It is no coincidence that the cast of Marvel’s Black Panther claimed the 2019 SAG Awards‘ top honor, “Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.” The 2018 film nearly broke the global box office with more than $1 billion in revenue and inspired little Black girls to run around cul-de-sacs sporting spears and prosthetic bald heads, and enabled legions of Black folks to call white people “colonizer” to their faces without fear of reprisal. In short, Black Panther revolutionized the culture.
Despite its groundbreaking success, however, the film won’t win Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards.
Why? It’s too Black.
A film focused on Africa, where an African nation is the international frontrunner and Black women are both the brawn and the brains, is not only the antithesis of the current world order; it’s also not representative of the films the Academy tends to celebrate.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—an extension of Hollywood— typically celebrates films that depict Black folks as dark-skinned bodies burdened under slavery and its aftermath that either stay stuck there, or find a way to rise, (usually with the help of white people). Best Picture nominees Green Book, BlacKkKlansman, Precious, The Blind Side, The Help, Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, Selma, Fences, and Hidden Figures fit the bill. The only notable exception might be 2017’s Get Out, which depicts a white family trying to body-snatch a Black man in order to lengthen their life spans.
Even though Get Out was innovative, thought-provoking, and genre-bending, the Academy chose to honor it with the Best Original Screenplay Oscar instead of the Best Picture award in 2018. That’s akin to giving it the silver medal in lieu of the gold. Unsurprisingly, the Academy did award the top honor to 12 Years a Slave in 2014.
Unfortunately, the Academy traditionally hasn’t honored Black movies that don’t revolve around Black oppression. Although it did honor Moonlight with the Best Picture Oscar, (which it absolutely deserved), Black oppression was the backdrop of the film’s moving narrative. A drug dealer became the protagonist’s father-figure when his drug-addicted mother couldn’t care for him. Even actress Naomie Harris, who played the mother, originally refused the role because she feared it was stereotypical.
Moonlight was visually stunning and revolutionary in its depiction of Black masculinity, centering a queer, Black, coming-of-age love story. It subverted stereotypes, even in its depiction of Black drug dealers and drug addicts and the poor. That deserves to be celebrated. Despite that, and the fact that its hosts “accidentally” gave that year’s Best Picture Oscar to La La Land before correcting its error and allowing the Moonlight cast to take the stage, perhaps The Academy felt safer awarding the film since Black folks—even in their beauty and nuance—were still depicted in familiar positions of poverty and struggle.
The Afro-futurism of Black Panther, on the other hand, allowed us an opportunity to imagine the majesty of what an uncolonized, unconquered Africa could have been. It’s the cinematic expression of what Morgan Jerkins wrote about in her book, This Will Be My Undoing:
“The truth is, we are all clamoring for something ancient within our souls that is still virgin from white touch.”
When we crossed our arms and shouted ‘Wakanda Forever!’ it was to the dream of that stolen potential. And dreaming Black people are dangerous.
A film about a fictitious country in Africa being the richest, most technologically advanced country in the world and under the protection of an army of Black women is unprecedented. And I fear that in many Academy members’ minds, it is also unfathomable. Too unfathomable to be awarded the top honor on the film industry’s biggest night.
The Best Picture winner doesn’t just walk away with a heavy statue; the movie is cemented into the film canon and forever seared into the public consciousness as the highest caliber of filmmaking. To vote for Black Panther, with its Black cast, Black director, Black screenwriter, is to vote for a world ruled by Black folks. It’s a vote for a world where the King’s speech consists of hand-hug daps between the King and his little sis. It’s highly doubtful that the same Academy that was called out in the #OscarsSoWhite campaign would openly welcome the world to Wakanda a few years later. Especially because Wakanda wouldn’t welcome most of the Academy into its Dora Milaje-protected borders.
Unlike prior Oscar winners, Black Panther’s characters neither want nor need a white savior. The only significant white character in the film is commanded to hush when he asks sophomoric questions. He quickly realizes that Wakanda is not his world; he will receive no preferential treatment there.
And that’s an uncomfortable position for people who have consistently received preferential treatment to find themselves in.
Black Panther is not for white folks, although they may enjoy it. It is a love letter to Black people in the form of a two hour, fifteen minute film. Black Panther is director Ryan Coogler’s head nod to the Pan-African community, his global, “I see you” dap.
When I first saw the film, I sat motionless in the theatre at the end of the film, stunned by what I had just experienced. My friend, Kristal, sat next to me, sobbing. Black Panther was a love letter to Black women and men alike. Its message was clear: our black bodies, bald heads, and nappy hair more than matter; they are magnificent and worthy of on-screen time, dope lighting, and international celebration.
Never before had I felt loved by a film; never before had I known that one could feel loved by a film. Yet that’s exactly what Black Panther did: it loved on us as a collective while still acknowledging our diversity. Then it invited us to unify across waters, in the spirit of umoja (unity).
How could the Academy that is 84% white fully understand that feeling, what Black folks felt the first (or second or third) time we watched the film? Will it fully “get” it?
I doubt it.
When I watched Crazy Rich Asians, I really enjoyed it, but I knew I was missing the film’s full richness. I knew I missed some cultural references and a few insider jokes. I felt that the Mahjong game played at the end of the film communicated more than I picked up on because I’ve never played Mahjong; I was an outsider watching the movie, and as a result, I recognize that as much as I appreciated it and even loved it, I couldn’t appreciate it in the same way a Chinese American movie-goer could.
The better question is, even from the outside, can the Academy rise above their discomfort and pull the lever for a movie that neither celebrates nor centers the white experience?
There is of course a slight chance that Black Panther’s win at the SAG Awards could sway the Academy to give it the Best Picture nod. Time will tell.
Regardless of whether the film picks up the Best Picture Oscar or not, its place as a revolutionary film will be forever cemented in the hearts of every Black person who saw it and breathed in its unprecedented cinematic Black beauty. Its impact will affect future generations, from the school children who are studying the Wakanda curriculum to those receiving the Walt Disney Studio’s Black Panther Scholarship.
In less than a year, Black Panther has morphed from an action blockbuster film into an educating, culture-making phenomenon. Even if it doesn’t win the Best Picture statue, it’s already changed and won the culture.