Recently, Oprah Winfrey was one of many to come out and declare to cultural acclaim that Marvel Studios' box office behemoth Black Panther should walk home come Oscars night with a Best Picture trophy. Winfrey herself said, "It's game-changing, it's pride-making, it's dazzling, it's phenomenal.' That was my personal review, but I also know that so many people came, and came with their families, and then they went back and got more family members and then they told their coworkers and their friends. Because everybody recognized that something bigger than a movie was happening up on that screen."
Before I get into my point, I'd like to first say that I enjoyed Black Panther. I saw it in theaters twice and have since seen it one or two more times. I thought the characters were well-developed, it had a great and timely villain, and the world-building was, bar-none, some of the best we got on screen this year. I also appreciate and acknowledge why it was a game-changer for the African-American community, as Panther was the first film starring a black superhero to break a billion dollars at the worldwide box office. Believe me, I can't totally empathize because I am white, but I do understand why it's such a big thing. But when we really get down to talking about the Oscars, I can't in good conscience argue that this film deserves Best Picture.
The Good Arguments for Black Panther
I already covered some of these points at the beginning of this article, but I feel they are worth expounding on. Black Panther is by no means a bad movie. The story of it is positively Shakespearean; a prince becoming king, seeing visions of his father, being usurped by a member of his family, and engaging in a duel for the throne. Plus, the idea that there is a whole wealthy, self-sufficient country in Africa hidden from view is intriguing (there's always been something fascinating to me about the idea of a hidden world). And then there are messages about unity across racial lines and using our wealth to help those who are less fortunate, which is always a good thing to believe in. The theme of systemic racism in America is also hit on the head a little much for my taste, but it's good to know that it's being talked about in the mainstream without a lot of vitriol. There's a lot of good in Black Panther, and a lot of fun to be had (the big chase scene in South Korea is one of Marvel's best). I'll not say that it's a bad movie as a whole.
The Not-So-Good Parts
Now, call me old-fashioned, but I believe that the any Best Picture trophy should go to, you know, the best movie of the year. And this year has seen some great films. Bradley Cooper's A Star is Born seems to be the favorite for Best Picture, Alfanso Cuaron's Roma has received stellar reviews and buzz so far, and those are just the obvious ones. If Beale Street Could Talk, BlacKkKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, The Favourite, Crazy Rich Asians, and Green Book have all earned grand praise and been the talk of the town at the Golden Globes. Black Panther has the same kinds of high ratings, and blew the box office to pieces before Infinity War came along and snapped out the pieces. Black Panther is good, but it's not the best movie of the year, for one reason.
The last 45 minutes of the film are lousy.
That's right, I said it. Someone had to. For most of its runtime, Black Panther is an exhilarating, imaginative adventure with engaging characters and excellent world-building... until the last 45 minutes, where the whole venture succumbs to an awful plague. I call it the Marvel plague, where an otherwise excellent film becomes a blurry mess of CGI soup-- a video game that's no fun because the audience is given no opportunity to play. We're given a totally generic CGI battle between two CGI armies--a battle that ends up being hardly distinguishable from the Hobbit films-- as well as a CGI fight between CGI stuntmen in a CGI environment. There's no creativity to it at all. It's total Feige-brand Mad-Libs nonsense, and it takes up the last 45 minutes of the film. Almost an hour! That is unacceptable for a film that had so much going for it, and certainly unacceptable for a Best Picture-winner.
But it's an action movie, right? Should we really be so hard on it for all the CGI?
Yes, yes we should. Why? Because there were better action films this year that didn't have that disease, the most notable of which is Mission: Impossible: Fallout. Where Panther had a huge CGI battle, Mission had a thrilling, mostly practical chase. Where Panther had CGI fights between CGI people, with an occasional real person thrown in, Mission had Tom Cruise, doing actual stunts. There wasn't a single real location in the final 45 minutes, where Fallout's final act was filmed on location in New Zealand. Am I campaigning for Fallout to win Best Picture? No, though it was one of my top five for this year. At the end of the day, it was an exquisitely-made formula action film; a fine dessert topped with edible gold leaf. And that kind of film doesn't win Best Picture.
So what does this mean? If Mission Impossible: Fallout is so much better as a movie (and it truly, honestly is), why is Black Panther the one being touted as the Best Picture-worthy actioner? It's literally impossible to deny that it's about race and social commentary. Black Panther has received 100% of its awards buzz because it's about the way that people of color are treated in the world today. There's nothing wrong with exploring that theme, but I have a problem when it's the only thing elevating its status above a film with superior filmmaking and structure.
Issues of Race
In 2014, Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave won Best Picture, competing against films like Gravity, American Hustle, and Her, Dallas Buyers Club, Hugo, and more. Now, 12 Years is a good movie, but it didn't deserve to win Best Picture. You know why? In 2014, John Horn of the LA Times wrote an article about the win, where two of the Academy voters declared that, "they didn't see 12 Years a Slave, thinking it would be upsetting. But they said they voted for it anyway because, given the film's social relevance, they felt obligated to do so." The film's ad campaign led with the slogan "It's Time," exhorting the Academy voters to vote for the film because of its racial relevance. During her Oscars monologue, host Ellen DeGeneres joked, "Possibility number one: '12 Years a Slave' wins Best Picture. Possibility number two: You're all racists." Gary Oldman made similar comments (along with more controversial ones) in an interview with Playboy, saying, "At the Oscars, if you didn't vote for 12 Years a Slave, you were a racist." Really? This is the kind of thinking that got 12 Years A Slave Best Picture? And we're okay with that? Right now, Marvel's awards campaign for Black Panther and the Oprah Winfrey remarks aren't a far cry away from that same kind of rhetoric.
Here's what I'm saying: People who want Black Panther to win Best Picture don't really care what the best movie of the year is. If they did, then they'd be talking about BlacKkKlansman, Green Book, Sorry to Bother You, or If Beale Street Could Talk, because those are better films that approach the topic of race without sacrificing what makes them good for almost an hour of their runtime. Instead, the race for Best Picture has been warped and permuted to instead be the race for "most socially relevant picture." That's not to say that films about race aren't deserving of big box office returns or shiny statues. In the same LA Times article mentioned above, Tony Angellotti is quoted, saying, "Look at A Soldiers Story, In the Heat of the Night, Ray, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Sounder. This kind of socially aware vote for a movie that spotlights racism is rooted in the academy's DNA." There are some amazing films out there about the black community and their struggles in America. And when one of those movies is as good as In the Heat of the Night or Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, it should have as fair a chance as any other of walking home with a statue. Am I in favor of more films about minorities being nominated for Best Picture? Sure, bring it on! But if we're going to call a film the Best Picture, it should actually be the best picture of the year, not an extorted vote for a hot-button film with a shoddy, assembly-line third act.