'Black Panther' and the Oscars: Will the Academy Declare "Wakanda Forever"?

Illustration by Ryan Garcia

As AMPAS diversifies, the Marvel blockbuster could beat the bias against superhero movies amid a changing definition of "awards-worthy."

With its dramatic influx of new members, is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally going to nominate a superhero movie for best picture? Looking to remain relevant in the eyes of the moviegoing public — and, not incidentally, to boost ratings for the annual Oscar telecast, which have been in decline for the past three years — there are those in the Academy who have been enviously eyeing the popularity of blockbuster films even as the Academy's own voters have largely ignored them.

When The Dark Knight failed to secure a best picture nomination in 2009, the Academy opened up that category so that instead of just five films, as many as 10 could be nominated, in hopes of possibly corralling a blockbuster or two. That didn't work, but now, with the proportion of people of color in the Academy growing to 16 percent, the group has just improved the odds that Marvel's Black Panther could beat any prejudice against superhero moves by breaking into the best picture circle.

After all, Ryan Coogler's film, in addition to being a box office smash — grossing $1.3 billion worldwide — also won over critics, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 97 percent. It was hailed as a cultural watershed by such Academy members as Ava DuVernay, Oprah Winfrey and Barry Jenkins. Jada Pinkett Smith, who's among the new class of Academy invitees, tweeted, "Black Panther felt soooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" That's not to suggest that only black audiences responded to the film or that only black members are likely to vote for movies about the black experience — last season, Norman Lear was one of the biggest supporters of eventual best pic nominee Get Out — but it does ensure a larger constituency to potentially give such films a sympathetic viewing.

So does a more diverse Academy mean Black Panther's a shoo-in? "I thought so at first, but now I'm not so sure," says one awards consultant who's been quietly canvassing voters. "Lots of people like it, but will they place it first, second or third when they mark their ballots?" Given the preferential ballot system, that's the key question. And, in terms of black-themed films, Black Panther could find itself competing with upcoming movies like Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, which debuted to strong reviews in Cannes; Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel; and Steve McQueen's heist movie, Widows, among others.

In any event, the profile of the typical "Oscar movie" —earnest, middle-to-highbrow, often deemed socially important — is definitely changing.

On the one hand, as the Academy invites in a younger crowd, that could benefit films considered popular entertainments. Bradley Cooper's A Star Is Born, in which he co-stars with Lady Gaga, might become a case in point. The original 1937 A Star Is Born scored a best picture nomination (back in a year when there were also 10 best picture noms). But the 1954 remake, starring Judy Garland and James Mason, was locked out of best picture, as was the 1976 version, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. To avoid that fate, Warner Bros. has begun building positive buzz with select screenings for boldface names — Streisand herself has proclaimed the new film "very, very good."

On the other hand, by sending out invites to new members in 59 countries, the Academy is also becoming ever more international. And that should boost foreign-language films, only 10 of which have ever been nominated for best picture. This year, there's likely to be a prime contender in Roma, from Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuaron. The Spanish-language Netflix release charts the life of a middle-class Mexican family in the 1970s, and its subtitles now might not count as a handicap.

This story first appeared in the July 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.