EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Morgan Cooper Talks Kansas City’s Cultural Renaissance, the Role of Art in Social Issues & Black Creative Vision

The Defender sits down with Morgan Cooper; award-winning, visionary Black Director of the hit series BEL-AIR. Cooper highlights Kansas City's emerging cultural renaissance, the role of art in social issues & Black creative visions. The post EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Morgan Cooper Talks Kansas City’s Cultural Renaissance, the Role of Art in Social Issues & Black Creative Vision appeared first on Kansas City Defender.

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Morgan Cooper Talks Kansas City’s Cultural Renaissance, the Role of Art in Social Issues & Black Creative Vision
Photo by: Vivien Killilea Best

Morgan Cooper’s life changed forever on a fateful Friday in 2010 when he bought his first camera at a Best Buy in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri. He was just 18 years old at the time, and the feeling he experienced when he took the camera out of the box was a revelation. “The first time I ever racked focus, I caught the bug,” he told Teen Vogue, recalling the moment with a smile. “I said, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’ I became obsessed.”

It was the start of a journey that would see Cooper become a prolific producer, director, and filmmaker, with a long list of credits to his name. His 10,000-hour rule of mastering an expertise became his calling card, as he poured his energy and imagination into each project, continually honing his craft. But the story of Cooper’s success is more than just the sum of his accomplishments. It’s a tale of a Black creative visionary who had a clear eye for the stories he wanted to tell, the social issues he wanted to address, and who brought his unique, Kansas City-rooted perspective to the screen with every frame.

Photo shot by Morgan Cooper, 2021

Cooper’s path to success was not an easy one, and his journey is filled with stories of persistence, hard work, and passion. He shot a viral four-minute short film a few years after he bought his Canon T2i, which reimagined The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as a drama. The video immediately went viral, and Morgan was on the phone with Will Smith himself less than 48 hours after uploading the video to YouTube. Shortly after, the two collaborated to create the highly anticipated, award-winning Bel-Air series. Will Smith described the “pitch to two-season deal” process as “absolutely unprecedented” in his entire history in show-business.

Original BEL-AIR Cast & Reboot BEL-AIR Cast, 2021

Now, in just a few short years that likely seem like a lifetime, Cooper is recognized as one of the most exciting and influential young filmmakers in the industry. His creativity and passion have earned him a legion of fans and admirers, and his commitment to excellence is a testament to his unwavering dedication to his craft.

Teen Vogue Cover featuring Morgan Cooper, March 2022

The Interview

The Defender: Whose work have you been most inspired by?

Morgan:Ernest Dickerson, Gordon Parks, Tupac, John Coltrane, Sade, Andre 3000 and Jacob Lawrence are some of my biggest inspirations creatively. JUICE was the first movie I watched as a kid where I really felt the magic of cinema and filmmaking, because I didn’t grow up around people who were filmmakers or in show business.

I didn’t even know it was a career possibility growing up in the Midwest. These days, I find inspiration everywhere. Whether it’s having a conversation with my Dad or my grandmother, spending time with my niece and nephew, drinking coffee, going on a hike in LA or to the Nelson Atkins Museum in KC… There’s inspiration everywhere. I’ve learned that the important thing is to be open to inspiration and ready to receive it, be willing to listen, engage and bring it into the work.

The Defender: How does your hometown of Kansas City influence your work as a director?

Morgan: “Kansas City is in every frame of everything I’ve ever made. It’s how I see the world. I think of memories growing up in KC, whether it’s summer cookouts at Swope Park, going to Crown Center with my mother and sister, shooting hoops with my father in the summer on the double rims at Conn-West in Grandview, or sitting in the backseat cruising down 71 highway playing Frankie Beverly and Maze or Miles Davis… All of those memories inform the types of stories I tell and how I tell them.

My taste, the things that I appreciate, it all comes from Kansas City. I love KC with all my heart and soul, and I’m forever thankful for the town and the people in the city. I discovered my voice as a storyteller in KC, and always look for opportunities to include KC artists in my work because I feel like we have some of the best artists you’ll find anywhere.”

The Defender: Can you talk about the role of art in addressing social and political issues, and how you approach these topics in your work?

Morgan:As artists, it’s important for us to reflect the times through our work. I prefer to approach these difficult topics through the prism of character. If you’re too on the nose about some of these things, it can feel preachy. It can feel like something from a news segment versus telling a story that’s compelling and entertaining, but also really meaningful. So I try to think of ways that we can get into some of these really important topics through the character journeys and weave them into the narrative of the story in a way that feels seamless and organic.I think it’s important when addressing these social and political issues through the work to do it in a way that’s tasteful, because there’s a fine line between being authentic and being exploitative.

Every day on Twitter and social media, there are images of Black people dying in the streets and being murdered by police. I’m very conscious of the power of images in ensuring that when there are moments of violence on screen, they’re done in a way that’s tasteful and not traumatizing while still being authentic. I think if it’s done with intention, there’s a way to find that balance and create something that’s meaningful, that isn’t traumatizing. It all comes down to intention. I guess summing all of this up, when tackling social and political issues through the work, we have to do it with intention, we have to be knowledgeable, we can’t do it in a vacuum and we have to be thoughtful, tasteful and respectful towards the audience and the community.

The Defender: Can you discuss your vision for the future of the film industry, and how you plan to help shape it?

Morgan:I can’t speak to the future of the film industry at large, but th vision for my career would be to leave the industry better than I found it. That means providing as many opportunities as I can for people who are often overseen and overlooked or not as valued as they should be. I think it’s important for us to build self-sustainable pipelines to make our own work independent of gatekeepers. There are so many situations where people pitch projects and if they get a “no,” they feel like that’s the end of the line. There are so many different ways to get stories told these days and it’s up to us to lock arms with each other and combine resources, especially as Black creators, to build our own pipelines, build our own infrastructure and build our own means of distribution, because at the end of the day, we drive culture.

If we recognize our collective strength and we lock arms and do business in a spirit of abundance, there’s enough for all of us to win together and that makes for a more equitable, more healthier industry for everyone. So that’s my vision for the future. In that spirit, I want to build a sound stage in Kansas City. That’s something that I’ve envisioned for a long time and to create film jobs for people in Kansas City. I always say there are people in Kansas City who don’t even know they’ll have film careers and that’s a beautiful thing to be able to provide for people.

The Defender: Compared to other major US cities LA, NY. How does KC’s Talent pool compare?

Morgan: “KC talent is second to none. I’m proud of what we make in KC because of our handmade approach, our attention to detail and our unique perspective sitting at the heart. And it’s been amazing to see a new class of emerging artists who are shining bright.”

The Defender: What do you hope your legacy will be as a film director, and how do you hope to inspire future generations of Black creatives?

Morgan: “I want my journey and legacy to inspire the next generation to know that it’s possible to manifest and live your dreams, no matter how big that dream may be. I don’t take the position I’m in for granted and I recognize it as an opportunity to impact people’s lives and provide opportunities for overlooked talent; this is why in every project I create, I find ways to provide platforms for emerging talent to shine and showcase their ability.

I hope my legacy is somebody who told stories that came from the soul, that came from a place of wanting to inspire and empower others; Someone who dared to dream and was bold and unapologetic in how he told stories. Everything I do, I just hope can leave spaces better than I found them.”

The Defender: Favorite film or TV show growing up?

Morgan:Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin, Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, Moesha, Pokémon, and Power Rangers.

The Defender: What’s the craziest thing that has happened to you on set? 

Morgan:Haha too many to name. Everyday on set is an adventure.

The Defender: Any KC musicians or artists whose work you love who you want to shout out?

Morgan: “Big S/O Conductor Williams, Royal Chief, Brian Kennedy, Love Mae C, Jass, Stik Figa, Ebony Tusks, Nave Monjo, Leonard Dstroy, Darnell “Solo” Kirkwood, Jason Wilcox, Whitney Manney, Christine Nelson, Aaron Alexander, Kye Colors, the list goes on and on and on. So much amazing talent in the town.”

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