Black Panther Doesn’t Need The Academy, The Academy Needs Black Panther
by Lou Hare, Guilty Pleasures Host
Last week, Disney publicly released its Academy Awards “For Your Consideration” list for Marvel Studio's Black Panther. While it includes the technical awards typically associated with big-budget blockbusters, it’s also declaring its desire for recognition in the Academy’s most prestigious categories: Best Song, Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Actress, Actor, Director and Picture. Disney is all in on Black Panther as a legit Oscar contender, and if the Academy is smart, it should be too. Consider this:
Black Panther is a Great Film
The rest of this article will deal with aspects that don’t speak directly to the quality of the film so let’s start with the most obvious statement: Black Panther is a tremendous film. From start to finish, it is an exhilarating experience. Beautifully crafted with magnificent performances supporting a story with rich, complex characters and themes, it is a film that both represents the best of its genre and transcends the genre altogether. You don’t have to like Super Hero movies to like Black Panther, you need only to like movies period. It may be too early to call it the Best Film of 2018 (it is only September, after all), but any year-end Top 10 that doesn’t include Black Panther would have to be deemed incomplete. With up to 12 slots available, a Best Picture nomination is not out of line. And if it can be nominated, it certainly can win, because…
Marvel Is Way Past Due
At first glance, it feels as if Disney is finally seeking the awards it’s been sorely lacking during the MCU’s unprecedented 10-year run. There is some truth to that. An MCU film has yet to receive a single Oscar, while rival DC has at least seen two – Heath Ledger’s Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight and Best Makeup and Hairstyling for…(checks notes)…Suicide Squad?!? Clearly, recognition is long over-due for perhaps the biggest collective achievement the industry has ever seen. The Academy has never shied away from using one film to honor a collective work (see: The Return of the Kings’ 11 Oscars compared the 4 total Oscars for The Lord of the Rings’ previous entries combined), and the more awards Black Panther racks up, the more validation Marvel receives for its regularly inspired and universally beloved work. But why Black Panther instead of any other MCU movie? Why not an Oscars push for Infinity War, which was the culmination of everything Marvel has spent building over the past decade? If this was my main argument for Black Panther or any other Marvel movie, I would concede. Except…
Black Panther Is Not Just A Great Marvel Movie
Disney didn’t just spin a roulette wheel and land on Black Panther as the winner of the Oscar push sweepstakes. They recognize something truly special about Ryan Coogler’s film that transcends the regularly scheduled slate of Super Hero flicks. Much of Black Panther’s legacy goes beyond the actual film and the MCU as a whole. Black Panther is a watershed moment in representation for the industry and culture as a whole. Never before had a big-budget Hollywood film featured a black director, writer and virtually all-black cast. Its celebration of African culture is felt in every frame of the film and its addressing of issues that speak directly to today’s African-American community separate it from the typical blockbuster fare. The fact that it was a massive financial success shows that audiences were more than ready for it. Dismissing Black Panther as frivolous or, even worse, a fluke, would be tantamount to a dismissal of the audience who has been clamoring for this type of film for so long. That is so crucial to remember because…
The Academy Has an Audience Problem
Conventional wisdom has always pegged the Academy as industry elites, out of touch with what mainstream audiences value in their films. There is much truth to that, however, history shows that wasn’t always the case. A look at Best Picture winners from the 1970’s shows movies that were both critically and financially well-received. From 1988-2008, 15 out of 20 Best Picture winners grossed at least $100 million. Of the five that didn’t, Braveheart went on to become an oft-quoted classic and Schindler’s List is universally accepted as a landmark in filmmaking (the less said about The English Patient & Crash, the better). Of the ones who did, you’ll see massive blockbusters (Titanic, Forrest Gump, Return of the King) as well as genre fare (Unforgiven, Chicago, The Departed) The last decade tells a much different story. Of the last 10 Best Picture winners, 3 have reached the $100 million mark and only one (Argo) was able to cross that threshold without the Oscar bump. As of late, the Academy has taken to focus its acclaim on smaller films, which is a charitable way of saying “movies people haven’t seen.” Ratings have reflected this change. Last year’s Oscars telecast was the lowest rated ever. Industry insiders were quick to blame this on the ceremony’s predictability, while ignoring that the highest-rated ceremony (1998) featured Titanic’s record-setting 11 wins, none of which came a surprise to anyone. The Oscars are unlikely to ever reach the numbers of its heyday, but it’s a pretty simple truth that audiences are more likely to tune in to watch movies being honored that they’ve actually seen. The Academy’s implementation of the ill-fated “Popular Movie” category seemed to be a tacit acknowledgement of this fact, but was woefully misguided in its implicit acknowledgement that financially successful films can’t be artistically successful as well. The choice to honor Black Panther, one of the highest-grossing and most crowd-pleasing films of recent memory would certainly draw attention from an audience that feels like it’s been forgotten (because it has). Before you send your hate-tweets (@thefakelouhare) saying “well shouldn’t the best film win regardless of how much money it’s made,” I would contend…
The Academy Doesn’t Know What Makes a
Call it blasphemous, but the idea of a “Best Picture” award is a tad silly and reductive. Setting aside the subjective nature of the art form, to attempt to compare films whose goals vary based on their budgets, genres and dozens of other factors becomes an exercise in futility. Was The Shape of Water really a better film than Get Out? Or Spotlight a greater achievement than Mad Max: Fury Road? How can you even compare films that are so fundamentally different? It gets even sillier when you consider how many voters don’t get around to seeing all of the nominated films. This leads to a process that begat the Oscar campaigns of Miramax, culminating in the still-baffling victory of Shakespeare In Love over Saving Private Ryan. Granted it’s hard to say what films will age better than others (trust me, DO NOT go back and watch American Beauty), but history is littered with such head-scratchers and perhaps considering the historical context and timeless quality of a film would limit some of its more egregious mistakes. Black Panther fits this mold exceptionally well. It’s not only a film that will be most assuredly be fondly remembered, it is precisely of this moment. A moment that the Academy would be wise to acknowledge because….
The Academy Are The Stewards Of Hollywood’s Image & Its Future
An oft-forgotten fact of history is that the AMPAS was formed in part to combat Hollywood’s decreasing image thanks to multiple scandals involving some of its biggest names. Today, the Academy’s image is tied directly to the industry itself. The #OscarsSoWhite movement that began in 2015 put Hollywood’s lack of diversity center stage (despite its existence for decades), resulting in an expansion of Academy membership and a much more diverse lineup of nominees in 2018 (with still a long way to go). If Hollywood’s move towards a more diverse lineup of films and filmmakers is more than just PR, Black Panther’s achievements must be acknowledged. This is even more important when considering what the next decade of the industry will look like. If Hollywood has one reliable trait, it’s to capitalize on other’s successes. As if the box office receipts weren’t enough, one can only imagine how quickly studios would trip over themselves to repeat Black Panther’s success if it were to win some of Hollywood’s biggest awards.
As foretold by the headline, let’s be clear: with or without Oscar nominations, Black Panther and its creators will be fine. 20 years from now, “Wakanda Forever” will still live in the cultural lexicon. In the age of franchising, we have certainly not seen the last of T’Challa, Nakia, Okoye and Shuri. But Black Panther’s success is less about the future and more about the present. Ryan Coogler and company didn’t just make a popular movie, they created a cultural moment. It’s the exact kind of moment that the Academy has been seeking and desperately needs. Disney has opened the door for that moment and audiences endorsed it to the tune of $1 billion worldwide. If we are ever to get to the point where artistic, ambitious crowd-pleasing films that feature artists of all backgrounds are the norm, that moment reaches its peak with Black Panther at the Academy Awards.
For Your Consideration.
Lou Hare is an adjunct professor at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. Lou is the host of Guilty Pleasures on the Front Row Network and a regular on many other FRN shows. His greatest joy in life is making his friends watch terrible movies and talk about them..... and being a GIF.