Oscar Debate: Black Panther

Black Panther: either a triumph for the superhero genre or a triumph for black film-making, depending on how correct your priorities are. Its nomination for best pictur caused a flurry of think-pieces asking if it might, maybe, have a shot at actually winning; the answer, of course, was "are you out of your god damned mind, of course it doesn't", but despite that, it did better than I think all but the most addled superhero fans had anticipated.

That the movie would win one of the design categories was a pretty safe bet; winning both best production design and costume design and snagging best score was delightfully unexpected, especially given that it was up against two popular musicals and features a somewhat unusual soundtrack heavily inspired by hip-hop and traditional African music. I think fans of the movie, fans of Afro-centric culture and, yes, superhero fans, can walk away happy with this one.

You know who isn't happy? The swarms of people coming out of the woodwork to complain that Black Panther didn't deserve a best picture nomination. But we'll get to them in a minute.

Black Panther's plot, if you haven't seen it, focuses on the nation of Wakanda, a hyper-advanced technological enclave in central Africa that keeps its existence a strict secret from the outside world. The only exception to this is the country's king, the titular Black Panther, who uses a combination of supernaturally-enhanced strength and a sick-ass superhero suit to fight various threats to his kingdom's safety, whether they be internal or external.

As the movie opens, the current Black Panther, T'Challa, is preparing to take the throne following his father's death during a previous Marvel movie. Wakanda is at a crossroads, with some questioning its isolationist policy and others--like T'challa's top general--suggesting that maybe it's time to just conquer the world and bring about global peace by force. Before T'Challa can choose a path forward, his position on the throne is challenged by Erik Killmonger, the son of a Wakandan spy who T'Challa's father killed during a mysterious conflict more than a decade ago. Now a hardened veteran of the US special forces, Killmonger has a major beef with the new king.

There's a lot more to it than that. Black Panther's setting and story are extremely audacious and strange for a major blockbuster movie, in many ways not just unlike any of the other Marvel movies but unlike anything in America's cinematic history. The movie is openly and unapologetically afro-futurist, bringing a mostly-underground artistic movement exploding into the mainstream with oscar-winning talent and a massive budget. 

In that regard, the movie is a legitimate artistic achievement. It imagines something that does not, and by definition cannot, exist: a modern African culture completely untainted by European colonialism. What do people in this country wear? How do they sit when they're piloting an airplane? What do they decorate the interiors of their homes with? It's essentially an act of alt-history world building that has to discard most of the building blocks that such settings are usually constructed on. 

This vision is uncompromising. Black Panther doesn't care whether you're willing to meet it halfway. It takes iconography that's been turned into caricature and comedy by centuries of racist stereotyping--like African people in traditional "tribal" garb--and reclaims it. No attempt is made to soften this for white western audiences (or indeed for black western audiences, conditioned for generations to see their cultural roots as primitive and degrading).

This boldness of vision extends to the movie's political commentary, which is much more forthright than I think anyone expected from a comic book movie, and more strident even than a lot of critically-acclaimed, "serious" dramas about race (like, for example, a certain best picture winner). Part of the movie's back-story is that Wakanda embedded spies within the global African diaspora, including in radical black liberation movements; it's such a movement that Killmonger's father was part of, and the circumstances around his death arose in part due to him getting too invested in the cause and deciding to use Wakanda's technology to help it succeed.

Killmonger's plan is basically a larger version of this: he aims to take over Wakanda and then launch a global war of liberation, fighting back against the oppression of the sons and daughters of Africa wherever it may take place. Needless to say, the United States is target number one.

None of this is at all subtle. The characters openly talk about racism both historical and modern. Both Killmonger and his father (who, remember, was a radical on the verge of resorting to outright terrorism) are treated sympathetically. A lot of people come away from the movie admitting that Killmonger's motivation and basic goal are difficult to argue against, and it feels like Black Panther wants you to react that way. 

The movie's plot feels refreshing compared to most recent Marvel movies, in that it's more intimate and smaller-scale. A lot of focus is placed on Shakespearian royal skullduggery and familial drama, and the action is for the most part on the scale of a James Bond or a Mission Impossible rather than the skyscraper-destroying spectacle that's come to dominate most superhero movies. The best part of the movie comes at the end of the second act, when it appears that T'Challa is dead and we follow his family members and allies as they embark on a desperate quest for aid from a hostile Wakandan faction; it feels less like a superhero movie and more like an afro-futurist Game of Thrones, and really made me wish Marvel would bankroll a Black Panther TV spin-off (seriously guys, you co-produced two seasons of Iron Fist. This is a much better use of your resources).

All of this is effusive praise, but...well, there's a "but." 

If you followed the reactions to Black Panther last year, you probably heard a lot of people express disappointment with the movie's third act. There was a reason for that: it's not very good. 

The political intrigue falls away and we instead get what Marvel movies frequently do worst, which is a big CGI punch-fest that goes on way too long and involves too much empty spectacle. The special effects, which are up to this point good-to-fantastic, take a sudden nosedive in quality, featuring some of the worst green-screen compositing in the entire Marvel franchise. Wakanda goes from a vibrant, tangible place to a big empty field with a lot of extras firing fake-looking energy blasts at each other. 

Even worse, T'Challa and Killmonger's big climactic battle is a total anticlimax. It's one of those flat action movie endings where the hero's emotional and thematic climax has already happened earlier, so the only thing left is for him and the bad guy to beat each other up for a while until the hero can grab a pointy thing and stab the villain with it at the last minute. This whole scene is made worse by Killmonger's actual death, which is powerful and poignant and really made me wish the movie had skipped the fight and just gotten back to the drama, which it's far better at. 

Does this let-down of a final third sink the entire movie? No, definitely not. But it did leave a bitter taste in my mouth, and in my opinion it prevents Black Panther from eclipsing the rest of the Marvel pantheon the way it seems like it's going to when it's firing on all cylinders. The finished product is a good movie, but it could have been a great one, and seeing that potential squandered so close to the finish line stings. 

And with all that said, we come to the big question: did Black Panther deserve to be nominated for best picture? 

Before we can answer that, we need to define what the question even means. If we dispense with any notion that the Oscars are actually some sort of objective measure of artistic merit--which we should, because they're not--then "this movie didn't deserve a best picture nomination" can only mean "I didn't think it was one of the five best movies that came out in 2018". 

In which case, I would agree with the complainers. I didn't think Black Panther was one of the five best movies of 2018.

But so what? I don't think most best picture nominations are among the best movies of the year. If that accolade can be unworthily bestowed on an endless parade of dull "important" dramas and congratulory aren't-the-pictures-just-grand masturbation sessions, why not a movie that genuinely tries new things and that will actually be remembered ten years from now? As far as I'm concerned, Black Panther getting the nomination is partial atonement The Artist (remember The Artist?) winning the award.

But, the complainers say, Black Panther was only nominated to score diversity points! They're just trying to make themselves seem relevant by appearing to be progressive!

To which I would say: yeah, no shit. Of course that's why the Academy--or at least a significant portion of the Academy--nominated Black Panther.

They do this all the time. They've been doing it since the 60s. Why do you think bullshit like Driving Miss Daisy or Crash or Fucking Green Book even made it into consideration? Because the Academy voters genuinely had such a rollicking good time in the cinema with those movies?  

No, those movies won awards because if the Academy lauded self-congratulatory back-patting nonsense like La La Land every year, people would realize what they were doing and stop watching.  They can only give statues to movies where someone gazes in rapture at a black and white film so many times before the ruse becomes too obvious.

I'm sorry if I'm exploding your cherished preconceptions here, but the Oscars literally exist to promote the American film industry. That's the entire point of the whole thing. Sometimes that takes the form of nominating movies that make the average American family feel all warm and fuzzy about the idea of shutting off Netflix and paying way too much money to sit in a big room full of noisy assholes. And sometimes it means recognizing movies that make the academy not seem like a bunch of out of touch mummies stuck in the 1940s.

Am I claiming that this impulse is entirely cynical and calculated? No, of course not. There are probably a lot of academy voters who really did think Moonlight was the best movie that came out in 2016. There were probably voters who recognized that Black Panther showed them something they had never seen on a cinema screen before, and decided to acknowledge that.

But does any of this even matter? If Black Panther's Oscar nomination resonated with people who loved the movie and felt it was empowering and uplifting, then is it relevant why the academy nominated it in the first place? Does it matter whether it "deserved" to be nominated? Are we just rhetorically chasing our tails with this whole discussion, trying to reach an impossible conclusion that most average movie-goers won't care about to begin with?

As evidenced by how rambling and directionless this whole post has been, I think I know where I fall on that question. So rather than come to any grand conclusion, I'll just direct you to check Black Panther even if you're normally not into super hero movies. At the very least, I can promise it's not like anything you've seen before.