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Black Panther Is Too Big to Ignore

In 1974, the top of the box office was:

Highest-grossing films of 1974
1. Blazing Saddles, Warner Bros., $119,500,000
2. The Towering Inferno 20th Century Fox / Warner Bros. $116,000,000
3. The Trial of Billy Jack, Warner Bros. $89,000,000
4. Young Frankenstein 20th Century Fox, $86,273,333
5. Earthquake Universal Pictures, $79,666,653
6. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, United Artists $61,984,039
7. The Godfather Part II, Paramount Pictures, $47,542,841
8. Airport 1975 Universal Pictures, $47,285,152
9. The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, Sunn Classic Pictures, $45,411,063
10. The Longest Yard, Paramount Pictures, $43,008,075

First, let’s pause to reflect on how great it was that Blazing Saddles AND Young Frankenstein topped the box office that year. Pause. Pause. Isn’t that awesome? Yes, too awesome for words. Now let’s recall that together they earned 5 Oscar nominations, including top-tier categories like Best Screenplay and Supporting Actress. Okay, moving on.

Here is what we know for sure:
1) Black Panther is probably peak superhero movie. How can any superhero movie be better?
2) It’s edging close to overtaking Titanic at the box office, and then it becomes the third highest grossing movie of all time. Domestic. (And no, not adjusted for inflation – otherwise we’ll be talking about Gone with the Wind every year until the end of time.)
3) It’s officially too big to ignore and has none of the drawbacks that hampered The Force Awakens, which has its merits for sure but was really not a lot more than fan fiction. It was almost a great Star Wars movie but it choked on its own nostalgia and thus, could not be taken seriously as a Best Picture contender.
4) It is undeniably, without a doubt, what people all over the country would call a Best Picture — meaning, what are we doing here, folks, if this isn’t what the Oscars were built to do: to reward high achievements in film.

Granted, I would not have put The Force Awakens, currently the highest grossing film of all time, on my top five – but I might very well put Black Panther there. Why? Because it goes beyond massaging the knob of nerd culture. It didn’t phone it in and it didn’t rely on the legacy of any other movie to succeed. Word of mouth is why people are going to see it. And why is the word of mouth so good? Because the movie is good.

When I started Oscarwatch in 1999 I did so because 1) the internet was wide open and anyone could do anything and that appealed to me. 2) I could never understand why Citizen Kane was considered the greatest film of all time (I think it is) and yet it did not win Best Picture. I understand why now. No consensus vote of thousands can ever really zero in on something that half of the people don’t get. Also, John Ford had won Best Director twice without winning Best Picture and when it came time for number three there was no question he would take it. Ang Lee now is where John Ford was then when How Green Was My Valley was about to win both Picture and Director. Should Ang Lee come up with a film that could win Best Picture, it will be a grand slam because Ang Lee will be due.

Over time, in the 20 years since I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen the focus shift away from movies people love to watch and over to movies only the critics and the industry approve of. That makes the Oscar pile smaller. If you have to please both the bloggers who are watching movies to see if the Academy will like them, and you also have to please the 200 or so Rotten Tomatoes critics, so-called, the last group of folks anyone is going to consider are the people you actually make movies for. After twenty years doing this, I do believe that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of critics and that could mean, ultimately, that the Oscars risk becoming a relic of the past, an awards show too insular for anyone other than acolytes to care — like the Tonys. No offense to the Tony Awards but they do appeal to a niche group and they really do think about success, so do the Grammys. The Oscars? Not so much. But I think movies should be made for people — for audiences — not necessarily for critics. The experiment has failed because many of the films that make it to the final pile will not last through to the next year, let alone the next ten years. The requirements have become too rigid. The pile is too small.

It might be harder to make the case for Black Panther if the movie was not that good, and if we were just talking about box office, or even historical precedent: highest grossing film by a woman, or by a director for color. Then you have to make the case that the Oscars should do what they don’t want to do and seem reluctant to do anyway — which is put a film they don’t think is prestige enough in the number one spot to call it one of the Best Picture of the Year. Thing is, I do think Black Panther is that good. I do think it will stand the test of time. And I do think it is more than worthy of being named one of 2018’s best films. If not enough of the voters agree, I think we can officially call the Oscars over as a mover and shaper and of film culture, if they weren’t already.

Is Black Panther perfect? No, but precious few movies are. Is it beautifully directed, written, acted, designed? Yes, it is.

What were the films nominated for Best Picture from 1974?

The Godfather II
Lenny
The Conversation
Chinatown
The Towering Inferno

There we see the full gamut of American film taste, a snapshot of the year in film that accurately reflects that moment in time. A slate of nominees that honored the highest art and still made room for outstanding examples of popular appeal. Okay, so we’re never going to get the 1970s back. We may never have as many great movies in a single like they made back then. But I would wager that one of the reasons it was such an exciting year for film and for the box office and for the Oscars was that the selections were not limited. The choices weren’t narrowed. There wasn’t a category for the “Oscar movie.” Not until Weinstein got into the game. I think it would be better overall if there was a wider net cast for the kinds of movies we all think of as high achievements in film.

As a movie writer whose task has evolved into sifting out best bets for awards chances, I feel like I’ve had a hand in narrowing the choices as part of an industry that predicts which will and which won’t “go.” And I hope I can have a hand in widening it back out to where it was when I started, when movies like Gladiator could still win Best Picture. The bigger the net, the more choices, the better way, ultimately, to find the best.