An Interview With Kansas City-Based Filmmaker Morgan Cooper
“I couldn’t let go of it.”
Seven years ago, on his 18th birthday, Kansas City-based filmmaker and cinematographer Morgan Cooper stood in line for four hours at Best Buy on Black Friday, in the freezing cold. It was there that he bought his first video camera.
“I couldn’t let go of it,” he says.
From then on, he was shooting every single day. He began filming weddings and picking up smaller gigs, and has now worked with massive brands like Hostess, Dr. Pepper and Dairy Queen, though his ultimate goal is feature-length dramas. Cooper recently completed cinematography on a short film that explores policing in America through narrative, written and directed by friend Tosin Morohunfola. He also released a trailer for another short film called “Sundown Town,” which portrays the effects of racism over time through a different type of narrative. These weightier pieces coexist alongside a charming fantasy-football-inspired commercial for a sporting company and a barista creating latte art to promote a local coffee shop.
“My style came from making mistakes and not being afraid to take risks,” says Cooper. “Behind the camera, that’s how I want to be known: as someone who takes risks. I like to shoot from the heart,” he says.
Cooper uses much of his earlier experiences in adolescence and childhood as inspiration, though at the time he didn’t know how it would ultimately manifest. “I grew up watching all kinds of films. Hood films. Part of the black experience includes a certain list of films. Most black people have probably seen them: “Above The Rim,” “Friday” and “Blue Streak” are a few. I grew up watching those hood classics. But I also watched Power Rangers and things like that. The first really meaningful film for me was “Juice,” which is just about four young black guys in Harlem. It stars Tupac Shakur and Omar Epps. I was too young to comprehend exactly how things were happening with the camera, but there was something about the way the story was being told that was just incredible. It doesn’t even seem like they know a camera is there. You just get so lost in it.”
Born and raised in south Kansas City, Cooper admittedly spent much of his youth with his head in the clouds. “I got really poor grades in high school. But it wasn’t because I didn’t understand the content.” After school, instead of working on homework, he’d go home and make hip-hop beats on GarageBand. Currently stationed in Kansas City’s River Market neighborhood, Cooper has a penchant for the city’s architecture and the honesty of the rotating four seasons. “When I graduated from high school, college wasn’t really an option. I didn’t think I’d thrive there,” he says. “It definitely hasn’t been glamorous, I’ll tell you that.”
Keep reading as Cooper shares about his journey living a creative life as a cinematographer.
What has your experience been as a creative in Kansas City?
The cool thing about working in Kansas City is that there is a lot of talent, plus commercial and corporate work. I’m always busy here, and there’s more than enough work for everyone. People think, “How could you possibly make a living as a DP there?” The saturation on the coasts is much higher. In L.A., you don’t stand out as much. But here in Kansas City, I’ve been able to get my name out, and the rates are really good out here. Just from a work standpoint, day-to-day, it’s great. Kansas City itself is also just a diamond in the rough. With the architecture, you can get really gritty, beautiful looks. People are much nicer and willing to let you use locations in town. Getting clearance to shoot is easy. There’s no traffic. In L.A., if I have to go to Pasadena for a shoot or something and then drive across town, I have to get in the car two hours beforehand. I’ve worked in L.A. quite a bit. It’s beautiful, and there’s definitely an energy to it. It’s very go-go-go. You’re in the car a lot, but that’s just part of the experience.
How do you approach new projects?
With the camera, there’s so much we can do to fuel the story. It’s our job to bring the idea to life, from copy on paper. It’s all about taking the viewer somewhere, or they’ll be disengaged.
I am also hyper-attentive to detail. It’s extremely important to me and drives me crazy sometimes. I’ll look at a frame for 30 minutes and really dissect it. I’ll think, “How’s the light hitting the subject? How can I tweak it?” I tell people the difference between good and great is five extra minutes. You have to fight for that frame, and live and die by that frame. Give me five more minutes, and I’m going to make this great. The AD may be frustrated, but when it’s delivered to the client, everyone’s going to be happier.
What are some films you’ve been loving recently?
I’ll riff off a few. “Moonlight” is one. “Spotlight” was great. It’s a hard-hitting film, of course, but the way it was done was very appropriate, given how heavy the subject matter is. I’d definitely recommend it. Especially for any writer, it’s a must-see. “Fruitvale Station” is amazing. I loved “La La Land.” I was so moved by that film. I walked out of the theatre on the verge of tears. It was so powerful to me. That, and “Moonlight.” Something about “La La Land”—obviously the cinematography was beautiful, but the acting and the story really touched me. The montage at the end was super heavy. Another one that really moved me was “Carol.” That was such a beautiful film.
What are some of the issues you see with how black characters are portrayed in narrative storytelling?
I think the show “Empire,” and shows like it, are actually really destructive in a lot of ways when it comes to that issue. It’s great to see black actors getting work on that level—but the message that’s being sent to viewers on a larger scale, and in their subconscious, is that all black people behave this way. They can only make it through drug dealing, rapping or being a record executive at a hip-hop label. That’s not the real story. That show doesn’t acknowledge the everyday black person—normal, everyday black people, just like anyone else. The average black family isn’t shown enough. You have screenwriters who don’t know black people, and you can hear it in the dialogue, and they say things we would never say. You can tell.
Another writer/director/actor friend of mine, Tosin [Morohunfola], recently guest-starred on “Empire.” There was this scene he’s in, and just the way he’s talking and how he says the dialogue—we were both like, “There is just no way a brother wrote this.” We had a long conversation about it. The film “Hidden Figures” has some similar issues. I really liked the film as a whole, and I wanted to feel empowered watching it, but there were parts where the white savior trope felt pandering and patronizing. I’m sure the writer/director didn’t mean harm, but you can just tell with some of the dialogue. I definitely think about this a lot. They’re so different from films like “Fruitvale Station” and “Moonlight,” films with black leads about black stories written about black people. Those are very genuine and very real.
I have to ask: what did you think about the 2017 Oscars Best Picture debacle, where ‘Moonlight’ wasn’t really able to have its moment?
The Screenland Armour Theatre here in Kansas City had an Oscar watch party, and we were all watching it together. It was unbelievable, and a bummer, for so many reasons. When people think of this year’s Oscars, they’ll think of that incident when there were so many other great moments, like Viola Davis’ acceptance speech. “La La Land” is a classic, but in terms of importance and depth, I don’t think there’s any doubt that “Moonlight” was a more important film. What Barry Jenkins did with “Moonlight” about the black experience on a very small budget—I have no words.
I wish “Moonlight” had truly gotten its moment up there. That was upsetting. It’s tough. There are so many walls up in Hollywood and in this industry that keep minorities out, especially the higher up you go. I see it in the commercials and advertising that I shoot. It’s very rare that a black actor will be cast as a lead.
The film industry is notoriously lacking in diversity. What has your experience working in that industry been like?
Even off-screen, the opportunities for the African-American community to engage in this art form are restricted in a lot of ways. Growing up in the lower-middle class, I didn’t have the hardest life, but we didn’t really have extra income, so we weren’t around people making movies at all. When people are in survival mode, that’s not what they’re doing. I didn’t have it nearly as hard as some of my friends around me who I grew up with, but if I didn’t know about the possibilities of filmmaking, how could they have known? How could they ever make their way into this industry? A black DP is surprising to people. My skin color sets me apart as a DP, or director, or anybody in a position of success, because it’s the exception. And that brings about a level of surprise within others when I prove I’m competent enough to handle the task at hand. I’ve lost jobs before because of that. A producer will see my reel and bring me in to meet a director, and I can see right away, they’re like—’nope.’ Having me on set would be too much of a burden for them.
A couple years ago, a producer saw my reel and loved it. They brought me in, and the meeting lasted about 15 minutes—very short. And I didn’t end up getting the job. There are a lot of people who’d feel like I would be too much of a risk. What would the client think? A black cameraman on set? They’re thinking, is he competent? Can he take on a project of this size? Can he lead a crew? But I don’t want to work with anyone who feels that way. I can’t change who I am, and I don’t want to.
Photography by Kyndall Durkee and Max McBride