, Octavia Spencer, and Andre Holland; musical performances from India Arie, Bilal, and Anika Noni Rose; and an interactive panel, upon which Ryan Coogler will sit alongside a host of influential public figures.


I spoke to Coogler—who was in London, and slightly jetlagged after Creed's UK premiere —over the phone. After commiserating with him about the Academy's decision to overlook both he and Michael B. Jordan for Oscar nominations, I asked him about Blackout for Human Rights, the relationship between art and politics, and his own views on Martin Luther King's legacy.

VICE: Do you feel that artists have a responsibility to be actively political?
Ryan Coogler: Whether folks take it directly on their shoulders or not, I think it comes with the territory for artists to reflect on things that are going on in the world at large. In general, artists who represent, or come from minority communities, tend to have that pressure on their shoulders a little more. That being said, it's not just black folks in our network. Our network is very diverse. We have people who come from a variety of different backgrounds that are actively a part of it.

What does Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., mean to you personally?
When I was young, he was like the most well-known civil rights leader in the world; he was the one that I knew about, the one that we learned the most about at school. We had a holiday dedicated to him, but for the most part, that holiday was really just a day away from school. As I got older, I realized that there was a lot more to the man than his "I Have a Dream" speech. Since becoming an adult and having a chance to read more of his speeches, discover more about his life, and see a film like Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, who is also part of the Blackout network, it gives much more context to who he was. There's two Martin Luther Kings out there: the one that people tell you about; and the one that, as an American, you have a responsibility to read about yourself. He truly was a humanist and a revolutionary thinker. He was a profoundly selfless man, and he was doing things that were very dangerous.


The "Beyond Vietnam" speech, written by Dr. Vincent Harding, is arguably the most controversial of King's career. It's extremely critical of the state—"the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government"—and very progressive. Do you think the more radical side of him is well-enough known?
Well, there's a reason why he was killed. He's often looked at out-of-context, even within African-American communities. At this event, we're putting on two speeches by King, "Beyond Vietnam" and "I've Been to the Mountaintop." He was somewhat of a prophet. Going over those speeches today, the things he was talking about then really are just as applicable today. It's almost comical. I don't know if you watched Chappelle's Show, but he had that skit about Tupac, [which riffed on the idea] that his lyrics were so ahead of his time that people thought he was still alive—he seemed to be commenting on stuff that was so current that he couldn't have passed away several years ago. I feel that way when I read King's speeches, especially "Beyond Vietnam." And in "…Mountaintop," he talks about things that we actually talk about in Blackout. We're trying to capture the spirit of the man, and where he was at before he was murdered.

There's a disturbing continuity to the problems African-Americans face, in terms of police brutality and economic inequality. Do you feel there's now a growing willingness in younger generations to come out and say the fight is actually against structural white supremacy?
I think there is an inherent fear to talk about that stuff directly. There are those who know what white supremacy means and are afraid to talk about it for fear of the consequences, and there are those who don't understand what it is. I'm starting to see the issue being talked about more and more head-on, and with more nuance, which is important. All the things that we're dealing with, they didn't come out of nowhere. As a society, we've been dealing with these issues since the country got started. If you look at Hamilton, the musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda that's taking New York city by storm, what's interesting about it is how applicable to today the stuff that the founding fathers were talking about. These things were being talked about in the 1950s and 1960s, and some of the speeches we have scheduled for #MLKNOW come from the 1920s, and even before that. It's scary how much it applies to today, but it's simultaneously energizing to know that the things we struggle now with didn't fall out of thin air.


And you have speeches by a number of great figures in this lineup, including Malcolm X.
When we put it together, we realized that most of the men whose words we'll be reading have been assassinated. One of them, Fred Hampton [chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party] was murdered by Chicago police. Michael B. Jordan will be reading a speech by him.

Are you feeling optimistic about the effect that Blackout will have?
I can't help but feel a sense of optimism. I'm really excited about the event, and I'm not sure I've personally ever been to one like it. It's exciting for the audience member in me to see these people come together with words like this, in a venue like this, in a city like New York. To see an analysis of the situation on a greater level, and an awareness of what we want to do, across genres of work and schools of thought, from artists to journalists and teachers, people who work in the community… I think that you can't help but feel some level of optimism. That being said, it is a very scary time, and a dangerous time where lives are being lost unnecessarily, and accountability isn't there like it should be.

Do you have civil rights connections in your family, going back through generations?
Yeah, absolutely. If you peel the skin back, most people that come from marginalized groups, we all do. Activism is survival. It's what we have to do to survive. Everyone has uncles and grandparents that were activists in their own way. I 'm no different.

Before you go, I have to say congratulations about the Black Panther news. It's a major deal!
I'm really excited to have the opportunity to work on that film.

And hopefully you' ll be able to bring your own personality to it as well.
Yeah, that's the intent.

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#MLKNOW will take place on Monday, January 16, from 3–7 PM at Riverside Church in New York.