Many are already discussing and debating this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees. Of the eight, one stands out–Marvel’s Black Panther. After backlash following the snub of The Dark Knight, this is basically the moment proponents of mainstream (particularly superhero) films have been waiting for. But does Black Panther deserve to be in this group? Conflicted film critic Jacob Davis debates with himself.
Ambient applause is heard from somewhere. There’s a band playing a royalty-free knock-off of the Saturday Night Live theme. There’s pan to a face-on view and zoom to a man at a desk.
Moderator Jacob: Hello, and welcome to the debate you’ve been waiting for: Does Black Panther deserve to be a Best Picture nominee? Joining me today are two parts of one mind. Please welcome Fun Jacob-
The camera cuts to an angle towards stage right, Fun Jacob waves to the readers. The camera cuts back to the face-on view
Moderator Jacob (cont.): -and Devil’s Advocate Jacob.
The camera cuts to an angle towards stage left. Devil’s Advocate Jacob gives a forced smile and gives an acknowledging nod to the readers. You’ll just have to assume these cuts from here on out because I’m not writing direction with every change in the conversation. Use your imagination.
Moderator Jacob: Gentlemen, thank you for joining me for this deb-
Devil’s Advocate Jacob (interrupting): Oh, excuse me, I take issue with the Devil’s Advocate label.
Moderator Jacob: I’m sorry, what would you prefer?
Devil’s Advocate Jacob: I’d like to be referred to as Cynical Jacob. I’m not just being contrarian, I genuinely disagree with the nomination.
Moderator Jacob: Fair enough. With that out of the way, Fun Jacob, why don’t we start with you?
Fun Jacob: Thank you, and also I appreciate you allowing me to join this discussion. I think the best place to start is with the argument from cultural impact. Black Panther is the highest-grossing superhero movie that isn’t an Avengers film. Everyone saw it. Everyone was writing about it, talking about it. There were fundraising campaigns to send kids to go see it. Athletes from many sports and countries throw up the Wakanda salute in celebration of on-field achievement. You can read tons of pieces discussing the impact Black Panther had on black communities, the best being Carvell Wallace’s New York Times Magazine article. Black Panther is an unabashedly black film that is accessible to all audiences. The director is black, most of the cast is black, both writers are black. Nominating it for Best Picture can’t undo centuries of racial atrocities in America, but it can be a sign of appreciation for black achievements in film if nothing else.
Cynical Jacob: Absolutely, the impact cannot be discounted. We’ve seen white superheroes and white directors and mostly white casts. As a white man, it’s hard for us to comprehend just what Black Panther really means for black people everywhere, especially in America. I don’t want to downplay that at all. However, is cultural impact the mark of Best Picture?
Moderator Jacob: Well are we discussing Best Picture, or Best Picture nominee? There’s still time to go back and edit this.
Cynical Jacob: What’s the difference? All of the films have a chance to win, why nominate a film merely to recognise it? Why not put Ryan Coogler in the Best Director category? Or Michael B. Jordan in Supporting Actor? Or stick with that Popular Film category that disappeared out of nowhere? I think there’d be a better chance of winning in each of those categories.
Cynical Jacob (continuing, directed at Fun Jacob): Do you think Black Panther should win?
Fun Jacob: That’s not up to me-
Cynical Jacob (interrupting): I know it’s not up to you. And if it was, I think you’d agree with me. Can you name some previous Oscar winners for me?
Cynical Jacob: Well let’s just start with last year’s winner, The Shape of Water. What was its cultural impact?
Fun Jacob: I think given the climate in Hollywood around that time, as the Harvey Weinstein allegations occurred around the time of the film’s release, to literally have a voiceless woman attempting to stand up against forces stronger than her was a rather fitting and powerful. I think The Shape of Water impacted culture unintentionally that way.
Cynical Jacob: But is that really cultural impact? The Me Too movement wasn’t sparked by the film. And how many people had another Best Picture darling much nearer and dearer to their experience like Call Me By Your Name or Lady Bird? What about Birdman’s cultural impact? Or The Artist? That was a big one, huh? This isn’t the Most Culturally Impactful award, this is Best Picture, and I don’t even think Black Panther is even the best film by a black filmmaker from 2018.
Moderator Jacob: Well, Cynical Jacob, what is it about Black Panther that keeps it from being a Best Picture nominee?
Cynical Jacob: First of all, it’s very much a stock Marvel film. Ryan Coogler called it his “most personal film to date,” but I didn’t see much of that reflected in the film. Despite bringing in the same cinematographer, Black Panther lacks the intimate visual feel of Fruitvale Station. Everything is bigger, the film moves around a lot. I was especially bothered by the final fight sequence; not only was it reminiscent of the ending of The Phantom Menace, it also has Black Panther fighting Black Panther, and hero versus slightly different version of that hero is a Marvel staple.
Fun Jacob: But up until that point, Killmonger is more than just a Black Panther clone. He was Marvel’s best villain for a couple of months. His backstory is tragic and we have a lot of empathy for him as a character. And Michael B. Jordan is always great playing a confident, swaggering character.
Cynical Jacob: I’ll grant that Killmonger is a step up from most Marvel villains, but does that alone elevate this to Best Picture? Vulture was really good too, should Homecoming have been in consideration?
Fun Jacob: What about the production design? The costuming? A lot of work went into building the Afrofuturistic world. Ludwig traveled to Africa to work with musicians to help develop an authentic score that combines traditional orchestral elements, African instruments, and hip-hop to form a something wholly unique in the world of film.
Cynical Jacob: Maybe I painted with too broad of a brush by saying it’s a stock Marvel film, but I don’t think music and production design make a Best Picture. When it comes to narrative, I think Killmonger has a much more compelling story than T’Challa. There’s too much of Marvel’s need to be funny (especially with Shuri). And I really cannot emphasise enough that I think everything post-T’challa reincarnation is enough to disqualify it for Best Picture.
Moderator Jacob: Fun Jacob, I know you’re a fan of the themes in the film. Why don’t you talk about that aspect?
Fun Jacob: Well, we all know we’re fans thematic films. Black Panther is an incredibly strong thematic work. Wakanda is a futuristic society that’s in touch with its historical and spiritual roots. At the beginning, Wakanda is isolated, hoarding its technology from the outside world. Killmonger wants to share Wakanda’s technology with black people everywhere to fight back against historical and current oppression. Wakanda, to him, is obligated to the black community that exists outside of the forcefield that protects it. The film isn’t just about Wakanda, it’s about the greatness of black people. It’s about helping your community, celebrating your identity, and sharing pride in being black (an act that white America continues to frown upon both implicitly and explicitly).
Cynical Jacob: And that’s probably the best thing about Black Panther. I’m thrilled that there’s a film that is a celebration of being black. It’s a symbolic middle finger to rising racism and white nationalism in the US and Europe. However, are the best themes what make the best picture?
Fun Jacob: Well, no, of course not. But I don’t think any other film in the Marvel universe carries this kind of real thematic punch.
Cynical Jacob: But what about other 2018 films?
Fun Jacob: What about them? There are only eight movies nominated, there was room for Eighth Grade or The Old Man and the Gun. We’re really excited about BlacKkKlansman and Spike Lee making it. Can’t we just be happy about the good things and not bitch about the bad ones?
Cynical Jacob: Then half of our content for The Film Magazine wouldn’t exist.
Moderator Jacob: Cynical Jacob, do you have any other thoughts?
Cynical Jacob: After seeing all of our points laid out like this, I think I’ve come around. Black Panther is worth the nomination at most. Note to the Academy, you could’ve put two other great films in, too. Not necessarily the ones mentioned here, but it’s a shame that with all the incredible movies that came out this is the field for Best Picture.
Moderator Jacob: There you have it, folks. A concession from the most cynical portion of my being. I really did not see this coming. Thank you for joining me, and I look forward to having you read my strange debates with myself again.
Outro music plays, applause is heard, Jacob gets up from his computer and goes back to watching bad movies.