Academic Stories

Black Excellence: the 2016 Kent Lecture

A little after 7 p.m. on February 9th, Ryan Coogler, the director of the critically-acclaimed films Fruitvale Station and Creed, took to the podium in the ornately beautiful Mandel Hall, ready to talk about his experience of being a successful young black filmmaker.

“I’m super nervous, but I’m super happy to be here,” he said, before he began explaining to the crowd of predominantly black students and Hyde Park community members why he tells the stories that he does. This was the 2016 Kent Lecture.

Established by the Organization of Black Students (OBS) in 1984, the annual George E. Kent Lecture, named after UChicago’s first tenured black professor, aims to introduce the community to influential African-Americans. Previous Kent Lectures have included a number of influential black intellectuals and activists, like author James Baldwin, activist Angela Davis, Senator Cory Booker, and author of The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander.

“This is our big thing,” Chase Woods, a third-year student and the Political Chair of OBS, said about the Kent Lecture. “It’s our handprint on the UChicago community and that whole life of the mind mantra of hopefully provoking interesting thinking and different ideas that people had not been exposed to.”

As Political Chair, Woods organized the Kent Lecture and, in collaboration with the OBS board, chose Coogler for this year’s event in part because his movies speak to many of the current dialogues surrounding race.

“He’s current and he’s doing a lot of interesting things that have been done before but not in the telling of a younger generation,” Woods said before Coogler’s lecture. “Black life the swing of a movement that we will all look back upon in like 50 years and be like ‘Oh I remember this era in black life.’”

At 29, Coogler is one of the youngest individuals chosen to give a Kent Lecture. He entered the world of Hollywood filmmaking with Fruitvale Station, which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. The winner of that year’s Grand Jury Prize, the movie tells the poignant and true story of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black 22-year old who was shot by police on New Year’s Eve of 2008. He followed that film with Creed, a 2015 film that added a new, more diverse chapter to the Rocky franchise. Telling the story of Adonis Johnson, the son of Rocky Balboa's late rival Apollo Creed, the movie comments on strength, identity, and legacy.

He began his lecture by talking about what he’s learned about himself through his work as a filmmaker and how his art fits into today’s struggle for equality. His childhood echoed the experience of many young African Americans who grew up unable to find characters like themselves in text or in film.

“Oftentimes,” he said, “I felt like they would show only one dimension that wouldn’t match up with myself.” When he got into filmmaking, Coogler decided to tell the stories he would’ve wanted to see–stories about people like him, his family, and his friends.

He encouraged the students in the audience to educate themselves and to seek out knowledge on their own in order to better understand our world and the systems that led to the death of Oscar Grant, the subject of his first movie. He also spoke about the pressure from other successful people to “get away from where I was from,” and associate himself more with whiteness as he became more successful.

“It’s an issue specific to academically successful African Americans” he said, adding that “it’s kind of our duty to fight against…the urge to be removed from your people and the people that need to hear your voice.”

Ending his lecture by calling students to action, Coogler told them that he believes that it is the job of educated and successful African Americans to make things better for others. He encouraged students to fight for change, both while in school and in the world at large. “There’s nobody stopping you,” Coogler said.

Chase Woods, Political Chair of OBS, engages Ryan Coogler in a Q&A session at the 2016 Kent LecturePhoto By: Shae Gatsby Photography

Following his lecture, Woods engaged Coogler in a riveting question and answer session,covering everything from how Coogler got his start in film, to his artistic process and his favorite movies, to police brutality and the death of Oscar Grant and the far too many others were killed similarly. Humble about his accomplishments, Coogler was also open and refreshingly honest in his answers.

When the floor was opened to audience questions, Coogler advised students on how to get involved in the film/music industry, spoke more about the need for accurate and non-stereotyped African American representation in media, and told the audience that good art “makes you feel something.”

Coogler also told the audience that he couldn’t give away any hints on Black Panther, the upcoming movie he has been tapped to direct featuring one of Marvel’s only black characters.

Students had an overwhelmingly positive response to the lecture and his answers during the Q&A. "I thought that Mr. Coogler was a great speaker. He was really funny, he was very engaging,” said Alison Thrash, a first year considering a major in Cinema and Media Studies.

“It's just nice to know there is someone out there who is trying to represent black people,” Trash added. “He really wants to show who we are, rather than [the] stereotypes that are usually placed upon us."

According to OBS President Stephanie Greene, this year’s Kent Lecture had great turnout. “It was definitely one of the most packed houses we've had in a couple of years.”

The Kent Lecture, like the rest of OBS’s programing, works to speak to the experience of black students on campus and to the experience of blackness in general. Said Woods, “[The takeaway is] for people to realize what is going on and to hopefully spur dialogues among students that are fruitful and very beneficial to this campus.”