It's been less than two weeks since Black Panther's theatrical release, and the movie has already become a cultural phenomenon. With a 97% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, it's the highest-rated superhero movie of all time (Wonder Woman, for comparison, has a 92% rating), proving that, contrary to what Hollywood's been arguing for years, a film with a nearly all-Black cast can have wide mass appeal.
In other words, director and co-writer Ryan Coogler did it. He has surpassed expectations in every way, creating a work of lasting cultural importance that is also madly enjoyable to watch. But still, as I write this only four days before the 2018 Oscars, I can't help but be reminded of another mega-phenomenon, one that, despite its critical acclaim and box office pull, got snubbed by the Academy come voting time. I'm referring, of course, to Wonder Woman.
In the months immediately following Patty Jenkins' breakout hit, which hit theaters in June 2017, it seemed almost inevitable that it would receive some kind of major awards recognition. And, in a year where issues about gender disparities in Hollywood were front and center in the national conversation, a Best Picture nod would have indicated that Academy members had read the room, and were ready to recognize not just a blockbuster superhero sensation, but one made by and for women.
Still, as Kyle Buchanan over at Vulture pointed out, the film didn't quite pass muster when it came to the nitty gritty requirements usually expected from Best Picture nominees. According to Vanity Fair, a film needs at least 5% of the vote from the entire Academy to gain a nomination for Best Picture, the only category that everyone can vote for. And since it's extremely unlikely that a film will be nominated for Best Picture alone, it also needs some love in less-glamorous categories. Unlike Logan, which earned a surprising nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, Wonder Woman's edge lay in the entire package, rather than in individual elements, making it more difficult for the film to stand out in the lower categories building up to Best Picture.
So, now, the question is: Will Black Panther hit the same roadblocks?
The bad news is that superhero movies have historically not fared well at the Oscars. The Academy likes to keep up the veneer of intellectual superiority, and people dressed up in spandex body suits don't usually give off an air of dignity and poise. If there are nominations to be had for superhero films, they're usually in technical categories like Best Visual Effects, Best Costume Design, or Best Sound Mixing. There are some exceptions, of course. Christopher Nolan's The Dark Night garnered eight nominations in 2009, and while seven of those were in technical categories, it did manage to snag the coveted Best Supporting Actor category, won posthumously by Heath Ledger. In keeping with the Academy's pattern however, the film was snubbed for Best Picture, to much outrage from fans.
Fantasy is another genre that doesn't usually get Academy recognition, but in 2003, Peter Jackson's final Lord of the Rings installment, The Return of The King, won 11 out of the 12 awards it was up for, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Of course, Black Panther isn't a fantasy, but the point is that the Academy does occasionally expands its purview. So, while Black Panther's genre does set it back somewhat, it's not quite a lost cause. The fact that the film is also sparking major conversations about representation also gives it added heft and gravitas, two things the Academy tends to go for when choosing which movies to consider. This, it should be noted, is a relatively new phenomenon. As Vanity Fair points out here, movies like Mad Max: Fury Road, and Moonlight, which might have been overlooked in the past, earned nominations in part because of their strong messaging. That trend continues this year with Get Out's four nominations for Best Director, Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay.
As a low-budget horror film directed by a newcomer, Get Out was an unlikely candidate for Best Picture. Its strong marketing campaign, which played up the film's cultural relevance with a series of billboards stamped with Daniel Kaluuya's tear-strewn face, is an example Black Panther can learn from when Oscar season rolls around next year. In all likelihood, Disney will position the film as transcending genre, emphasizing its cultural impact as the first Black superhero movie.
Another hurdle the film will have to overcome is timing. Though Oscar contenders can technically be released at any time during the year in question, those that end up getting buzz usually come out in the fall, when awards season is gearing up. It's a tricky balancing act: release too early, and you might be forgotten; come in too late, and you might be overlooked amidst the hustle and bustle. (The Post, which by all logic was a born Oscar contender, received only two nominations and is predicted to lose in both categories. The most likely reason? A Christmas limited release.) Black Panther's February release means that Disney will have to make a big promotional push closer to awards season next year. But again, that doesn't spell defeat. You know what came out last February? Get Out. (Still, the film remains the first February release to be nominated since Silence of the Lambs in 1992.) In the same way that A24 and Universal pushed Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele (remember this Vanity Fair cover?), Disney is going to have to make sure to put Ryan Coogler front and center at every opportunity come fall.
And as for what accolades Black Panther can reasonably expect, even in the best case scenario, my guess is that Disney will be leaning into the Best Director campaign, in addition to the technical awards it so clearly deserves. (IMHO Best Costume Design and Best Makeup and Hairstyling should be a lock for nominations, in part because of the way they so majorly celebrate Black culture, but also because they're just amazing, period.) Acting categories are more tricky to break into, and despite an overall strong cast, no one really stands out, acting-wise, save for Laetitia Wright, whose refreshing and funny performance will probably translate into offers rather than awards.
In the past, the mere fact that Black Panther is a film that features almost no white actors, led by a Black director, would have automatically have removed it from Oscar consideration. But the makeup of the Academy has changed pretty drastically in the past year or so. The #OscarsSoWhite movement prompted an unprecedented number of women and people of color to be invited to join as members, which makes me hopeful that we'll be seeing more diverse nominees in the future. Of course, it's not even close to reaching equal representation, but it's a start.
My advice to the Academy: "Just don't freeze."
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