Black Panther made history by becoming the first superhero movie nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It’s a huge feat for the genre that has struggled to be taken seriously for its contributions to the artform while simultaneously setting new standards at the box office.
With the rabid box-office support, it’s clear that the public has been all-in with capes and cowls for decades, but the Academy has taken their sweet time getting to this place. After the first major superhero movie Best Picture snub — 2008’s The Dark Knight — the Academy increased the number of nominees in the category from five films to up to ten films, with the idea that this would give movies like The Dark Knight a greater chance of being recognized (after all of the “serious” films filled those primo slots).
Unfortunately, that didn’t give the public the nominations they had hoped for, and the Academy continued to pass over important superhero movies in the top category. (Ahem, Wonder Woman.) So, ahead of this year’s ceremony, the Academy tried to introduce the Best Popular Movie category — it’s believed with movies like Black Panther in mind — but that was met with so much backlash that the Academy nixed the idea long before voting for nominations opened. And finally, the public has forced the Academy’s hand: Black Panther is a Best Picture nominee!
Traditionally, superhero movies are most likely to snag nominations only in the technical categories — which is great! It is an honor to be nominated. Still, the technical categories don’t have the same level of excitement around them than a shimmering gold statuette engraved with the words “Best Picture” or “Best Director.” This level of recognition is major.
At the same time, the movies that are typically nominated in the Best Picture category are often recognized for their other artistic accomplishments — including directing, acting, and writing. To illustrate, this year, of the eight Best Picture nominees, four snagged additional nominations in all three of those categories, two earned nominations in two of those categories, and one scored a nomination in one of those categories.
Only one film nominated for Best Picture failed to be recognized in any three of those categories. That movie: Black Panther. What’s more, Black Panther did score nominations in six other categories — most of which were technical.
Considering this unusual alignment, it’s worth asking whether the Academy genuinely believes that Black Panther is a great movie, or if they just think it’s a great movie because everyone is telling them it is. Does the Academy actually get why Black Panther is a groundbreaking film that deserves to be recognized for its artistic contributions to filmmaking?
The Black Panther cast with their SAG Awards.
For what it’s worth, Ryan Coogler’s screenplay was nominated at the Writers Guild Awards, and the entire cast — including Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Winston Duke, Forest Whitaker, Martin Freeman, Sterling K. Brown, Andy Serkis, and Angela Bassett — was honored at the SAG Awards, taking home the prize for ensemble. Rest assured that the artistry in this film was, by industry standards and as determined by their peers, exceptional. If the Academy hopes to connect with audiences too, its voting members should similarly recognize the artistry that goes into taking a superhero from a comic book page to the big screen.
In terms of its construction, Black Panther was culturally groundbreaking. It was written and directed by a Black man, starring an all-Black main cast, set in Africa. It showcased the beauty of traditional Black and African culture and delicately grappled with the African versus African-American identity in a way that we hadn’t before seen in a blockbuster movie, inviting audiences to either identify with or learn about a world that isn’t often talked about outside of its own communities. Through his writing and directing, Coogler did that — and now that that exists, that’s something we cannot continue to ignore in pop culture.
Despite a minimal basis in reality, Boseman’s portrayal of T’Challa — and Jordan’s portrayal of his complicated foe Killmonger — was grounded in something human. Audiences believed these performances so deeply and passionately that it empowered them to be better. Seeing these characters come to life on screen — particularly in a way that hadn’t been done before — made people believe that they, even without the fantastical elements, could be bigger than what they previously thought they could be.
And the story isn’t a flash in the pan, either. Superheroes have been embedded in our cultural DNA for decades, and no other genre has expanded their existing universes and reinvented their characters to keep them consistently on the pulse of what’s happening in our country on a larger socio-political scale.
Black Panther is no exception. This particular story tackled something we are currently grappling with in our country — do we help others, or help only ourselves? Can we become greater by opening our arms and sharing our fortune, or are we better off closing our borders to the outside world?
Throughout the course of the movie, King T’Challa, the titular hero, has to be convinced that opening his nation’s borders is the most effective path forward for everyone involved, and by the end of the movie, he extends a hand to those he can help — because that is the right thing to do.
Superhero stories remind audiences young and old alike that, regardless of how bleak the situation or our personal flaws, we can always choose to do good and make things better for each other. And because they’re exploring universal truths in the vein of good and evil, these movies are able to transcend the boundaries we often run into as a society and give the message both sides need to hear.
With that ability to communicate with a range of audiences so effectively, superhero movies in general and Black Panther in particular achieves what good films are supposed to achieve: willing an audience to think a little deeper about a complex topic and leaving the theater feeling a little differently than they felt when they entered. And that’s a testament not only to the film’s technical aspects — although that certainly helps — but also to the film’s writing, directing, and acting.
But when the Academy considers a film to be among the year’s best, what are they really saying? Are they assessing its ability to influence culture and affect change among the masses? Or is it as it seems — a mechanism for Hollywood Elite to determine what's good and what's just popular.