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The case for Black Panther as a 2019 Oscar behemoth

Will Black Panther get a Best Picture nomination? Its chances are stronger than you might think.

Black Panther
Imagine T’Challa clutching an Oscar in each hand.
Marvel Studios
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The 2018 Oscars are done with, consigned to the history books for the rest of time. And a ton of great people won their first awards there, from Guillermo Del Toro to Jordan Peele, from 89-year-old James Ivory (the oldest winner ever) to Allison Janney.

But there’s one thing the 2018 Oscars lacked: ratings. They were the least-watched Oscars ever, with just 26.5 million viewers. Yes, that beat out the other awards shows (like the Golden Globes and Grammys) this year, but it’s also over 5 million lower than the previous low (32 million in 2008) and 20 percent lower viewership than the Oscars saw in 2017.

On the one hand, this is just where TV is trending. Both the Grammys and Super Bowl were down significantly in the ratings this year as well, and live viewership is starting to become a niche thing. On the other hand, the Oscars have traditionally had an ace in the hole when ratings start to slump: When they nominate big, hit movies, and those big, hit movies have a good chance at winning the biggest prize of the night, viewership goes up.

The most-watched Oscars ceremony ever came 20 years ago, when Titanic, on its way to becoming the biggest film of all time, won the big prize. And the ceremonies in 2004 (when Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won Best Picture), 2010 (when Avatar contended), and 2014 (when Gravity won seven Oscars but not Best Picture) all saw healthy viewership bumps.

So, clearly, all the Oscars need to help the 2019 awards avoid the ratings doldrums is a blockbuster nominee with a decent shot at winning Best Picture.

It’s a good thing there’s already a 2018 blockbuster with rave reviews and massive box office to nominate, then! Here are the categories for which the Oscars could nominate Marvel’s Black Panther, with reasonable arguments for why the Oscars should nominate it.

Best Picture

I’m calling it now: The Oscars will nominate Black Panther for Best Picture next year. Whether it’s as a movie that could win the whole thing, or as one of those “just happy to be here” nominees, remains to be seen. But seeing how often Black Panther was referenced at the 2018 Oscars, it’s clear everybody in Hollywood knows this is not just another superhero movie. It’s a cultural phenomenon — and the Oscars love nominating a cultural phenomenon. (See also: Gone With the Wind, The Sound of Music, Jaws, Star Wars, etc., etc., etc.)

The big thing standing in Black Panther’s way is its genre. No superhero movie has ever been nominated for Best Picture, and the expansion to more than five nominees in 2009 happened because The Dark Knight was snubbed for Best Picture that year, despite receiving nominations in eight other categories. And even though Wonder Woman was a similar, if smaller, cultural phenomenon in the summer of 2017, the Oscars snubbed it in every category.

But Black Panther’s secret weapon is its reviews, which are really, really good. If the Oscars need an excuse to get over their squeamishness about the film’s genre, all voters need to do is look at Black Panther’s scores on Rotten Tomatoes (97 percent) and Metacritic (88) to have those tastes validated.

Now, high review scores don’t always result in Oscar success, and in many circumstances, I’d say the movie’s February release date works against it. But Black Panther needs to only look at the example of fellow February release Get Out for tips on how to stay in the conversation all year, thus making your movie an unlikely Oscar player. It shouldn’t be tough.

How likely this is: I’d say pretty likely.

Best Director

Ryan Coogler directs Chadwick Boseman on the set of Black Panther
Ryan Coogler talks with Chadwick Boseman on the set of Black Panther.
Marvel Studios

Ryan Coogler has made just three films — this one, Creed, and Fruitvale Station — and all three have been greeted with great reviews, many centering on his roving, kinetic camerawork and natural eye for creating memorable images. There are elements of his direction of Black Panther I’d quibble with (mostly in the action sequences), but when the Oscars nominate a blockbuster, they usually nominate its director, too. If Black Panther becomes a major Oscar favorite, then Coogler will, too.

How likely this is: It depends on how well Black Panther is received by the Academy, but I’d lean toward “more likely than not.”

The acting categories

Here’s where things will be slightly trickier for T’Challa and company. The Oscars’ acting branch, which votes for the actors nominated at the final awards, rarely rewards acting in blockbusters, because it’s not as obviously showy as the acting in smaller, less visual effects-dependent movies.

Indeed, blockbusters typically receive only one nod for one actor, usually in a supporting category, and usually a prior Oscar favorite. Look, for instance, at Alec Guinness in Star Wars, or Ian McKellen in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. All prior Oscar nominees (and, in Guinness’s case, a prior winner) and all showy supporting performances.

Black Panther doesn’t quite have an actor who fits that profile (Forest Whitaker comes closest, but his role within the film is probably too minor, while Lupita Nyong’o’s role might be too quiet to attract Academy voters), but it does have an up-and-coming movie star, in a major supporting role, who gives the kind of flashy-but-deep performance that actors love.

I speak, of course, of Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger, and were I planning the movie’s Oscar campaign, he’s where I’d try to get it an acting nomination. (That Creed 2 should be out before the end of the year may end up helping keep Jordan in the public eye as well.)

How likely this is: It’ll be an uphill climb, but I think Jordan could be nominated if everything breaks right. The Oscars like to nominate stars on the rise, and he fits that profile. The other performers will struggle with competition from other actors (Chadwick Boseman, in the always crowded Lead Actor field) or from within their own film (the many, many, many prominent supporting actresses in the movie, though there’s a chance Nyong’o, an Oscar winner, might benefit from the Academy already knowing and loving her).

Black Panther
Michael B. Jordan would be a great nominee.
Marvel Studios

Best Adapted Screenplay

This will be another tricky category for Black Panther, but Logan just became the first superhero movie to land a nomination here, which helps quite a bit. It really depends on how crowded the field becomes. Logan secured a nomination thanks to how empty the Adapted field was this year. If something similar happens, Black Panther should waltz in.

How likely this is: This one is really dependent on what other movies are good in 2018. But it certainly wouldn’t shock me — Coogler’s work on the screenplay (along with Joe Robert Cole) is arguably better than his direction.

Best Original Song

Do you think the Academy would like to have Kendrick Lamar perform at the Oscars? I certainly do. There’s always the possibility the famously finicky music branch disqualifies his songs for some reason or another (probably if they rely too heavily on material produced for some other reason and not the film specifically), but that seems like an outside possibility to me.

How likely this is: It depends on which song a theoretical Black Panther Oscar campaign chooses to focus on. “All the Stars” (the song from over the closing credits) strikes me as a classic Oscar nominee, and Lamar and SZA would light up a staid ceremony with their performance. I say: Why not!

The technical categories

Reward these costumes.

Here is where Black Panther stands to really clean up, so here are some quick thoughts on each of them.

Cinematography: Rachel Morrison just became the first woman nominated in this category for her work on Mudbound, and beautiful blockbusters (like this one) have a solid record in this category. She might become the first woman nominated in consecutive years in this category.

Editing: Here’s a category that’s not averse to a good blockbuster. Of the technicals, this is one of the more likely nominations.

Production Design: The beautiful world of Wakanda should secure a nomination here easily, even if the movie’s overlooked for Best Picture.

Costume Design: See Production Design.

Makeup and Hairstyling: This is probably the least likely tech category for the film to compete in. Certainly its makeup and hairstyling are good, but this branch tends to go for showier work, often involving obvious prosthetics.

Original Score: Ludwig Göransson’s work is strong enough to be nominated, but the music branch is famously unwelcoming to newcomers. This one might be a struggle.

Sound Mixing and Sound Editing: The sound branches love to nominate a good blockbuster. These are two other categories where the film might well be nominated without a Best Picture nomination.

Visual Effects: The movie’s CGI effects are sometimes dodgy, and they’re certainly not groundbreaking. But as another nomination to pad out the movie’s total, this isn’t unthinkable or anything. It would be a classic “nominated but didn’t win” nominee in this category.

Todd’s definitive, probably inaccurate, one-year-out prediction of Black Panther’s Oscar nominations haul

I’m going to predict 12 nominations. We’ll see how accurate I am, come next year! Those nominations will be: Picture, Directing, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Costume Design, Original Song, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, and Visual Effects.

Please screenshot this section of the article and congratulate me in January of 2019, when the nominations are announced, and I got none of this wrong.

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