We’re in the phase of the Oscar race where pundits are being blamed for the way the voters always vote. Despite 20 years of being taught the same lesson again and again — that just because you think something should be nominated for awards doesn’t mean it will be. Back in the day we used to call it “wishful thinking,” because we knew it was futile. Readers of this site know how many times I’ve gone to bat for contenders and films only to see them not win or, in some cases, not even get nominated. People, as a rule, don’t like being told what they should like, what they should vote for. You can put through a community effort, involve everyone top to bottom on a movie, and it could still not win Best Picture, it could still be shut out by the Academy if they don’t “like” it enough.
There are so many ways the Oscar narrative will be told this year. Where for many years prior there were been a dearth of films with strong women leads — now there are so many that dozens will be have to be left off. While Black or African American film directors in the past have not broken through (everyone remembers that the year I championed Fruitvale Station and The Butler, while only 12 Years a Slave made it through and won), now there are at least five strong contenders. How is that one going to go?
Black Panther is a film that rides the line between Oscar’s past and present. On the one hand, it’s a massive success, a big risk taken and a massive reward received. Enjoyable, thrilling, revolutionary – with dazzling costume design, a deep and spiritual message at its core, and a promise to deliver the inspiration of Wakanda to the places where it’s needed most. But. It’s. Also. A. Marvel. Movie. And it exists in that universe. And no superhero movie has ever been nominated for Best Picture. The closest any has gotten is one solitary screenplay nomination for Wolverine.
But after the debacle of floating the idea of a Popular Film Category, only to see the entire industry of critics and pundits shut it down, there was a silent promise made that Black Panther will not be the casualty of this struggle. It deserves better, they all said, and it will get better, they all said. Someone just told me on Twitter that it’s shocking that Bradley Cooper is a sure thing for A Star is Born but not Ryan Cooler for Black Panther. Okay, so let’s assume Ryan Coogler is a sure bet for Black Panther. Then what? Does that mean overnight the Oscar industry has transformed itself because finally a Marvel superhero franchise movie was good enough for them to shake loose from their bias?
Does it also mean there will be no community standing behind any other film by a black director? Not BlackKklansman? Not If Beale Street Could Talk? And what about Widows? The Hate U Give? Sorry to Bother You? It’s been a renaissance for black films and black filmmakers this year, without question, and if Black Panther is the one that leads the vanguard for that — how can anyone complain?
It must be said and said again that no one is underestimating Black Panther and/or Ryan Coogler. No one is. But, in terms of awards recognition, healthy skepticism remains that the industry is fully ready to embrace a superhero movie. This is the same skepticism that followed when it was Wonder Woman, or animated films.
Many in Hollywood will believe that 700 million at the box office is its own reward. Many others also believe, rightly or wrongly, that superhero franchise movies have all but ruined the industry they once loved. The old guard, whose legions are many in the Academy, tend to prefer nuts and bolts filmmaking over movies plugged into chains of sequels and franchises. That is traditionally how it’s gone. As someone who has been covering the race as long as I have, an Academy that would embrace Black Panther is an Academy I wouldn’t recognize, even accounting for the influx of nearly 2000 new voters brought in over the past 3 or 4 admirable years of diversification efforts. If the new blood is enough to alter the attitude toward such films, that would mean so much has changed — including the theory that the membership may no longer see superhero movies as a blight that ruins Hollywood, but rather a force that enhances it.
There is a similar problem with the other way Hollywood is evolving — Netflix, Amazon and CBS Films. Rather than the opportunity that it represents, streaming is still seen by many as a major threat to the kind of ideal they wish to preserve, and that tradition will be challenge with Roma. How do they ignore a film like Roma, being hailed as a masterpiece, if they want to cling to their Netflix bias?
The thing is, if Black Panther is ignored and other worthy films by black directors aren’t — like BlackKklansman (to my mind among the most important films of the year), or Beale Street, etc. — does that mean the Oscar broadcast itself will be punished?
Finally, the Oscars really can have their cake and eat it too if they include Black Panther and Roma and A Star Is Born. They will, in one year, in three fell swoops, indicate a willingness to erase the borderline that separates the old from the modern day. They might also boost their ratings in doing so, thus averting the controversial addition of another category for “popular” movie. If they can get popular movies in under the current system, then there is no problem, right?
The measure for what defines “outstanding achievement in film” is flexible. Even though First Man’s box-office is relatively disappointing, does that mean the industry will ignore such an achievement? Conversely, will Black Panther’s jaw-dropping and history-making box-office mean that the industry can’t ignore it?
Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was a box office disappointment, but it was so impressive from a cinematic standpoint, Scorsese’s ambition so appreciated, that not only did it get nominated but it won FIVE Oscars.
Right now, everyone who watches the Oscars is casting a wide net — and there is a lot of “shoulding” going on. This person should win. That person should be nominated. That movie deserves to win. We’re about to head into November — where we witness one last gasp of the AFI fest before the awards start to rain down. Once they do, the consensus will begin to emerge. The net will tighten. Doors will be slammed shut.
It’s always better to start with what seems like a sure bet and work backwards. Honestly, even then our best guesses and fondest hopes can be derailed in the last act, as happened with Inside Llewyn Davis or Carol. Some of the best movies ever made have been completely ignored by the consensus. Box office is no measure of a film’s greatness, but it can be a measure of a film’s success; after all, the reason they expanded the ballot to begin with was when The Dark Knight (which was at the time the second highest grossing film of all time) was shut out for Best Picture WAY WAY WAY back in 2008. All the same, no superhero movie has gotten in with the expanded ballot either.
At the end of November, we will hear from the National Board of Review, and the New York Film Critics. Then we hear from LA. Then the Golden Globes. Probably Black Panther is going to have a hard time cracking the Globes – with A Star is Born and Can You Ever Forgive Me in drama, how will there be room? Can Ryan Coogler crack a DGA nod? Seems likely, right? With its 15,000 members nationwide, the DGA aren’t as strict or as old-school as the more insular and eminent branch of the Academy. As with any other category, much will depend on which films they like more than they do Black Panther.
There are so many admirable movies and just five slots for Best Director. That makes it an incredibly competitive race. I have high hopes for Black Panther, but the fatalist in me knows that championing that one film will come at the expense of other films that didn’t make that kind of money but might deserve the honor just as much or more.