‘Black Panther’ should have won Best Picture at the Oscars

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 3/5/19 2:30am

You may have heard that the 91st Academy Awards ceremony took place a little over a week ago, and you may have also heard that the results were … controversial. But as much as I disapprove of “Green Book” as the Best Picture winner, I don’t really have the desire to explore that any further in this article. Instead, I’d like to discuss “Black Panther,” another Best Picture nominee and one whose failure to win the top prize reflects a series of ongoing problems with the Academy Awards.

Going into the ceremony on Sunday night, I felt certain that Spike Lee’s unnerving and thoughtful “BlacKkKlansman” was the most deserving of the Best Picture contenders. Yet as the ceremony proceeded, and as “Black Panther” began to rack up wins in some of the less-publicized categories (Costume Design, Production Design and Original Score), I began to wonder if it actually had a shot at Best Picture — something, incidentally, that I never thought “BlacKkKlansman” had. My girlfriend wisely tempered my enthusiasm by insisting that these were probably “pity wins.” Rather than predicting a future home run for “Black Panther,” they were a means of softening the loss. 

Nevertheless, as the ceremony drew to a close, I was genuinely convinced that a film about a fictional African monarch who moonlights as a feline-themed superhero had a solid chance of walking away with (arguably) the American film industry’s most prestigious award. As you can imagine, those “pity wins” didn’t really do much to mitigate my inevitable disappointment.

So why is it that I started to pin all my hopes on a film that I was initially convinced couldn’t win? Why didn’t “Black Panther” win? More importantly, why does it matter?

Throughout the ceremony, as we were treated to clips of the film, I was again reminded of its quality, its impact and its immense cultural importance, and a subsequent rewatch proved that it holds up phenomenally well. In this synergy of frustration at the Oscars and elation at revisiting the film, I realized something crucial: This is never going to happen again. 

I know that sounds a little extreme, but what do film critics exist for if not for hyperbole? Moreover, that’s an assertion that I will fiercely defend. As a director, Ryan Coogler was faced with seemingly insurmountable pressures. The film’s cultural importance to black history is obvious, but the expectations from this significance cannot be lightly dismissed. That Coogler managed to craft a film that exceeded these expectations is a minor miracle. “Black Panther” has frequently been commended for its craft and for its political ambitions, but rarely for both in relation to each other. Yet what struck me most is how these two qualities are inextricably linked. Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole attempt to tackle a lot in their screenplay, yet none of the various themes ever feels short-changed because each is so fluidly integrated into the narrative. Concerns about the damage wrought by colonialism, for instance, aren’t just in the background; they are integral to the motivations of the protagonist and antagonist. Again, this is why it’s surprising that the film’s craft and the film’s politics are addressed separately; they are dependent on each other. 

Of course, “Black Panther” was never without its detractors, like the alt-right. Yet other critics and scholars managed to make more valuable critiques, with some saying that the film was not radical enough and others scrutinizing the film’s approach to representation. The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott reflected that “Black Panther” would have been better served by Senegalese art-film director Ousmane Sembène.Yet Scott’s assertion strikes me as deeply insulting to Coogler and aims to limit black filmmakers. Insisting that these filmmakers ought to be political but only in small art films seems more myopic than inclusive. 

My point is not that “Black Panther” shouldn’t be criticized. In fact, I’m thrilled about the lively, productive debates because it indicates that Coogler and his collaborators have already won. They managed to create a commercially and critically successful film that is also a cultural monument and an entry point for some decidedly nuanced arguments. You may not agree with every political and philosophical stance, but the point is that a Marvel film managed to get you to consider those stances. And this is largely why I find Scott’s “Sembène argument” so exhausting. Sembène would have certainly made a great film, but not a commercially successful one, which is part of what makes “Black Panther” so special. This means that not only does Hollywood have no excuse but to make more films like this, but infinitely more people were exposed to these political debates.

It’s also important to contextualize the position that “Black Panther” was in during the Oscars. As I’ve discussed in an article I wrote for the Hop Backstage, the Oscars exhibits two enduring vices: an embarrassing lack of diversity and a refusal to recognize popular films. “Black Panther” was the perfect solution to these problems, and that the Academy even gave it a Best Picture nomination indicates some effort to address these problems. Yet in retrospect, the reality of the situation appears all too obvious. In August of last year, the Academy announced their proposed “Best Popular Film” category; everyone saw through their ploy immediately. The Academy knew it needed to recognize “Black Panther” or risk a further dive in ratings, but thanks to a host of ingrained prejudices, they clearly wouldn’t have felt comfortable awarding Coogler’s film. Rather than dealing with those prejudices, creating a new category probably seemed easier. While the idea was shot down long before the nominees were even announced, the “Best Popular Film” category feels like an augury for the results of Feb. 24. 

Yet if “Black Panther” never really had a chance of winning, why am I still so disappointed? The answer: “Black Panther” was a once-in-a-generation film, and the fact that it did not win Best Picture is both unsurprising and a shocking indictment of the Academy Awards. I’m not even trying to contend that it was the very best film of 2018 or that there won’t be other great films coming our way soon. But “Black Panther” was the product of an impossibly rare, magical alchemic mixture. Any number of things could have gone wrong in the creation of this film, and they didn’t. It’s telling that the Academy had the wisdom to nominate it, but it’s even more telling that the Academy didn’t properly recognize it. Nevertheless, I’m entirely confident that “Black Panther” will manage to withstand the test of time, to its benefit and to the Academy’s inevitable detriment.