Movies & TV / Columns

The Oscars Don’t Deserve Black Panther

February 21, 2019 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Black Panther Chadwick Boseman Image Credit: Marvel Studios

If you’re like me, you’re the “movie guy” in your friend group. This means that every February you are obligated to give your opinion on the Oscars. This year, that conversation is dominated by one movie, and one that isn’t likely to win. And it turns out my opinion is rather more complex than usual.

Breaking Down Barriers

Black Panther is nominated for Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards. Ryan Coogler’s first foray into the superhero genre has been a film that consistently achieves milestones; the biggest President’s Day release ever, the highest grossing February release ever, the highest opening weekend for a film by a black director or starring a predominantly black cast, and eventually went on to be the highest grossing film in the United States in 2018 (fellow Marvel Studios film Avengers: Infinity War is highest grossing worldwide). While a lot of that financial success can be attributed to the fact that it is a Marvel movie and those films just make a ridiculous amount of money these days, a lot of it can’t be attributed solely to that. The film had the second best opening for Marvel Studios ever (behind The Avengers), but had the lowest second-week drop and was the fastest to hit $300 million. And since it bears repeating, Black Panther made more money in the United States than Infinity War, a film with a larger budget, a more well-known cast, and the most bankable brand name in the genre attached to it.

Black Panther clearly connected to audiences that were not there for most other superhero movies, and impressed many of us enough to keep coming back to see it again. Since I feel somewhat unqualified to speak to the film’s cultural impact, I’ll let others speak for me:

“Many have wondered why Black Panther means so much to the black community and why schools, churches and organizations have come to the theaters with so much excitement. The answer is that the movie brings a moment of positivity to a group of people often not the centerpiece of Hollywood movies.” (Erianger Turner, Houston Chronicle)

“In the midst of a regressive cultural and political moment fueled in part by the white-nativist movement, the very existence of Black Panther feels like resistance. Its themes challenge institutional bias, its characters take unsubtle digs at oppressors, and its narrative includes prismatic perspectives on black life and tradition. The fact that Black Panther is excellent only helps.” (Jamil Smith, Time).

While acknowledging that not everyone responds to the movie with such enthusiasm, I feel safe in saying that Black Panther is a cultural phenomenon and a net positive for the self-image of the black communities that welcomed it with open arms. If nothing else, I can make use of my eyes and see that no film with this much black talent in front of or behind the camera has ever been given the opportunity to succeed on this level. That it does so by creating a movie that embraces and celebrates African heritage while also questioning what an uncolonized African superpower’s presence in the real world would mean is even more laudable.

But does it “deserve” to be nominated for Best Picture?

Lack of Competition

I put the word “deserve” in quotation marks because the very idea of this question is one that I find to be somewhat laughable. For one, nobody genuinely cares about The Oscars except for Hollywood business executives hoping that awards season buzz can help their historical dramas turn a little more profit. Does pop culture really remember 2011 Best Picture winner The Artist or 2014’s winner Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance? Does anybody remember that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or Philomena even exist? Or that films as singularly terrible as Dallas Buyer’s Club and American Sniper were up for the top prize? Yeah, we’ve moved on.

Black Panther does not need Best Picture to validate its existence. It made a billion dollars worldwide, undoubtedly has sequels coming, and will likely enjoy a permanent presence in pop culture that will continue to generate revenue for Marvel and Disney through merchandise sales. The truth of the matter is that Oscars need Black Panther to be up for the award. The Academy has been accused of being out of touch for a decade by ignoring the most popular movies at the box office (a.k.a. movies the general population has seen and would tune in to watch the Oscars in order to root for them), and out of touch and racist for continuing to ignore the contributions of non-white actors, producers, and directors. Black Panther being both the most notable box-office smash of 2018 and a landmark film for diversity in Hollywood is a rare opportunity for the Oscars to fix both problems at the same time.

And while this is far from the most important thing in this discussion, I have to ask: looking at the competition, is anyone really going to tell me that Black Panther doesn’t belong in the conversation? Bohemian Rhapsody is one of the worst films to be nominated for the award in recent memory (and also has alleged sex offender Bryan Singer as the credited director, if you care about that sort of thing). Green Book is a tacky movie about a white racist becoming slightly less racist and feels almost comical juxtaposed with Black Panther and Spike Lee’s excellent BlacKkKlansman. Beloved critical darlings such as Eighth Grade and If Beale Street Could Talk failed to garner a nod at all. And while I like a good Oscar Bait movie as much as the next cinephile with too much time on his hands, 2018 has not been a good year for them. The movies that really stuck with me this year are Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Hereditary and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, none of which are going to have Best Picture prospects. In an exceptionally weak field (for the record, I think BlacKkKlansman or The Favourite should take the award), Black Panther is actually one of the best movies up for Best Picture.

Looking at things through that lens, one should be extremely cynical about the nomination. And whether you’re the type of person that views diversity politics as a necessary conversation or an annoyance, there are two undeniable facts. The first is that Black Panther is nominated in no small part because of its politics concerning race, and that has been the deciding factor that motivated the Academy to finally recognize a superhero film as one of the year’s best movies. That feels pandering at best and downright hypocritical at worst. The second undeniable fact? The Academy brought this cynicism about their motives upon themselves by constantly ignoring the genre.

Long Overdue

I am a proponent of the philosophy that great movies are great movies regardless of genre and that appraisal of their work should be, primarily, in contrast to other similar films. What makes a good blockbuster is not the same as what makes a good historical drama, and what makes a good comedy is not the same as what makes a good horror movie. I think Mad Max: Fury Road is the best movie of the decade, and I don’t think that movie has anything in the way of a great screenplay or great acting. Conversely, I think Viola Davis’ performance in Fences is a masterclass in acting, but don’t hold the movie as a whole in high esteem. Different movies are good at different things, and recognizing this leads to a more holistic view of the film industry and what makes a good movie. This is a view that the Academy has proven time and time again not to share.

I absolutely do believe that Black Panther is one of the best of 2018 and deserves to be in contention for any top ten list or award ceremony that seeks to recognize those films. Where I differ from the Oscars is that it’s far from the first superhero movie deserving of such recognition. If the Academy had decided to recognize quality films in the superhero genre before this year (in the same way they recognized Jaws, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark as being among the top movies of their years), they wouldn’t be shooting themselves in the foot right now by recognizing one because it happens to address themes of racial identity. To that end, I think it’s a useful addendum to make a short list of superhero films that should have been nominated for Best Picture in prior years.

The Dark Knight: Let’s get the obvious one out of the way. While Heath Ledger deservedly won Best Supporting Actor for his incredible performance as The Joker, the film itself was so largely ignored by the Academy that people are justified in believing Ledger only won because of his death. In addition to being a mega-blockbuster and genuine pop culture phenom, the movie received widespread critical acclaim, featured a gangbusters cast, exquisite direction and had big ideas. The snubbing of The Dark Knight is widely speculated to be the impetus for the Academy increasing its number of Best Picture nominees, a move which has failed to allow other superhero films in the running until now.
Superman: The Movie: While Superman is not exactly a deep film, it was an enormously popular and innovate film in its day and deserved to be recognized as such. Along with Alien, I feel Superman is a film that should have been up for consideration in the same time period that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Star Wars were able to be Best Picture contenders.
The Avengers: If we’re assuming a world where the Academy continued to recognize well-made blockbusters as great films, The Avengers was a game changer that elevated its own genre to new heights and changed the way the entire industry does business, for better or worse. And it’s also one of the best films of 2012.
Spider-Man 2: The best superhero movie ever made when it was released, the film was a critical darling and even made AFI’s list of the top movies of 2004. But unless you worked on visual effects or sound editing on this film, your chances of Oscar glory were non-existent.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Hey, you know how Black Panther deservedly receives credit for being smarter and more politically minded than the average superhero movie? Yeah, this one did it first. And while American politics may not be as important as global racial identity, I’d argue that The Winter Soldier is the best made movie that Marvel Studios has ever released.
Logan: The exclusion of this movie in particular is galling to me. Logan is an exceptional movie that showcases Hugh Jackman at the top of his game, stylish directing by James Mangold, a depressingly topical plot about protecting a Mexican child being hunted by government officials, and a story in tone that’s more in line with Clint Eastwood’s output than the other X-Men films. More than any other superhero movie, Logan deserved recognition for its quality as a film.

So, with the acknowledgment that the Academy should have nominated these and possibly other superhero movies in previous years, I’m sure I’ve opened up another can of worms. If I believe that superhero movies do deserve a spot at the big kids table with more traditional Oscar fare, what do I think of 2018’s other comic book movies and their credentials as Best Picture contenders?

A Cut Above

2018 was a pretty solid year for comic book movies overall. Venom was the only real disaster and it was just forgettable, harmless schlock that was still enjoyable on some level. But as far as movies that deserve consideration among the best of the year? Well, I like Ant-Man and the Wasp just fine, but it’s a middle of the road MCU movie that’s not doing anything to raise the bar, like most of them. While I think Deadpool was one of the best of 2016, its sequel is merely enjoyable and I don’t think it deserves any serious consideration. Aquaman? I mean, yeah, I enjoyed the hell out of it because I’m a colossal nerd, but “finally one of these DC movies is good all the way through” does not equal a great movie, I’m sorry.

But of course, the one that everybody brings up is Avengers: Infinity War, and this just annoys me for several reasons. Don’t misunderstand me, I enjoy Infinity War a lot: its scale is ambitious, Thanos is shaping up to be one of blockbuster cinema’s all-time great baddies, it’s exciting and dramatic and funny and one of the best movies in the MCU easily. It’s in my personal top ten of the year. But let’s be real here guys: Infinity War does not have much in the way of thematic substance. That’s not a fault, the movie is just aiming to be a crowd-pleasing blockbuster celebrating all of the goofy stuff we love about comic book superhero movies like The Avengers. And if you find the movie to be more enjoyable than Black Panther or think that it should be nominated alongside Black Panther, I don’t have a problem with that. But if you can’t sparse out the difference between a movie about magic space rocks and a movie about the complexities of global black identity… I just don’t even know what to say.

Lastly, as much as I do advocate for superhero movies to be seriously considered, I also don’t want them monopolizing the ten spaces available for nominees. In an ideal world, I’d be scrapping Vice, Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody from contention and adding Eighth Grade and If Beale Street Could Talk and to the list of nominees. That still leaves me three open spots, but could Infinity War earn a spot above other genre fare like Mission: Impossible – Fallout, A Quiet Place, Crazy Rich Asians, Hereditary or Searching? I don’t know if I can go that far. But do you know what superhero movie from 2018 could earn a spot on my personal “Best Of” list?

The New Kid On The Block

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is my favorite movie of 2018 regardless of genre. It mopped the floor with other major animated releases, for starters. The film is also better than all of the source material that it draws from, which is a rarity. It also did the nearly unthinkable and managed to surpass Sam Raimi’s first two films as the best Spider-Man movie ever. And while it’s not nearly as in your face about racial themes as Black Panther, its elevation of Miles Morales is noteworthy, creating a young mixed-race hero who is enjoyable by everyone but specifically representative of a underrepresented demographics not just in the superhero genre, but in animated movies. And while I think Black Panther’s chances of actually winning Best Picture are kind of slim, I will be genuinely infuriated if this film loses to the exceptionally unexceptional Incredibles 2.

And while I’m on this discussion, I think it’s important to point out that animation is, in some ways, even more marginalized that superhero movies in terms of their opportunity to win Best Picture. Yes, there have been a select few that are nominated for the top prize, but all these nominations really do is spoil the winner for Best Animated Film. Remember when we all laughed at the Academy for considering Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film as a new award last summer? Well, we basically allow this with animation. That’s something worth considering.

Reality Check

There are many, many think-pieces on the Best Picture nomination of Black Panther, with a wide variety of opinions being voiced. Many think it’s about time time, and that group can be split between those are pessimistic (or perhaps realistic) about the film’s chances of actually winning the big prize. Some even dare to say that it will win, and opinions differ there on whether it should or shouldn’t win. Others think the film doesn’t belong, either because they just don’t like superhero movies in general, or because they think other superhero movies deserved the supposed honor of being the first Best Picture nominee. And there’s a not unfounded group of people that find the nomination to be blatant pandering, a translucent ploy by the Academy to appear more hip with the times and progressive than the actually are. Some would rather not have race politics be considered as a boon to a film’s importance at all, while more reasoned individuals question the sincerity of the message the Academy is sending. (Again, the dissonance caused by BlacKkKlansman and Green Book being nominated in the same year is both palpable and baffling.)

Where do I fall? Honestly, I haven’t found my exact perspective shared in a way that feels satisfying, and that’s why I decided to voice my own thoughts on the matter. My feelings are somewhat contradictory; I do feel the film deserves to be listed among the best of 2018, but the Academy’s failure to recognize blockbuster movies in general and superhero movies in particular makes me cynical about their choice to nominate Black Panther. It’s not that I don’t think the movie is good or deserving based on its quality as a movie, I absolutely do. Rather, it comes from my observed hypothesis that the Academy does not think it’s deserving based on its quality, but only because it happens to be a film about racial identity and the politics that come of it. While I absolutely agree that those are important subjects and that Black Panther is that much better for choosing to tackle them within the confines of a safe, family friendly commercial blockbuster meant to appeal to everyone, I feel like the politics behind the Academy’s decision to nominate it can only serve to undercut that the film deserves the recognition regardless.

And really, while this nomination does spur on numerous thoughts that I’ve had for a long time, the one conclusive point I’m trying to make is that I’m just exhausted by all of it. As mentioned above, the Oscars need the publicity of Black Panther’s nomination more than Black Panther needs the validation of the nomination. As I’ve hopefully demonstrated, my problems with the Academy and the films it chooses to nominate for its top honor are numerous and go back for decades. Rather than course-correcting as a whole to more accurately represent the state of the industry and the films that all of us watch and choose to enjoy, the Academy is content to make small concessions in the hopes of getting a slightly higher than average TV rating. What this tells me is that most of us really don’t care about the Oscars anyway, so why are all pretending to care so much this year? Ultimately, I just don’t think it matters that much that Black Panther is nominated for Best Picture, nor do I think it will matter that much if it somehow manages to win. (Although part of me would enjoy the hellscape that would implode on the internet if it did win the big prize.) And whether you’re rooting for the film to win, hoping for some other movie you liked better, or think the movie doesn’t deserve to be nominated for whatever reason… is anybody going to care by the end of March?

This article is part of the problem, and I acknowledge that upfront. The last thing I really want to do is be seen as an advocate for Black Panther as potential Best Picture Winner (I don’t think it should win), or a naysayer against its nomination (I think it deserves its place, just as I think previous deserving superhero movies were snubbed). Mostly, I just want to call to attention that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been and will continue to be an institution in need of a serious rehaul if it wants to be representative of the film industry as a whole. Because of that, I think we should all find something better to do with our time than worry about what is and what isn’t nominated for Best Picture.

Unless it’s your job to care, in which case, I wish you good luck on getting through the ceremony.