When Black Panther was released last February, it became a game-changer for the massively successful Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Not only is it a feature film with a predominately African-American cast, but it's also heavily steeped in discussions of African history, race, and oppression. The richness of Black Panther's narrative gives MCU features an added sense of legitimacy. Marvel's films have always been popular and well-reviewed, but Black Panther is being touted as a fantastic movie, completely divorced from the juggernaut of a company that birthed it. Now it's in contention for a Best Picture Oscar and though the film's chances of winning are slim, it is worth examining the journey it's taken and what a win could spell out for the Oscars and Disney.
Were Black Panther to pull off a Best Picture coup it wouldn't just benefit the film. It could be argued that the biggest beneficiaries would be Disney and the Oscars themselves. Ever since the Oscars have been televised, they've chased ratings as well as fought for a way to stay relevant with the younger generation. The dichotomy between whether the Oscars honor "art" or the best movies has always been contested, with the Oscars struggling to bridge the gap. Earlier this year, the Academy proposed a Best Popular Film category which some feared was to preemptively honor Black Panther since it will likely lose in the Best Picture category.
The idea was riddled with controversy. People saw it as a way of getting ahead of chronic #OscarsSoWhite criticisms that have continued to plague the show for decades, even in spite of last year's Moonlight snafu. The fluctuating definition of "popular" aside, it's as if the Academy almost admitted Black Panther wouldn't win after all. This would be a consolation prize. Disney owning ABC, home of the Oscars telecast, conjures up questions about a conflict of interest. Might this be the studio's attempt to rig the game in their favor?
It's easy to understand the desire to praise comic book movies in some form at the Oscars. When the Academy opened up Best Picture to a fluctuating number of nominees in 2011, it was in response to criticism against the Best Picture snub for The Dark Knight (which was eventually nominated in eight categories, including a posthumous win for Heath Ledger for Best Supporting Actor). For an award show chronically trying to tap into the zeitgeist, the Oscars slowly realized comic book movies are the embodiment of popularity. Progress, however, can be cripplingly slow. Even now, the Academy needs to find some way to respond to what has transitioned from a fad into a full-out genre. Like The Dark Knight, Black Panther isn't just popular, it's critically acclaimed. The comic book genre has fully become one in which superior quality isn't a fluke. And, in Black Panther's case, it's a landmark feature in a year with numerous other acclaimed films detailing the topic of race.
With the controversy surrounding the Best Picture nominees who are considered frontrunners, a win for Black Panther would accomplish so much. Not only would it give added legitimacy to the comic book genre, in a way similar to how Return of the King's win turned fantasy films into prestige drama, but it would also appeal to those who believe the other features about race (Green Book and BlackKklansman) are too divided in their messages. Black Panther has a message of inclusion while also speaking directly to black audiences. It's uncontroversial in how it presents its fairly frank message about the history of discrimination and oppression that continues to go on in the United States and the world. It could also be enough to bridge the gap between "popular" movies and critically acclaimed films. In an Oscar year where critics are trying to judge the lesser of three Best Picture evils, Black Panther ⏤ regardless of questionable collusion with ABC and Marvel ⏤ is looking pretty good right now.
On its own merit, Black Panther is a fantastic movie which rightfully earned its Oscar nomination. To award it Best Picture would certainly raise eyebrows for those with an awareness of the behind-the-scenes corporate entanglement, but it would also make sense in a year that's been fraught with questions of popularity and legitimacy. A boon for the comic book world, yes, but Black Panther's win would also prove (or disprove) the belief that it's the awards themselves, and the lack of support for what's out there, that keeps audiences from watching the Oscars. Time will tell, but Black Panther's nomination is historical, no matter what you think.