Welcome to Debate Week: Best Picture Losers, a series where we watch some of the best films that got nominated but ultimately lost the Oscar race for best picture. In this post, Brad Gullickson talks about Ryan Coogler’s seven-time nominated 2018 film and the most deserved best picture of its year, Black Panther.
Nobody can deny us Black Panther than a moment. Each frame is a solemn roar of African and Afro-American culture. The world and characters may come from Marvel’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but Ryan Coogler took these ideas and used them to promote his people and origins freed from centuries of white atrocities, colonization and hatred. From the moment the first trailers fell, the audience knew that the blockbuster would look and feel different than anyone else who came before. The arrival of Black Panther changed the game and, through the incredible box office, provided further evidence that all kinds of people will emerge for extraordinary stories told from unique angles.
We named Black Panther our film of the year back in 2018. It’s easy to stick to the choice. Three years later, Coogler’s film hasn’t lost an ounce of energy. If anything, it has won some.
Black Panther begins with a one-word question: “Why?” A child asks his father and asks why their people, the Wakandans, hide their golden technological city from the eyes of the world while they and many others of their skin color struggle to survive in a system that is supposed to tear them down. The father does not answer and the question hangs over the audience until King T’Chaka answers by sinking his claws into dear old father.
The boy stays behind and the question burns a hole through him. As long as the Wakandans sit comfortably and the two billion who look like them don’t, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) can not rest. He builds himself into a war machine and uses Uncle Sam to mold his anger into a dagger so he can transfer it to those who have denied him.
The seated Wakandan King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Son of T’Chaka, knows nothing of his guilt for the oppression of others. Unlike his soon-to-be-discovered cousin, he never asked questions. His story is one of the eyes that will be opened. As a Black Panther, his job is to protect 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 in the Wakandan infrastructure, and T’Challa faces a great reckoning.
However, the Wakandan sin is only a reflection of a much larger one. They withdrew from the world because they saw how it worked without them – wars, slavery, hatred. Their precious mineral, the panacea vibranium, enabled them to create invisible borders where they could thrive outside the destructive western grasp.
Wakanda is an amazing vision. Working with an endless VFX stream, cameraman Rachel Morrison shoots the mythical realm with a rich adoration. The frames pulsate with promise and opportunity. The joy that shines on the faces of the extras who populate every nook and cranny increases our own excitement. Wakanda isn’t Blade Runner’s bleak Los Angeles or Back to the Future Part II’s poppy future Hill Valley or even the Möbius-glazed New York City of The Fifth Element. It is different from anything previously seen on the screen. It is not white.
Wakanda is Afrofuturism that is becoming a reality. The hidden land, never poisoned by colonization, represents the dream of what Africa could have been without invasion or occupation. Production designer Hannah Beachler used science fiction opportunities to connect Africa’s mythology, art, culture and politics. It draws on the traditions of the diaspora and builds a landscape in which they can spread unhindered by conquerors. Wakanda is the reality where the world has been stripped of racism and submission.
Black Panther enters a very large door in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Behind it is a huge room of potential where mad titans collide and broken heroes are restored. The film makes a great gift for a franchise entering phase four with a couple of dozen films lined up behind it. Fatigue seems impossible after such an adrenaline rush.
The Academy’s recognition of the Black Panther 2019 Best Picture nomination seemed like a victory. On one hand, you can count how many superhero films have received such a privilege outside of 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 nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, and Joaquin Phoenix’s win for another Joker in Joker, which also received nominations for Best Picture and Best Director.
Black Panther, who received the nomination, was both a surprise and no surprise. The film easily topped a billion dollars at the box office and dominated cultural talk that year. Finding himself among rivals like Roma, BlacKkKlansman and The Favorite only cemented his unusual brilliance.
Still, very few expected Black Panther to win. Roma claimed most of the predictions, while Black Panther was left to hunt: “It’s just an honor to be nominated.” In retrospect, Coogler’s film will be clearly discussed in the decades to come, and not just as an exceptional link in the MCU chain. As children grow up, they will remember where they were when they saw Black Panther in the same way that others remember their first time in Star Wars. You will remember the story and the characters, but you will also remember the long lines, the crowd and their cheering cacophonic reaction.
For all its joy, Black Panther is a confrontation with this wretched world we created. The film leaves an overwhelming feeling of remorse. The fight between T’Challa and Killmonger leads to a more than tragic death. it’s sick. “The Villain” is based on a recognizable and understandable ethos. Strip Killmonger of his anger, and his cause is one he gathers behind. He accepts his end, but T’Challa cannot. Returning to his reign, the Wakandan King is determined to use his power and the gifts of his nation to help those who have ignored them for centuries.
Black Panther motivates the shift between his superhuman brawls and the somewhat shaky CGI. T’Challa admits a failure in himself and leaves the plot to grow from his experience. He can change the world according to his wishes. And like him, we don’t have to accept what our fathers gave us. Coogler’s blockbuster, like everything else, is a politically charged call to action. Roll your eyes if you like, but maybe you should redirect your cynicism onto a much more serious film crime.
The official winner of this year’s best picture was Green Book, Peter Farrelly’s commitment to soft pillows with bigotry in America. It’s a film that has a bit of charm in it, but the Green Book, which wins the Academy’s Grand Prize, is another embarrassing flaw of an oh-so-white electoral party trying to recognize systemic racism by honoring a white savior narrative that ” Based on a true story, “it is most likely a total manufacture. Beating Black Panther is a shame, but also one that shouldn’t be too angry about.
Black Panther declares itself to be the best picture. We barely remember the Green Book, but Black Panther is firmly anchored in pop culture consciousness. It’ll stay there for decades, long after its first audience perished. Sequels are his future. Reboots are his future. The film will tumble through an endless flow of best-of lists. Time provides its final vote.