Even though it was released back in February, it seems like people still can’t get enough Black Panther. The movie, besides being another hit for Disney, shattered box office records and became a cultural phenomenon. Like last year’s Wonder Woman (the first female-centered superhero film), the first black superhero film has undoubtedly changed how Hollywood approaches blockbusters, paving the way for more diversity in the future. Now Disney wants to do the impossible: get an Academy Award for Best Picture. Can the King of Wakanda conquer the Academy, or will it be another snub for superhero cinema? Let’s delve a little deeper.
First, a few caveats. I will not be looking at Black Panther’s Oscar odds based on my personal view of the film. I’ll be thinking like an Academy voter, with all the prejudices, adherence to trends and the changing definition of “Oscar-worthy” in play. Second, when I say “major awards,” I mean Best Picture, Director, and the acting and screenplay categories. Yes, I know Suicide Squad is an Oscar winner, but not in the categories that hold any real weight. Third, keep in mind that in these early stages the awards race is very malleable, especially this year. Things could change drastically, but as we head closer to the Golden Globes nominations, I feel comfortable making a judgment call on this topic.
Black Panther has a case for Oscar consideration, one stronger than you might think. Besides the massive amount of cash it made, it also was loved by critics, it was helmed by a young and incredibly talented director, its cast is filled with either Oscar winning or nominated actors, and the message of the film is smart and poignant. These are all good points in its favor, and there is a path to victory here, unlikely as it may seem. This excellent article from Stephen Galloway over at The Hollywood Reporter goes over that path, and it is in that spirit that I discuss some of the biggest hurdles standing in its way, starting with…
1. The Competition is Absurdly Tough This Year
While there have certainly been a few disappointments, 2018 on the whole has been a pretty good year for film, and there have been plenty of Oscar-caliber movies that are now heading into the deathmatch that is the awards race. With films like A Star is Born, Roma, and The Favourite leading the pack, Disney has a hard road ahead convincing the Academy of why Black Panther not only should be considered with these films, but should be put above them.
That being said, there are three major categories where I think most pundits would agree Black Panther has the best shot at getting nominated in: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Picture. While most of the contenders for Best Picture also had adapted screenplays, I do feel like BP will get the nom so that the Academy can show that they’ve recognized it, like they did with Logan. Best Supporting Actor was always going to be an uphill battle, and with the likes of Sam Elliott, Timothée Chalamet, Daniel Kaluuya and Mahershala Ali in the running, it just gets even harder.
Now for the big cheese, Best Picture. How do the voters decide what is worthy enough to be crowned the best movie of the year? This article goes into detail about the often confusing process, but at the end of the day it all comes down to preference, and what do these voters usually tend to prefer? Something important, a movie with something to say and something that hopefully will stand the test of time. This doesn’t always play out well (Crash, I’m looking at you), but that’s usually the intent. Occasionally some movies are just so well made and count as cinematic achievements, like Avatar and Mad Max: Fury Road, but those are the exceptions.
As I said before, Black Panther actually is important, but the question ultimately devolves into “but what is MORE important?” With films tackling addiction (A Star is Born, Beautiful Boy), racial inequality (If Beale Street Could Talk, The Hate U Give), corruption and politics (Widows, The Front Runner, Vice), LGBT issues (Boy Erased), terrorism (22 July), kids in the modern age (Eighth Grade), sexism (The Favourite, Mary, Queen of Scots, On the Basis of Sex) and so many more, it becomes harder to make that distinction. Is Black Panther more important than Blackkklansman? What about First Man? This is the essential question, and while it is still early days, I wonder if Disney will be able to make that case.
2. The Diversity Quotient
I know a lot of things come to mind when you see those words, but hear me out, there are some important points to make here. The first pertains to the actual competition Black Panther faces this year. While some of the films in play do revolve around predominantly white characters, a good percentage of them are actually about issues involving black people and made by black directors. Returning Academy alumni Steve McQueen and Barry Jenkins are back with Widows and If Beale Street Could Talk, along with Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman. The prestige is there for these films, and while Ryan Coogler is certainly rising through the ranks, the Academy loves to reward repeat players at the Academy Awards. To some voters, having these prestigious creatives behind these big, important films might be enough to tilt attention away from Black Panther.
What’s more exciting for me as a viewer and more concerning for Disney is that almost every other minority group has some representation in this year’s race. Alfonso Cuarón (Academy-Award winner for Best Director in 2013) returned for the first time in five years with Roma, a major contender from Netflix. Telling a semi-autobiographical story about his childhood in Mexico, the film touches on economic difficulties, political upheaval and more in 1970’s Mexico City, and has already made waves in the early stages of the season. Native Americans get some deserved attention in Chloe Zao’s beautiful film The Rider, which may have opened too early for real consideration but is being discussed nonetheless. The LGBT community also got some serious love this year, and while one of my favorites Love, Simon isn’t getting any recognition, Boy Erased looks to be a force this year with its focus on the horrors of conversion therapy.
Black Panther’s biggest competition in the genre space, though, is the other historic film (representation-wise) this year, Warner Bros.’ Crazy Rich Asians. While Black Panther is obviously the first black superhero film, Crazy Rich Asians is the first Asian-American led, produced and directed film by a major Hollywood studio in 25 years. The film’s success has been a huge step forward for Asian actors, actresses and creators, but it also presents a rather… worrying dilemma. Why celebrate Black Panther but not Crazy Rich Asians with a Best Picture nomination, or vice versa? Would an Oscar voter (the vast majority of which are white and older) really want to be the one helping cause that debate by choosing one over the other? And yes, I hear you saying “But Steven, they could nominate both!” And to which I laugh, as the Academy had a hard enough time thinking of nominating a mainstream movie that they created a laughably insulting category for a while just for those types of films. These films could be rewarded in their own ways, maybe with Adapted Screenplay nominations, but I do think it’s an interesting question to ponder.
Finally, as far as diversity goes, we do have to bring up the makeup of the Academy itself. This year the Academy invited 928 new members into the organization, adding more younger people, people of color and many more women, and in 2017 they invited 774 of those same types of people. These new voters already made their impact last year, with some crediting them with the nominations for Get Out and Lady Bird, two films by young directors that happened to be African-American and a woman, respectively. While the younger voters are certainly more outspoken and motivated on average, the majority of the voters are indeed still white and still older and at the end of the day that majority can make all the difference. It remains to be seen if the new crop of voters can tip the scales in Black Panther’s favor, however.
3. Disney Isn’t Used to Playing This Game
Let’s be real here, folks. Disney doesn’t make movies to get Oscars, they make them to make money. Outside of the animation category, which has its own weird history and prejudices involved, Disney hasn’t put up a real film for awards consideration in a very long time. And when they put up an animated feature, it usually wins almost by default. It’s why the year Birdman, which was a passionate plea against blockbusters and specifically superhero films, won Best Picture, the Academy gave the Best Animated Feature award to Disney superhero movie Big Hero 6. It shows just how little they care about that category, but that’s another rant entirely.
This year, however, Disney seems to be stepping up their game, hosting screenings and even hiring a veteran Oscars campaign professional to tout Black Panther to the voters. This does sound promising, but when it comes to the Academy Awards, Disney is a novice when it comes to getting this stuff out there. Facing the likes of Warner Bros (pure professionals at this), Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics and A24, Disney looks like an unprepared child who forgot to study for their test. It may seem like a minor point, but knowing what to say, to what people and when to say it in the race is incredibly important, and we have yet to see if Disney’s plans will make any meaningful difference.
4. The Academy Still Hates Superhero Movies
When Get Out got nominated for Best Picture last year, I felt like the Academy was making a step in the right direction. Finally, they were ending their bias against genre films and letting them in the race. Then I looked a little bit further down that list and noticed that something was missing. There was no Logan, arguably one of the best comic book movies ever made, in almost any of the major categories. Here was a brilliant, powerfully acted Unforgiven for the superhero genre, and it was given almost nothing.
It was another repeat of The Dark Knight, hailed as not only one of the best comic book movies but maybe one of the best movies that decade, and the only thing comic book movies had gained in ten years was an Adapted Screenplay nod. Yes, Heath Ledger did win the Best Supporting Actor award and it was well-deserved, but come on guys… do you really think he would’ve won if he hadn’t died? Cynicism alert Other genres had gotten further than comic book movies had, with both Mad Max: Fury Road being nominated a few years ago and the occasional sci-fi film popping up here and there like Inception or Arrival. So why should this year be any different?
The Academy has plenty of great genre movies to pick from this year, like Hereditary (shout ot Toni Collette) or Annihilation or the aforementioned Crazy Rich Asians. Hell, Mission Impossible: Fallout should’ve been this year’s Fury Road, but Paramount has clearly dropped the ball on that front. It’s telling that in the year of Time’s Up and Me Too that the Academy didn’t nominate Wonder Woman for Best Picture even out of just pity for it, and I don’t see much evidence to suggest that Black Panther will get treated any better than that film did.
Listen, despite all of these hurdles, the landscape is much different this year. Awards season is shorter, the makeup of the Academy is different, and the other critic’s associations and filmmaker’s guilds still have to give their awards. Hell, the National Board of Review already listed Black Panther as one of it’s top ten films of the year! Anything could happen at this point, and for a film geek like me that’s what makes it so exciting! Don’t count Black Panther out yet, folks, but all I’m asking is that we look at all the factors before we get out our torches and pitchforks.