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Black Panther was 2018’s most important film, whether or not it wins Best Picture

Our roundtable discusses the Oscar chances for the first superhero film ever to be nominated for the top prize.

Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger and Chadwick Boseman as King T’Challa in Black Panther.
Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger and Chadwick Boseman as King T’Challa in Black Panther.
Marvel Studios

Each year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences nominates between five and 10 movies to compete for the Oscars’ Best Picture trophy — its most prestigious award, and the one given out at the very end of the ceremony. There’s no strict definition for what makes a “best” picture; it’s easiest to think about it as an honor given to the film that Hollywood thinks best represents the year in movies.

So whatever film wins Best Picture essentially represents the American movie industry’s view of its role in driving culture, as well as its capabilities and aspirations, at a specific point in time.

Every year’s nominee slate, then, is a rough approximation of the options from which the industry will choose as it attempts to characterize its past 12 months. And one thing that’s definitely true about the eight Best Picture nominees from 2018 is that they exhibit a lot of variety.

There’s a superhero film, two political satires (one set in an 18th-century royal court and one set in the White House), a movie about infiltrating the KKK, a classic Hollywood remake, a classic Hollywood feel-good buddy comedy, a rocker biopic, and a sweeping domestic drama. And thinking about what the Academy voters — as well as audiences and critics — found enticing about them can help us better understand both the state of Hollywood and, broadly speaking, what we were looking for at the movies this year.

In the runup to the Oscars on February 24, Vox’s staff is looking at each of the eight Best Picture nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?

Here, we talk about Black Panther, 2018’s highest-grossing movie at the box office and arguably the most influential film of the year. Joining the conversation are Vox culture reporters Alex Abad-Santos and Alissa Wilkinson, and P.R. Lockhart, who writes about race and identities for Vox.

Why was Black Panther such a global phenomenon?

Alissa Wilkinson: Whether or not Black Panther was the best film of the year, it definitely was the film of the year. It was the top domestic earner at the box office, cracking $700 million in North America and surpassing Titanic to become the No. 3 movie of all time, behind only Avatar and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It shattered the Hollywood myth that “black films don’t travel,” making nearly $650 million internationally.

And perhaps more importantly, Black Panther drove conversations all year long like few movies do, about race, justice, sci-fi, Afrofuturism, and a lot more. It even provided fodder for a voter registration drive. And the concept of Wakanda, the fictional African country where much of its action takes place, has taken on a life that’s bigger than the movie.

But Black Panther had a big hurdle to overcome in its pursuit of a Best Picture nomination: It’s a superhero film, and no film in that genre has ever been nominated for Best Picture before. It snagged a nomination. Now, the question is whether it can win and make history.

What do you think of Black Panther’s chances? Why has the Academy nominated it for Best Picture? And is this its year?

Alex Abad-Santos: I’m going to preface this all and let you know that I’m a deeply skeptical and pessimistic person — I think life operates best if you anticipate the worst-case scenario and work from there.

That said, there was no movie that made me smile bigger, made my heart soar, and brought me more joy than Black Panther — a story about a man who not only realizes his superhero destiny but also has to be a hero to his country, Wakanda. In that story are threads about colonialism, race, utopia, and the lives of black men and women today.

If superhero movies are meant to make us feel like we could change the world, nourish our spirit, and fill our hearts with indomitable hope, Black Panther checks all those boxes.

Taking that all into account, I don’t think Black Panther has a chance of winning Best Picture. The Academy has traditionally never really smiled upon superhero movies. Further, the movie wasn’t recognized in other major categories like Screenplay or Directing, nor did its cast receive acting award nods (Letitia Wright and Michael B. Jordan should have been recognized, maybe?). So even though my heart says yes, my brain and gut tell me there’s no chance for Black Panther. And that’s a blazing shame.

P.R. Lockhart: I agree with Alex. While I loved Black Panther, I don’t think it stands a chance — although I’d certainly love to be surprised come Oscars night! I’m definitely not an expert, but based on my casual Oscars watching, Black Panther just doesn’t seem like a movie that can win, especially with other super-obvious Oscar-bait films in the running.

But I think the fact that we’re even having this discussion is a testament to how much of a tour de force Black Panther has been in the past year. I can’t think of another film that has been out as long that is still being treated like the premiere is just around the corner. Last week, Black Panther was back in theaters. The actors still go to screenings and participate in panel discussions. Its entire soundtrack was nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy.

As you’ve noted, Alissa, Black Panther was more than a movie; it was a phenomenon. And I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that part of me is like, “In this case, the Oscars don’t matter,” because this movie made more than $1 billion, it changed how we talk about representation in film, especially in superhero films, and it was also just a really good movie. It doesn’t need an Oscar. But if the Academy randomly decides that it wants the Best Picture award to go to the film that best represented the cultural and social power of filmmaking in 2018, I can’t think of a better movie to win than Black Panther.

Wakanda matters far beyond the movie

Alissa: Since we’re discussing the cultural impact of the film, I’m especially interested in talking about Wakanda as a concept, as a setting for a story, and as a kind of mythical place that really means something more than a location in a fictional story. Not having read the comics before seeing the movie, I was captivated by the depiction of Wakanda, and it’s been fascinating to see how quickly it spread into pop culture as a shorthand for something, an idea.

Can you both talk about how Black Panther’s depiction of Wakanda in particular is significant?

Alex: Wakanda has existed in the Black Panther comic books as the epicenter of technological advancement for a long time prior to its filmic adaptation. And one of the small differences between cinematic Wakanda and comic book Wakanda is the emphasis on Wakanda’s legacy: No one has ever captured, colonized, or invaded Wakanda.

That’s a powerful sentiment. Think of how history would be rewritten, whose lives we would examine, how the default assumptions of power and respect in the world would shift if, instead of the United States or Western Europe being seen as the most cutting-edge and strongest entities in geopolitics, an African country was a global superpower.

Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is flanked by Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba), two members of Wakanda’s Dora Milaje.
Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is flanked by Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba), two members of Wakanda’s Dora Milaje.
Marvel/Disney

When Wakanda was finally brought to screen, it bucked the way African countries have been depicted by providing a power fantasy that reveres the relentless spirit and innovative minds of black men and women — something that modern moviemaking has rarely made room for.

It also introduced an isolationist wrinkle. Despite having all this power and all this advanced technology, Wakandans hid themselves from the outside world and did not intervene when slavers put their brothers and sisters in chains. Essentially, a superpower that could have stopped slavery did nothing. Killmonger brings that idea to light, asking what Wakanda’s duty is. Does it extend beyond self-preservation, and, conversely, could Wakanda have survived if it had not hidden itself?

P.R.: I think the question of what would have happened if Wakanda was revealed earlier in history is an interesting one. Wakanda is so advanced because it hid itself. The giant vibranium meteor is a large part of it too, but the Wakandans had so much time to create not just tech but an entire culture that weaves the practices of its various tribes with this incredibly advanced technology. That doesn’t look the same if vibranium becomes a major export or the country is focused on extensive humanitarian relief hundreds of years earlier.

I think the trickier part of Alex’s question, and the one that certainly underlies Killmonger’s entire arc, is what would the world look like if it knew about Wakanda earlier?

Wakanda as a nation is untouched by anti-blackness, and that fact is what makes it so attractive to those affected by anti-black attitudes and systems. But does Wakanda being exclusively black and the most powerful country in the world automatically make it a pro-black country? Would the public existence of a black utopia change anti-black attitudes in other countries, or would anti-black attitudes shift to include Wakanda?

Marvel Studios Black Panther Welcome To Wakanda New York Fashion Week Showcase
In 2018, New York Fashion Week included a “Welcome to Wakanda” showcase sponsored by Marvel Studios.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Marvel

I both agree and disagree with Alex. I think Wakanda is certainly a clear refutation of depictions that paint African countries as less developed and African cultures as primitive. But honestly, part of the reason these stereotypes persist is that they affirm a certain set of beliefs about the world and Africa’s place in it. And I don’t know if Wakanda entering the global stage is enough to destroy or radically shift that perception. Maybe Wakanda comes on the scene early enough to predate all of it. But I have a nagging suspicion there would still be some Ulysses Klaue-type (Ulysses is the black market arms dealer and villain of Black Panther) figures out there calling Wakandans savages and farmers, despite actually knowing how advanced they are.

I’ll stop myself before I derail this whole conversation, but I will say that part of what made Black Panther such a joy to watch was the second part of my earlier point: that a history of global anti-blackness is what makes the idea of Wakanda so powerful. It’s amazing to see a film where you aren’t watching black people try to navigate racism, or overcome injustice, and it’s simply because they never faced it. In their world, it didn’t exist, so Wakanda gets to be this place of limitless black potential. But the film shows that there’s a trade-off — that the absence of that struggle can change how black people relate to one another and how we think of the injustices and history that helped shape “blackness” across the globe.

Still, it isn’t hard to see why Wakanda became a representation of something bigger for a lot of black moviegoers, myself included.

Black Panther standouts who shouldn’t be overlooked: we love Shuri and “All the Stars”!

Alissa: It’s pretty remarkable that one of the most culturally challenging films of the year came in Marvel packaging — and likely wound up in front of many more eyeballs than it might have if Marvel hadn’t been part of the equation.

And now I have a few very important questions: Was there anyone in the cast who deserved an acting nod? Would you vote for A Star Is Born’s “Shallow,” or should Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s “All the Stars” take home Best Original Song? And has Danai Gurira’s Okoye convinced you to go bald?

Alex:

1. Letitia Wright is buoyant and bright as Shuri. I know Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is arguably the best villain in Marvel history, but Wright’s Shuri is one of the studio’s biggest delights.

2. “All the Stars.” SZA’s chorus makes my heart soar. Kendrick’s verses make me think I could crush the world with my bare hands.

3. Yes, as long as I get to accessorize.

P.R.:

1. The character that stuck with me most was Shuri, so I agree that Letitia Wright has the single best performance of the cast. Jordan’s Killmonger is also great, if only because he’s compelling and avoids the usual Marvel villain trap of being super bland. But honestly, Black Panther is one of those movies that makes me wish there were an ensemble Oscar, because I think one of the best things about the movie was how well everyone played off one another. I’m happy the cast as a whole has gotten some love this awards season, including the Screen Actors Guild award for best ensemble.

Danai Gurira and Lupita N’yongo in Black Panther.
Danai Gurira and Lupita N’yongo in Black Panther.
Marvel Studios

2. I will forever love Black Panther: The Album because it is basically a full Kendrick Lamar release with a ton of great features. And while I like some of the other songs on the record a bit more than “All the Stars” (“Opps” is the perfect workout song, you can’t tell me otherwise), it would be great to see Kendrick and SZA take the win in the Best Song category.

3. Danai is gorgeous, as are so many other women rocking a bald head, but nah, it’s not for me.

Alissa:

1. I think we’re all on board with Letitia Wright here as a standout. But I agree: An ensemble acting award would be well deserved by Black Panther.

2. I never know how to decide if one great song is “better” than another great song, and “Shallow” and “All the Stars” are in wildly different genres, to boot. But I’m certain this album on the whole deserves its accolades.

3. Danai is great, and I’ll never go bald, but she rather makes me wish I could.

No matter what happens, it’s a big deal that Black Panther has the opportunity to upend the Oscars this year. Its Best Picture nomination alone — the first of its kind for a superhero film, and one with an all-black cast too — shows its importance as a film; it’s cleared a major hurdle and given future superhero films something to aspire to. And I think America will be eager to see whether it can actually snag the Best Picture trophy, despite the odds.


Check out what our roundtable participants had to say about all eight Best Picture nominees:

Black Panther | BlacKkKlansman | Bohemian Rhapsody | The Favourite | Green Book | Roma | A Star Is Born | Vice

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