“Black Panther” Doesn’t Need the Oscars; The Oscars Need “Black Panther”

With one tweet, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has gotten the entire industry clutching its collective pearls with the announcement of a new category to recognize “achievement in popular film.”

We all felt something like this would happen… or maybe it was just that Spider-sense instinctual cynicism when it comes to art created by and featuring Black entities in an entertainment system that perpetuates the desires of the dominant society. “Black Panther” has reached the level of artistic and financial success that makes insecure white supremacists uncomfortable. Ryan Coogler’s film was the Jesse Owens of 2018’s Cinematic Olympics. The film was too good for this world, too good for its devolved limitations.

We understand the why – no one really watches the Oscars anymore, nor do they care. The 2017 Oscars only pulled in 26.5 million viewers. From a pure numbers standpoint, this move to include “Best Popular Film” category goes to ensure that marketing end of television are satisfied. The Oscars is a production of the people want to see the faces of the stars of the year’s biggest films. One only need look at the box office numbers to know exactly which films and which stars this new category is hinting toward in the hopes to siphon its audience to watch an overlong, awkwardly paced awards ceremony.

Pop Film Ghetto Blues

The Academy will surely argue that the Best Popular Film category is separate but equal to Best Film. Hardly. Just in creating the different section, the former remains the realm of high art, while the latter is merely a bone to throw the masses and siphon their Nilsen views. The Academy is no virgin to recognizing films based upon comic-book or genre content.  If “Logan” was able to garner a 2017 Best Adapted Screenplay nod, “Black Panther” is at least in the running for Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture… Period.

More importantly, Coogler deserves the Best Director nomination alone for deftly weaving historical, cultural, and political content of African diaspora, overtly and covertly, into every frame of a film that will register as merely an epic Fantasy/Sci-Fi comic book flick to the Uninitiated Watching Coogler break down the stunning casino sequence is only further proof of the director’s maturity and thorough attention to lacing every frame with meaning.

The idea that foreign films, independent films, and studio pictures all compete for a limited number of awards primarily decided by a homogenous group of American victors already makes the Oscars a bit of a joke that you awkwardly shrug off as the opening monologue begins. That limitation, however,  allowed for a lot of excitement to remain, even now with the expansion to a ten film nominee selection for Best Picture. It was this limitation that wrought such moments as the indie triumphant Moonlight,  questionable white liberal takes on racism (Crash), and old-school Hollywood spectacle (Gladiator).

“They say they want you successful, but then they make it stressful /
You start keepin’ pace, they start changin’ up the tempo”

The Oscar’s is not the Emmy’s, the Critics Choice Awards, or the MTV Movie Awards. Even attempting to do so cheapens the historical value of a prize that is already shrouded in dubiousness. Consider that Charlie Chaplin, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Cecil B. DeMille, Ingmar Bergman, Spike Lee (for now…), and even wunderkind Orson Welles never won Oscars. Basically, your entire film studies curriculum is full of people whom the Oscar voters have never deemed worthy to honor while they are amongst the living. This trend tends to come from generational clashes in aesthetic and taste that we are still seeing today.

What can save an aged institution that is outliving its own relevancy? Surely not more categories, better hosts, or any gloss that is sold as entertainment value. When the quality of films produced and distributed rise so shall the integrity and quality of the Oscars. For the past two decades, the Oscars have become a laborious, obvious affair with the usual suspects – a whiny British drama and/or period piece starring interchangeably pale Commonwealth actors, a World War II Eurocentric sympathy piece, a “bold” indie, a film that celebrates Hollywood (remember the The Artist??! probably not), a foreign film, a magic Negro or foreigner in America, and a populist, yet artistic film. The films that change the way films are made, unveil truths, and penetrate the psyche of society rarely get the top prize. They get a screenplay Oscar at best (ala´ Get Out, Pulp Ficiton)

Without blinking or stuttering, “The Best Popular Film” category is 100% a diss that is being as sold a win. By this new rationale of awarding ‘populism’, all categories should be expanded to include “Best Action Actor,” Best Comedic Actor, “Best Period Piece Cinematography”, and so forth until the broadcast is a 12-hour marathon. Jerry Lewis is already down. Press the tux!

Rather, this category amendment has an air of that old ‘rope a dope” –  “Let’s change the rules because the Blacks are doing suspiciously too well.” Make no mistake, from its production credentials alone  “Black Panther” WAS/IS already in the Oscar running before it hit screens, arguably moreso if not just as much as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Let’s just check the receipts though:

Ryan Coogler…Cannes & Sundance winning Director…Angela Bassett… Oscar Nominee… Lupita…Oscar Winner…Forest Whitaker…Oscar Winner…Cinematographer Rachel Morrisson (“Mudbound”)…Oscar Nominee…

What to wear to the Oscars? Mask on…fuck it mask off. Nah, mask on…

“We ain’t tryin’ to lose/
say ill be god dammit / they done changed the rules”

Old Hollywood / New Hollywood 

You don’t need a Best Popular Film category. FOH. Ten films in one category for Best Picture is enough. The Oscars is not the Emmy’s and no one has time for that. Chill. Are you mad that BP is still in theatres, still making money on home video and theatres?? Stay mad. Titanic made tons of money and won Best Picture that year. You might as well call that film “White Iceberg.”

“Star Wars: A New Hope” was nominated for Best Director and Best Picture, amongst technical things that it actually would deserve. We all love, if not just respect “Star Wars: A New Hope” as the beginnings a grand mythology, but as film  ….eh. Just as many popular films before and after A New Hope, films that merge the mainstream with cinematic artistry have a tradition of being honored in spite of their flaws, and as testimony to their cultural impact. The cultural, economic, and social impacts of “Black Panther” have not yet even settled as the film continues to play in cinemas around the world after debuting on Feb 14, 2018. The box office total to date is $1.37 billion and counting, with an additional $67 Million from Home Video sales since May.

By segregating out “Best Popular Films” from the actual “Best Picture” category, we might as well drop the standards of cinematic language… In holding our mainstream, general audience films to the same standard of excellence, both cinematically and emotionally on their own terms, the overall quality of movies rises. Between the 1930’s and the 1970’s, master filmmakers were crafting popular, artistic, and relevant films most film critics consider some of the greatest achievements of all time. Why, in 2018, year of Bast, season of Sekhmet and Horus, should “Black Panther” be denied to be listed amongst those legendary, popular films competing with the cookie cutter Oscar fodder and some revolutionary work?

Since its inception, the Oscars has counted many massive blockbuster hits amongst its alum.  In the heyday of Hollywood, you the studio would burn itself down if legendary filmmakers such as Cecile B.Demille creating “The Ten Commandments” or David Lean’s epic “Doctor Zhivago.” These films were not only masterful adaptations of history, mythology, and literature translated onto celluloid with boldness, master craftsmanship, and a respect for its audience. If this is the criteria for an Oscar picture worthy to stand amongst the greats, “Black Panther” stands securely in its position. One many argue that “Gladiator” or “Saving Private Ryan” were the last true, old-school Hollywood epic Oscar winners. They were close, but not quite…While “Saving Private Ryan” may age better than “Gladiator,’ neither of the pictures provokes the excitement, both on and off screen, that define epic moments in film. Thus, “Black Panther” has more in common with studio class epics (and award winners) by Demille, Lean, and John Ford.

RBG (Royal but Gangsta)

Let’s hop in the Way Back Machine and check the figures of the 25 highest grossing domestic films of all time with ticket sales adjusted for inflation. In 2018 U.S. dollars, the following films individually grossed between 731 Million (The Godfather) up to 1.87 Billion (Gone With the Wind):

E.T. (Best Picture Nominee 1980, AFI Top 100))
The Fellowship of the Ring (Best Picture Nominee 2001)
The Two Towers (Best Picture Nominee 2002) 

The Return of the King (Best Picture 2003)

Gone with the Wind (Best Picture 1939)
The Sound of Music (Best Picture 1965, AFI Top 100)

The Ten Commandments (Best Picture Nominee 1956, AFI Top 100)
Jaws (Best Picture Nominee 1975, AFI Top 100)
Doctor Zhivago (Best Picture Nominee 1965, AFI Top 100)
The Exorcist (Best Picture Nominee 1973)
Snow White and the Seven Dwafs (AFI Top 100)
Star Wars (Best PIcture Nominee 1977  , AFI Top 100)
Ben-Hur (Best Picture …., AFI Top 100)
The Sting (Best Picture 1973, AFI Top 100)

The Graduate (Best Picture Nominee 1967, AFI Top 100)
Fantasia (AFI Top 100)
The Godfather (Best Picture 1972, AFI Top 100)

Those look like a lot of “Popular Films” if you ask me…

More often that not, any given year’s winner for the Best Picture, directly or indirectly reflects and upholds the status-quo of not only the industry, but society in general. Similar to “All Lives Matter,” and pro-wrestlers taking over the government, “Best Popular Film” is a deflection from the fact for the first time in a long time, old school Holywood filmmaking is back but with a twist. 

Instead of a film about a white iceberg, faux white Egyptians, or a white shark, the beacon of hope for studio pictures with cineplex pull and arthouse credibility lies in the dark matter of an ever-(r)evolving black consciousness. “Black Panther’ already won Best Picture. Truth rises. Keep the statue.

“Know who’s the illest ever / like the greatest story told
Keep your glory,gold and glitter”

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  • Jon-Carlos Evans is a Berlin based filmmaker, audiovisual artist and writer. He holds a B.A. in Film Production from Webster University-St.Louis and a MFA in Media Arts Production from the City College of New York. Under his musical alias Klaas von Karlos, Evans is also is the founder of experimental-electronic collective ReVerse Bullets and creative director of the GLITCH performance series/music label. As Klaas von Karlos, he is also a member of music projects BIINDS, Naked Sweatshop, and Divan Rouge. He is the Programme Lead for the Creative Production-Film MA at Catalyst Institute for Creative & Technological Arts in Berlin.

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