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Are The Oscars Scared Of Disrespecting Black Panther?

The Academy Wants and Needs to Acknowledge Black Panther

By whatever metric you measure success, Black Panther is one of the best movies of 2018. It’s currently the second highest grossing film of the year, with $1.347bn in the bank. It’s one of only three films to pass $700m domestically at the box office. The film has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the 9th highest ranked movie of the year. Oscar talk has been swirling around Ryan Coogler’s entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe since its premiere, and both Disney and Marvel have expressed sentiments in favor of mounting major awards campaigns for the movie. As we head into what is widely considered Oscar season and the expected front-runners premiere on the festival circuit, competition for Best Picture has gotten busier. That seems to have spooked the Academy.

Related: Why Don't Superhero Movies Win Oscars?

The Academy clearly want to appeal to wider audiences. It’s required of them if they want to retain their relevance in an age of expanded universes, Netflix and YouTube. They need people to tune into the ceremony itself, which is their biggest event of the year and one that brings major advertising revenue.

It makes sense on the simplest level to make room for films like Black Panther and give a space to those blockbusters that bring in billions of dollars. Black Panther isn’t just a critical and commercial hit: It’s a cultural phenomenon. That’s worth acknowledging on the prestigious scale the Oscars offer. However, is making a whole new category the right way to do this?

A Best Popular Film Category Could Hurt Black Panther

The risk with a category like this, to the side of Best Picture and marketed specifically as a populist move, is that deserving films will be sidelined as good but not good enough for the true top prize. Black Panther, which is one of the best-reviewed films of the year, could be shoved into the popcorn category at the expense of being nominated for Best Picture. It could also be seen as a catch-all nomination: Give it Best Popular Film and you don’t have to bother nominating anything else connected to the movie, such as Ryan Coogler for Best Director, Michael B. Jordan for Best Supporting Actor, the writers for Best Adapted Screenplay, and so on.

The obvious issue with this set-up is that it implicitly undermines films that are in any way popular, and we still have no idea how the Academy will specifically define a popular film in this context. It could mean almost anything, from the little indie movie that made bank (Get Out) to the family-friendly cartoon (Moana) to the fluffy popcorn fare of the Summer (Mamma Mia – Here We Go Again!). If a film makes over a certain amount of money, does it immediately become popular and therefore in a different category of excellence from the Best Picture nominees?

Related: New Oscar Categories We Want To See More Than "Popular Film"

Ultimately, it’s hard to overlook the cynicism and elitism of a decision like this. It instantly reinforces the outdated notion that something can’t be critically worthy if it’s a mainstream success. Regardless of the earnestness behind such a decision, introducing a whole new category so the Academy won’t have to worry about angering people is a cop-out and it diminishes everyone involved. Clearly, they’re concerned that Black Panther may not make the cut, but rather than waiting to see what happens, they’re putting a safety net in place that’s riddled with holes. The assumption is that fans of Black Panther will be fine with any old award the film gets, even one as blatantly condescending as this. As evidenced by the reactions on social media, this wouldn’t be the case. Audiences know when they’re being talked down to and so do creators.

The Academy Should Evolve with Audiences

Oscars Best Picture mix-up

Blockbusters are the bedrock of Hollywood, whether the Academy likes it or not. Audiences love them, but they’ve also become genuine critical hits over the years. Films like Logan (itself an Oscar nominee), Wonder Woman, and Black Panther are helping to shift perceptions of the genre and redefine it for a new age. It’s not just superhero movies leading the charge either. Think of rousing big-budget action epics like Mad Max: Fury Road (which was nominated for ten Oscars, including Best Picture) or this year’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout, a film as well reviewed as Black Panther. Plenty of critics will have these films on their Top 10 lists of 2018, as will general audiences, yet we’ve all but accepted that most of these films aren’t going to get love beyond that at the Oscars because they aren’t perceived as prestigious. Instead of confronting that bias, the Academy has decided to introduce a category that further strengthens it.

A Best Popular Film category only reinforces the divide between critical and commercial success. It insists that the two concepts are mutually exclusive and that no amount of reviews or audience love can make something like Black Panther worthy of the same level of love as, say, the latest Winston Churchill biopic. If films like Black Panther are left to a side category, what’s to stop Best Picture from becoming clogged up with the same middlebrow prestige fare that audiences are so bored with in the first place?

The thing about Black Panther’s Oscar chances could be completely legitimate if this is something Marvel is willing to campaign behind and ride a wave of cultural impact all the way to the Kodak Theatre. Yet the Academy aren’t even going to give it a chance to prove itself without throwing in a condescending back-up option to prevent an anger that they’ve only exacerbated with this announcement. It's disrespect disguised as its opposite. They haven’t given their younger and more diverse membership the opportunity to vote for the kind of films that wouldn’t usually make the cut, and that’s a major disappointment given how much progress the Academy had made in recent years. Black Panther deserves better, but so do audiences and Hollywood at large.

MORE: The "Popular Film" Oscar Is An Insult

Key Release Dates
  • Captain Marvel (2019) release date: Mar 08, 2019
  • The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019
  • Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019
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