Black Panther and the Oscars: A Chance to Regain Popularity

By Jordan Gablaski:

The Oscar season is upon us, and this will be an awards ceremony to remember. The awards show will be the first since 1989 without a single host to MC the night after Kevin Hart was chosen, and subsequently resigned after tweets from his past including homophobic comments resurfaced. In lieu of a host, the Academy seems to have planned an awards event presented by many different actors and actresses, and punctuated by musical performances by Lady Gaga and Kendrick Lamar, according to Vanity Fair.  

Despite the controversy the Academy has had to deal with in the months leading up to the Oscar premiere, the general feeling, according to Vanity Fair, is that the presence of such high grossing blockbuster films as nominees for Best Picture will help to “buoy the ratings from last year”. The hope for this year’s Oscars is they usher in a renewed audience for the show, which has struggled to maintain popularity in recent years.

The Oscar nominees for best picture are: Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Green Book, Roma, A Star Is Born, and Vice. Black Panther and Roma are tied for the most nominations at ten apiece, followed by A Star Is Born at eight nominations.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this year’s Oscars is they will the first time a Superhero film has been nominated for Best Picture. Marc Bernardin, a writer for Entertainment Weekly, writes emphatically about the importance of Black Panther being the first superhero movie to “carry with it the hopes and dreams of a demographic who’d never seen themselves on-screen like this, rendered with all the care and resources usually summoned for movies starring paler protagonists.” Black Panther truly broke glass ceilings, earning “more than $1.3 Billion worldwide” (according to Entertainment Weekly) and managing to be an integral part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also speaking to the hearts of young black children who were finally able to adopt for themselves a phenomenal hero that looked like them. For the first time in Marvel’s ten-year history, black superhero fans were not simply required to identify with the token black character, but were able to choose which one they wished to emulate from a stellar cast of predominantly black characters.

Bernardin writes at length about how Black Panther sizes up next to other 2019 Best Picture nominees, and also other “Black Oscar movie” nominees of the past few years. The most noticeable and vital difference, he notes, is that Black Panther is not a film about pain, not a film about “black experience in white America”, not a film about “brutality and degradation, and eventually, hope.” Movies that have been nominated for Oscars that fit this mold are Hidden Figures, Moonlight, Fences (2017), Selma (2015), 12 Years a Slave (2014) and The Help (2012). In comparison, Black Panther conveys a very different message. It is largely a film of joy, strength, resiliency, and community. Bernardin muses, “the power of Black Panther is that it imagines a place that could be home to millions who don’t have one”.  

While very few would contest the power and influence of Black Panther, even those like Bernardin who praise it seem nearly certain it will not win the Oscar for Best Picture. For the time being, it seems that Black Panther simply isn’t “miserable” enough for a black Oscar film to snag the win. And while this may be a contributing factor, the fact also stands that movies based on comics have rarely been recognized in the most prominent categories of the Oscars. Stigmas about the form of comic books have been around since they were created, and are often seen as childish and not worthy of the title of either art or literature. This is slowly changing, however, as the nomination for Black Panther for Best Picture proves. Perhaps many will feel the recognition afforded to Black Panther by the Academy’s nomination is enough for now. Why does this matter? It matters because many people feel that the Oscars are becoming irrelevant, as reported by NBC news. Black Panther, should it win Best Picture, might change things for the Oscars by showing audiences that pop culture is relevant, and blockbuster films that average viewers enjoy can be recognized on a large-scale by the Academy.

In order to test these claims, I posted a series of polls through Social Media to see what the average viewer really thinks about the Oscars. 82% of Facebook users polled said they didn’t care to watch the Oscars. That means that only 14 out of the 78 total voters claimed to watch the Oscars every year. 66% of Twitter users polled claimed they weren’t going to bother tuning in to the Oscars this year, meaning that 18 out 50 people polled through Twitter were at least going to tune in for some of the awards event.

The same amount of voters claimed to want Black Panther to win as said that they had never seen any of the films nominated for Best Picture.

In a second poll released a day later concerning which film should win, the polls received significantly less participation, but were still able to give valuable insight into what average audiences thought about the Oscars. 27.6% of voters from Facebook and Twitter combined said that they had not seen any of the films that are nominated for Best Picture, while an equal 27.6% said they wanted Black Panther to win. Films that did not receive any votes were Roma, The Favourite, and Vice. Coincidentally, Roma is the favorite to win among critics as reported in Entertainment Weekly.

Roma is a favorite to win Best Picture among critics, but many average viewers had never heard of it before it was nominated.

Does this prove, albeit on a much smaller scale, that the Oscars are slowly becoming irrelevant to the average movie lover? It would certainly seem so, for more than half of the voters of the second poll either wanted Black Panther to win or had not seen any of the films at all. When asked if she would be watching the Oscars, Meg Brennan, a Junior at Assumption College said no: “I think the Academy is corrupt,” Brennan said vehemently, “I think that Black Panther should win, but the movies that do win don’t tend to correlate with public opinion.” Brennan went on to say that she felt the Academy must use an algorithm to choose movies because the same types of movies seem to win every year. For most people, this makes the Oscars downright boring to watch, and distances them from caring about who wins since they’ve never heard of many of the nominees.

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Regardless of which film takes the Oscar for Best Picture, it will be interesting to see if the Oscars are on the rebound, since they have begun choosing more popular blockbuster films as nominees (not only Black Panther, but Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody as well). People tend to agree that the Academy was on the right path when they opened nominations to ten possible nominees, which allowed more mainstream films to make the cut. Perhaps the increased presence of these well-known, successful movies will draw more people to tune in on Sunday night and mark a turn around for the future popularity of the Oscars.

The 91st Oscars will air Sunday, February 24th, 2019 at 8pm Eastern time.

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