Oscars: How 'Black Panther' Can Win Best Picture

Illustration by Dominic Bugatto

Two black filmmakers — Steve McQueen ('12 Years a Slave') and Barry Jenkins ('Moonlight') — have won the Academy's top prize recently, and Ryan Coogler's Marvel superhero movie could make that three ... if the film plays its cards shrewdly and strategically.

Lost in the brouhaha that followed Moonlight's upset victory over La La Land at the 2017 Oscars was this simple fact: A movie from black writers, filmed by a black director and featuring a black cast had been named best picture for the second time in three years, joining 2014 winner 12 Years a Slave. Now, as a new awards season heats up, can a third black-themed picture — one with the added hurdle of being a superhero film, a genre the Academy rarely honors — do the same?

This question is particularly relevant to Black Panther, a global sensation that earned $1.35 billion worldwide and shattered shibboleths about "black" pictures not playing abroad. "I would certainly like to see that happen," says Gil Robertson, president of the African-American Film Critics Association. "[Director] Ryan Coogler changed the game for black cinema."

It's early days, as Panther strategists are still concentrating on earning a picture nomination, but many Academy voters would love to recognize the film and signal their continuing evolution. The organization has made significant moves to shake up its membership since the #OscarsSoWhite movement shamed it for not nominating any actors of color in either 2015 or 2016, opening the door at least a crack. Since then, the Academy has brought in some 2,000 new members, with 16 percent of its total membership now made up of people of color (the Academy, however, does not break out that group by ethnicity). Panther already has support from a range of Academy members — and while African-American voters won't necessarily choose a film with racial themes, every best picture campaign is built on a voting bloc, and black Academy members now form a solid constituency.

"I went through some of the branches and it's a pretty big number of African-Americans," says one awards strategist. "They let in 928 new members this year. Of the 104 new members in the actors' branch, 23 were of African descent. Other branches might not be as high, but the total Academy membership that's African-American is probably around 1,000 now."

 

With overall membership at about 9,000, that's significant. Still, any awards consultant hoping for another best picture faces a massively uphill battle. Despite two Oscar winners, there've been few other movies with a black cast nominated for best picture in the past decade — 2014's Selma, 2016's Fences and 2017's Hidden Figures stand out.

To go all the way, Panther needs to upstage not only such near-certain nominees as A Star Is Born, Roma and The Favourite, but also other contenders from nonwhite filmmakers, many of which engage with contemporary issues around race in a more direct way: Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman tells a story whose urgency is underscored by a Nov. 3 New York Times exposé outlining the FBI's failure to keep tabs on the growth of a violent supremacist movement. The Hate U Give and If Beale Street Could Talk, from Moonlight helmer Barry Jenkins, both amplify Black Lives Matter themes.

So first, Panther must underline its contemporary relevance. The absence of any topical message helped doom another comic book adaptation, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, despite critical praise and fan adoration.

Second, Coogler needs to "get out there," says Robertson. "He represents the next evolution of directors in the industry; he's very personable, and the Academy will respond favorably to him." Coogler's Nov. 4 speech at the Hollywood Film Awards demonstrated his sense of the movie's broad resonance, as he recalled seeing a Hispanic boy at Target asking his mom for a costume from the film: "That kid felt powerful dressing like an African superhero," said Coogler.

Third, Panther should secure the support of influencers such as author Ta-Nehisi Coates and political figures such as Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, whatever the election results.

Fourth, the movie should target below-the-line voters who still make up the majority of Academy members and could get behind Panther's costumes, production design and sound. Having a prestigious museum arrange an exhibition of its design elements also would help.

Finally — most crucially — the film should do everything to tell voters this movie isn't just important to African-Americans: It was the most significant release of the year in promoting female empowerment. So bring out Lupita Nyong'o and co-stars Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright and Angela Bassett to charm voters, 31 percent of whom are female.

In the #MeToo age, women, more than any other voting bloc, could help pave Panther's path to victory.

 

This story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.