Welcome to Debate Week: Best Picture Losers, a series in which we’ll be looking at some of the best movies that were nominated, but ultimately lost the Oscar race for Best Picture. In this entry, Brad Gullickson discusses Ryan Coogler’s seven-time nominated 2018 film, and the most deserving Best Picture winner of its year, Black Panther.
No one can deny us Black Panther as a moment. Every frame is a celebratory roar of African and African-American culture. The world and characters may have originated with Marvel’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but Ryan Coogler took those ideas and used them to champion his people and their origins freed from centuries of white atrocity, colonization, and hatred. From the moment the first trailers dropped, audiences knew the blockbuster would look and feel unlike any other that came before. Black Panther‘s arrival changed the game, providing further evidence through incredible box office that all manner of folks will show up for exceptional stories told through unique points of view.
Back in 2018, we named Black Panther our film of the year. It’s easy to stick by the pick. Three years later and Coogler’s flick hasn’t lost an ounce of energy. If anything, it’s gained some.
Black Panther opens on a one-word question, “Why?” A child asks it of his father, inquiring why their people, the Wakandans, hide their golden technological city from the eyes of the world while they and many more with their skin color struggle to survive in a system designed to tear them down. The father does not answer, and the question hangs over the audience until King T’Chaka responds by sinking his claws into dear old dad.
The kid is left behind, and the question burns a hole through him. As long as the Wakandans sit comfortable and the two billion who look like them do not, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) cannot rest. He builds himself into a war machine, using Uncle Sam to shape his rage into a dagger, so he can thrust it upon those that denied him.
The sitting Wakandan king, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), son of T’Chaka, is ignorant of his culpability in the oppression of others. He, unlike his soon-to-be-revealed cousin, never asked questions. His story is one of the eyes being opened. As the Black Panther, he’s tasked with protecting his kingdom and its citizens, but he cannot do so by following his father’s fearful steps. Killmonger’s attack awakens a great sin buried within the Wakandan infrastructure, and T’Challa must face a great reckoning.
The Wakandan sin, however, is merely a reflection of a much larger one. They retreated from the world because they saw how it operated without them — wars, slavery, hatred. Their precious mineral, the cure-all/do-all Vibranium, allowed them to erect invisible borders where they could thrive outside the destructive Western grip.
Wakanda is an astonishing vision. In collaboration with an endless VFX stream, cinematographer Rachel Morrison shoots the mythical realm with a rich adoration. The frames pulsate with promise and possibility. The joy emblazoned on the extras’ faces populating every nook and cranny accentuates our own excitement. Wakanda is not Blade Runner‘s gloomy Los Angeles, or Back to the Future Part II‘s poppy future Hill Valley, or even The Fifth Element‘s Moebius-glazed New York City. It’s different from anything put on screen before. It’s not white.
Wakanda is Afrofuturism made real. Never poisoned by colonization, the hidden country represents the dream of what Africa could have been in the absence of invasion or occupation. Production designer Hannah Beachler used science-fiction possibilities to bridge Africa’s mythology, art, culture, and politics. She draws on the diaspora’s traditions and constructs a landscape where they spread unfettered by conquerors. Wakanda is the reality the world was robbed by racism and subjugation.
Black Panther kicks down a very large door within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Behind it is an enormous room of potential, where mad titans clash and broken heroes are restored. The film acts as a tremendous gift for a franchise charging into its fourth phase with a couple dozen films already strung together behind it. Fatigue seems impossible after such an adrenaline shot.
Recognition from the Academy via Black Panther‘s 2019 Best Picture nomination seemed like a victory. You can count on one hand how many superhero movies received such a privilege outside technical awards: Heath Ledger’s posthumous Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight, Al Pacino’s nomination in the same category for Dick Tracy, Logan‘s Best Adapted Screenplay nom, and Joaquin Phoenix’s win for another Joker in Joker, which also nabbed nominations for Best Picture and Best Director.
Black Panther landing the nomination was both a surprise and not a surprise. The film easily crossed a billion dollars at the box office and dominated the cultural conversation that year. Finding itself amongst contenders like Roma, BlacKkKlansman, and The Favourite only solidified its uncommon brilliance.
Yet, very few expected Black Panther to win. Roma claimed most predictions while Black Panther was left to chunter, “It’s just an honor to be nominated.” In retrospect, Coogler’s film will clearly be discussed for decades to come, and not just as an exceptional link in the MCU chain. As kids grow into adults, they’ll recall where they were when they saw Black Panther in the same fashion that others remember their first time with Star Wars. They’ll remember the story and the characters, but they’ll also remember the long lines, the crowds, and their cheering cacophonous reaction.
For all its joy, Black Panther is a confrontation with this wretched world we’ve made. The film leaves you with an overwhelming sense of remorse. The battle between T’Challa and Killmonger results in a death that is more than tragic; it’s sickening. “The villain” strikes from a recognizable and understandable ethos. Strip Killmonger of his rage, and his cause is one to rally behind. He accepts his end, but T’Challa cannot. The Wakandan king returns to his rule determined to use his power and his nation’s gifts to aid those they ignored for centuries.
Black Panther motivates change amongst its superhuman brawls and somewhat wonky CGI. T’Challa admits a failing in himself and leaves the film plotting to grow from his experience. He can refashion the world to his liking. And like him, we do not have to accept what our fathers gave us. Coogler’s blockbuster is a politically charged call to action as much as it is anything else. Roll your eyes if you want to, but maybe you should divert your cynicism to a much more grave cinematic crime.
The official Best Picture winner of that year was Green Book, Peter Farrelly’s soft pillow engagement with bigotry in America. It’s a film that contains a little charm, but Green Book receiving the Academy’s top prize represents another embarrassing blemish from an oh-so-white voting party attempting to acknowledge systemic racism by honoring a white savior narrative that’s “Based on a True Story” but is most likely a total fabrication. Its win over Black Panther is a disgrace, but also, one not to get too mad about.
Black Panther declares itself Best Picture. We already barely recall Green Book, but Black Panther is firmly cemented in the pop-culture consciousness. There it will remain for decades, long after its first audiences have perished. Sequels are its future. Reboots are its future. The film will tumble forward through a never-ending river of Best-Of lists. Time delivers its final vote.