‘I Was Broke…My Wife Scrapped Together Some Cheese’: How ‘Black Panther’ Director Ryan Coogler Was Able to Turn His Wife’s Small Investment into a $25M Fortune

The art of storytelling has been the focus of Ryan Coogler’s career as a director and screenwriter but working to bring “Black Panther” from ideation to film was a life-changing moment for Coogler. 

“We were trying to give people something they’d never seen before from a cultural standpoint and technological standpoint,” Coogler said in an interview with New York’s Hot 97. “This film gave me more than any film I’ve ever worked on.” 

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 06: Zinzi Evans and Ryan Coogler attend the 76th Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 06, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Coogler wrote the screenplay for the first installment of “Black Panther,” which premiered in 2018. The film grossed $1.3 billion and for Black Americans, it launched a shift from the endearing, culturally understood head nod to the ubiquitous Wakanda Forever signal.

When the second installment of “Black Panther” premieres in November, Coogler will further cement his place among Hollywood directors and screenwriters. Today, Coogler has inked a five-year exclusive deal with Disney that will allow him to further develop the Wakanda storyline through a series for the Disney+ streaming service. And as a result of Coogler’s visionary storytelling, he is currently worth $25 million. 

“Ryan Coogler is a singular storyteller whose vision and range have made him one of the standout filmmakers of his generation,” said Bob Iger, executive chairman of the Walt Disney Company, in a CNBC report.

From Oakland to Hollywood 

Coogler is a native of Oakland, California, having graduated from Sacramento State University before heading off to the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Coogler’s passion for directing can be witnessed in short films and in his developing screenplays such as “Story of a Dollar” and “Eyes Like Mine.”

Coogler credits his now wife, Zinzi Evans, who was his girlfriend at the time, with helping to set him in the the direction of his passion. He said in a Hot 97 interview that she encouraged him to take creative writing courses while he was a college student and even purchased a screenwriting software that would allow him to write easily. 

“I was trying to write in Microsoft Word. It’s impossible because your format gotta be right. I was broke, playing football on the little scholarship money. And my wife scrapped together some cheese and bought me Final Draft, which is the software that you write your movies on. And she got me that.”

In time, a chance meeting with Forest Whitaker would lead Coogler to write a screenplay inspired by a story of social injustice and police brutality in his hometown. Ultimately, this story would become “Fruitvale Station,” sharing the true-life story of Oscar Grant III, who was killed on New Year’s Day 2009 by BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle in Oakland, California. Premiering in 2012, “Fruitvale Station” starred Michael B. Jordan. The film went on to win the Best Independent Film Award from the African-American Film Critics Association. 

Coogler would partner with Jordan again to direct Creed and was an executive producer for “Creed II” before his big break — as the director and screenwriter of “Black Panther.”

“I was born in Oakland; the first Black Panthers I heard of were those who put up streetlights and fed the children,” he said in an interview with Hot 97, admitting not considering there could be a fictional superhero Black Panther. The market was flooded with superhero movies. How do we make it unique? How do we give them something different?’” 

When developing the story of “Black Panther,” Coogler questioned the definition of being of African descent. 

“It’s an African story,” he said. “We are asking ‘What does it mean to be African?’ ” 

Coogler’s questioning and approach to the film paid off. Since then, he has received recognition through the NAACP Image Awards and was number six on the list of Person of the Year for Time in 2018. 

“I love movies,” Coogler told Hollywood Reporter. “For me, that’s good enough.”

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