For years, the Oscars have suffered from a dual problem. On one hand, many casual moviegoers feel they are out of touch. Ratings have dropped in part because popcorn films and blockbusters don’t get nominated for Oscars. That’s only partly the Oscar’s fault, especially with the quality of studio blockbusters declining in recent years. On the flip side, when a blockbuster does break through in a major way, audiences are quick to question why that movie would be a Best Picture contender. The conversation was held for “Wonder Woman,” “The Force Awakens” and “Logan” when each made its case. The preconceived bias of needing to reward something high brow has both hurt the Oscars and shaped its prestige reputation.
However, every so often, a film comes along that shakes up the balance. Populist hits can certainly carry weight at the Oscars. In the history of Oscar, ten films have made more than $300 million (non-counting for inflation) and received a Best Picture nomination. Of that group, three are “Lord of the Rings” films and two are James Cameron blockbusters. The others to get nominated for Best Picture are “E.T.,” “Forrest Gump,” “American Sniper,” “Toy Story 4,” and of course, “Star Wars.”
It is not impossible to be a film with an obsessed fanbase and also find your way into the Oscar race. Yet of that group two films represented a big shift for the Academy. The first was “Star Wars,” a genre picture that became a watershed moment for Sci-Fi at the Oscars. Arguably the second sci-fi film ever nominated for Best Picture (the first being “A Clockwork Orange“), George Lucas‘ behemoth won six of the ten nominations it received at Oscar.
Meanwhile, “The Fellowship of the Ring” marked a return for Fantasy filmmaking at the Oscars. While Oscar would wait to give the franchise Best Picture until “The Return of the King,” “Fellowship” arrived with a bang. The first film of the trilogy picked up 13 nominations and won 4 prizes. Most importantly, it was the first fantasy film nominated since “Beauty and the Beast” a decade earlier.
That brings us to the case of “Black Panther,” a modern miracle blockbuster seeking to shake up the Oscars. After earning three Golden Globe nominations, a SAG Ensemble nomination, and more prizes, some have renewed the chorus of “why Black Panther?” Frankly, that is a silly question at this point. “Black Panther” earned $700 million domestically, and over $1.3 Billion worldwide. Beyond that, it received 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 88 on Metacritic. Take away the MCU connection, and this would be a no-brainer.
So let’s strip away that connection. While it’s easy to frame the discussion in terms of comic book films, which continue to be criminally under-rewarded by the Oscars, “Black Panther” breaks the mold. It has far more in common with “Fellowship” and “Star Wars” as a cultural touchstone. It’s time to reframe “Black Panther” as a genre blockbuster contender instead of a comic book hopeful.
“Star Wars” & “The Fellowship of the Ring”
Both “Fellowship” and “Star Wars” received common nominations. They each received above-the-line nominations for Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Supporting Actor nominations. Below-the-line, they each picked up nominations for Score, Sound Mixing (the only sound category in 1978 for “Star Wars”), Editing, Art Direction, Costume, and Visual Effects. “Star Wars” also won a special achievement Oscar (for what is essentially Sound Editing). Meanwhile, “The Fellowship of the Ring” scored nominations for Original Song, Makeup, and Cinematography.
The Case for Black Panther
So where does “Black Panther” compare? Unsurprisingly, it stands a good chance at picking up nominations in many of the same categories. Best Picture is on the table, and with a spotlight on Ryan Coogler, he is also on the table. The same can be said for the screenplay, where there is far more room than the deep director’s lineup this year. Michael B. Jordan has picked up some big prizes already, including a BFCA nomination for Best Supporting Actor. If members are putting “Black Panther” number one on their ballots, they’re likely tossing him into the supporting actor race.
The crafts are where most of the case can be made for “Black Panther” and that’s where “Fellowship” and “Star Wars” found their arguments as Best Picture contenders. Like “Fellowship,” the costumes and makeup sell the lived-in world of Wakanda. Hundreds of costumes from Ruth E. Carter represent a half dozen cultures and tribes. The makeup does the same, implementing many prosthetics and techniques not commonly used in makeup. The way that “Black Panther” utilizes both crafts transports audiences to another world.
To complete the transportation, the production design from Hannah Beachler & Jay Hart completes Wakanda. Warrior Falls, the Throne Room, the gardens of the Heart Shaped Herb, and Shuri’s lab give the team a lot of standout moments. Wandering the streets, where children play and street food is abundant, only further sells Wakanda as a living breathing place.
One of the most unique aspects of the film is the way in which music is used. Blending the Grammy-nominated soundtrack from Kendrick Lamar with Ludwig Göransson’s score makes “Black Panther” stand out in the field. The way in which the music is used, and it’s presence throughout the film could earn the sound mixer Peter J. Devlin his 5th nomination in the category.
Finally, the visual effects race is weak this year, and nothing about “Black Panther” makes it markedly worse than the other contenders. The South Korean car chase will likely be the reason this movie gets the nomination. The elephant in the room is the editing nomination. If “Black Panther” scores here, it will likely have a big day. Movies like “The Force Awakens” point to blockbusters finding their footing here. The BFCA miss is obviously less than ideal, but then again, the BFCA has completely whiffed on at least one editing nominee every year in the expanded era. “Black Panther” hopes to be the one.
Finally, “Black Panther” wrestles with political ideology and the discussion where we are at as a culture in 2018. Ten years ago, “The Dark Knight” made equally prescient claims. That film only missed out on Best Picture because only five films could be nominated. In the expanded era, this is what will push “Black Panther” over the hump. It reckons with the way women have been ignored and placed in the shadows. There’s a real conversation about cultural isolationism in the shadow of globalization. Finally, there are questions about being black in the world, and the trauma that can ring across generations.
Culturally there have been few phenomena like “Black Panther.” While it was not the first black superhero, it was the first black superhero film to embrace its culture with open arms. Kids from around the world became enthralled with bringing these characters to life, and a generation of filmmakers will get opportunities because of Coogler’s vision. It was a tectonic moment in pop culture. Arguably, it will be the first or second thing film historians discuss when they talk about 2018. “Fellowship” and “Star Wars” are landmark achievements you discuss when you talk about 2001 and 1977 respectively.
Ultimately, where you sit on the “Black Panther” discussion is irrelevant. Based on the categories it is in play for, “Black Panther” profiles with Oscar like “Star Wars” and “The Fellowship of the Ring” before it. Simply put, it is a sprawling technical film that has made a play in every single below-the-line category. If you make that play, you have a real chance to get a Best Picture nomination. With a strong narrative, fun performances, and this background, “Black Panther” has staked its claim in the race. “Black Panther” created its legacy over the past year. That legacy will not change when Oscar announces its nominations. Yet it would be great to see Oscar not be on the wrong side of history this time.