This awards season, “Black Panther” has garnered Oscar buzz like Wakanda has vibranium. In total, the film was nominated for best picture, original score, original song, sound mixing, sound design, production design and costume design. As noted by Vulture, these are history-making nominations, but just how did “Black Panther” become an Oscar contender?
- Box-office success
Despite “Avengers: Infinity War” being positioned as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s biggest film yet, “Black Panther” outgrossed it by $20 million at the domestic box office, becoming the MCU’s highest-earning film stateside. Worldwide, “Black Panther” took in more than $1 billion, and on that basis, it is the most-seen film among the other seven best picture nominees. Of course, box-office success doesn’t always guarantee a best picture nomination — “Black Panther” is the first best picture nominee since 2014’s “American Sniper” to also be the year’s highest-earning film domestically. But being a hit never hurts a film’s chances, either, since it is then more likely that academy voters will have seen that film.
- The “best popular film” controversy
Speaking of broad support, “Black Panther” may have benefitted from the media attention that resulted from the academy’s short-lived award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. Announced last summer among other changes to the Oscars telecast, the proposed award immediately drew backlash for its condescension, given the implication that a “popular film” cannot qualify for the best picture category. But as criticism of the best popular film award arose, so too did support for “Black Panther,” with many people rightfully pointing to the film as a bona fide best picture contender that also happened to be a commercial hit. It’s an unfortunate feature of awards season that academy voters need to be told which films are “awards-worthy,” but nevertheless, the fallout from the best popular film debacle likely worked in “Black Panther”’s favor.
- An effective campaign
The Oscars are rarely a meritocracy, and films must campaign to secure nominations, be it through mailing DVD screeners to voters or through expensive ad campaigns. Too often, independent or art house films lack the backing of a studio to wage an effective campaign on its behalf. Other times, a filmmaker and a studio will choose not to campaign their film, as was the case with Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You.” This year, a number of excellent Black-made and Black-led films such as “Blindspotting” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” were “snubbed” for these very reasons. In the case of “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Annapurna Pictures seemingly prioritized an awards campaign for the Dick Cheney biopic “Vice,” instead, which might explain why “Vice” received a best picture nomination and “If Beale Street Could Talk” (very egregiously) did not.
One reason this #OscarNoms season has felt so grim is that Annapurna, Fox and Universal ended up pushing (due to clear momentum) VICE, BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY and GREEN BOOK as opposed to IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, WIDOWS and FiRST MAN.
— Scott Mendelson (@ScottMendelson) January 22, 2019
Some studios also have much more money to spend on awards campaigns — where Annapurna is reeling from financial troubles, Netflix has spent an estimated $25 million in promoting “Roma.” Luckily for “Black Panther,” Disney has the resources to compete, and in particular, Disney made sure that the film was seen by academy voters through strategic screenings at the Mill Valley Film Festival and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that systemic change within the studios themselves must occur for Black filmmakers to be recognized by the Oscars — studios have to choose to promote Black-made and Black-led films.
- Younger, more diverse academy voters
Last year, after previous years’ #OscarsSoWhite backlash, the academy invited 928 new members, 49 percent of whom are women and 38 percent of whom are people of color. While this new body of voters doesn’t change the fact that the academy is still largely white and male, it’s certainly possible that such voters helped carry “Black Panther” into its seven nominations. In particular, these new voters might remember the 2009 awards, in which “The Dark Knight” was excluded from the best picture category. It’s taken the better part of a decade, but new academy members’ fresh perspectives may have finally led to a superhero film’s inclusion in the best picture category.
- “Black Panther” is just damn good
It goes without saying that “Black Panther” is one of the finest exercises in genre filmmaking in recent memory, and it’s heartening to know that academy voters can recognize that. In addition to featuring a scene in which a man in a catsuit tackles a rhinoceros (if that doesn’t scream best picture, I don’t know what does), the film foregrounds complex Black women, dramatizes both Afrofuturism and double consciousness, and ends with an African king calling out idiots who build walls in times of strife. It is immaculately shot by Rachel Morrison, one of the best female cinematographers working today, and writer-director Ryan Coogler renders superhuman characters with a personal touch rarely seen in blockbuster cinema. Just give “Black Panther” its best picture award already — in the character Shuri’s words, “Could we all just wrap it up and go home?”