Oscars: Is 'Black Panther' Poised to Move Into the Best Picture Pole Position?

THR's awards columnist breaks down the path to victory for Disney/Marvel's critically acclaimed blockbuster, which scored a Golden Globe nomination for best picture (drama) on Thursday.
Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios
'Black Panther'

The awards race has been in full swing since Labor Day weekend, with pundits like myself speculating around the clock about the surges and dips of titles including Roma, Green Book, A Star Is Born and The Favourite. I still believe that all four of those films will be nominated for the best picture Oscar and that, despite the various Achilles' heels that they each possess — Roma is black-and-white, subtitled, starless and distributed by Netflix; Green Book is, in the view of some, too quick to forgive bigotry; A Star Is Born is a remake; and The Favourite could be a tough sell for a male-heavy voting body — any one of them could win. But, as we enter December, I am also starting to see, for the first time, a path to victory for another film, one that had already been widely released, massively acclaimed and hugely commercially successful more than a half-year before anyone ever saw those other films, and has continued to hold the public's and industry's interest ever since Ryan Coogler's Black Panther.

On Thursday, the Disney/Marvel release became the first comic book adaptation ever nominated for the best picture (drama) Golden Globe Award — only one other, Deadpool, has been nominated for best picture (musical or comedy) — and Black Panther also garnered noms for best original score (Ludwig Göransson) and best original song (Kendrick Lamar's "All the Stars"). This, in itself, tells us little about the Oscar race, since only one person — actress/journalist Lisa Lu — is a member of both the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a group of journalists who vote on the Globes, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a group of filmmakers who vote on the Oscars. But, the more I step back and look at things, the more I believe this may be the first shot of a coming onslaught.

Rumblings have been growing for months already. In February, Black Panther was the subject of a Time cover story hailing its "revolutionary power" and calling it "a major milestone." Over the time since, it has also been featured on the covers of and written about within more than a dozen other magazines including Allure, American Cinematographer, Empire, Entertainment Weekly, Esquire, Essence, GQ, The Hollywood Reporter, Men's Health, Military History Today, Premiere, Pride, Rolling Stone, ShortList, Vanity Fair, Variety and Wired. And, over the past couple of weeks, the film made the year-end top 10 lists of both the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute, as well as some of the earliest best-of-2018 lists from high-profile film critics such as Rolling Stone's Peter Travers and The New Yorker's Richard Brody.

This coming week, Black Panther's momentum may well pick up even further and more meaningfully. I suspect it will garner its first major critics' group bona fides via both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (arguably a more diverse and open-minded body than the New York Film Critics Circle, which shunned the film last week, LAFCA will vote and reveal its winners this weekend) and the Broadcast Film Critics Association (which will release its Critics' Choice Awards nominations on Monday). And I am confident that when the SAG Awards announces its noms on Wednesday, the film will snag one of the five coveted slots in the best ensemble category, the closest one that the actors' union has to a best picture award, without which only two films have ever gone on to win the best picture Oscar: 1995's Braveheart and 2017's The Shape of Water. Actors — who also account for the largest branch of the Academy — love this movie and its stars, led by Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan, who have been graciously working the circuit all year, showing up at post-screening Q&As, podcasts, roundtables and rubber-chicken dinners, not to mention lending their celebrity to some very important causes, not because individual acting noms are likely for them (they're not), but in support of the film.

To be sure, there are some major hurdles standing between Black Panther and the best picture Oscar. The Academy, arguably an older and more conservative group than any of the other organizations that hand out awards before it (save for, perhaps, AARP), has never even nominated a comic book adaptation for best picture — not even Christopher Nolan's groundbreaking The Dark Knight a decade ago — let alone awarded one the prize. Moreover, Black Panther was theatrically released way back on Feb. 16, and while spring release dates haven't precluded films like 2014's The Grand Budapest Hotel and 2017's Get Out from snagging best picture noms in recent years, it's been 27 years since the last time a movie came out that early and won best picture, 1991's The Silence of the Lambs.

And then there's the matter of race. Whether or not you believe racial considerations were a driving reason behind the two years of #OscarsSoWhite that immediately followed the best picture Oscar win of 12 Years a Slave and immediately preceded the best picture Oscar win of Moonlight, there is no denying that the Academy has tended to nominate no more than one film about race in any given year: Driving Miss Daisy but not Do the Right Thing for 1989; 12 Years a Slave but not The Butler, Fruitvale Station or Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom for 2013; Moonlight but not The Birth of a Nation for 2016 (although there were extenuating circumstances with that one); and the list goes on. And, in a year in which Black Panther is competing against several — Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk, Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, Steve McQueen's Widows, Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You and George Tillman Jr.'s The Hate U Give — it must also be noted that there has never been a year in which more than one film directed by a black person was nominated for the best picture Oscar.

But I believe that each of these obstacles can be overcome. Coogler, just 32, is a certified auteur who came into Black Panther with art house cred, thanks to Fruitvale Station, and moviegoers' seal of approval, thanks to 2015's Creed, so much so that he received a standing ovation upon being introduced at Black Panther's premiere before the film even unspooled. Black Panther reflects both sensibilities.

The film boasts incredible reviews (its RottenTomatoes favorable rating stands at 97 percent) and, in a year in which the Academy's leadership has made clear how much it would like to acknowledge a "popular" movie, tremendous box office receipts. Indeed, the pic had what was the fifth- and is now the sixth-highest-grossing opening weekend in history, raking in $202 million; it remained the top-selling movie for five consecutive weekends; and, in total, it amassed $700 million domestically, more than any other 2018 film, and $1.3 billion worldwide, more than any other 2018 pic except Avengers: Infinity War. (So much for the old maxim, "Black films don't travel.")

True, The Dark Knight was also a hit with critics and audiences, but Black Panther possesses something that it did not: cultural relevance and import. Like 2017's Wonder Woman, Black Panther — the 1960s brainchild of the much loved and recently departed Stan Lee (with the late Jack Kirby), who arguably shaped today's Hollywood more than anyone else — presents a sort of superhero that the public had not seen on a big screen before. The 18th installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and the first with a black protagonist — was also, as Time put it, "the first mega­budget movie — not just about superheroes, but about anyone — to have an African-American director and a predominantly black cast."

It came along not only in the wake of the industry-wide tensions surrounding #OscarsSoWhite but also as racial tensions in the country at large were reaching a boiling point — one year after Donald Trump was sworn in as president of the United States; five months after the clash between racists and counter-protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the death of counter-protestor Heather Heyer, after which Trump said there had been "fine people on both sides"; and just 18 days after Trump referred to predominately black nations as "shithole countries."

For many people of color, and others, Black Panther served as a salve to the barrage of insults, even a form of peaceful protest. Here, after all, was a representation of black people "completely untouched by colonialism, who exist entirely outside the global systems of institutionalized racism," as NPR put it. "It's a fantasy, in other words — but then that's exactly what superhero stories are for." To that, Ava DuVernay added in The New York Times, "At the heart of Wakanda [the fictional, booming African nation at the center of the film]... lie some of our most excruciating existential questions: 'What if they [the colonialists and slave-traders] didn't come?' 'And what if they didn't take us? What would that have been?'"

In other words, here we have a timely film that not only entertains audiences, but also presents examples of empowered men and women of color (don't forget about Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright and the venerated Angela Bassett, or the 31 percent of Academy members who are women); addresses topics not usually tackled in works of this genre (such as the internal tug of war that many people of color feel between where they come from and where they want to go); and makes people feel proud of their heritage — just look at the African-inspired costumes that people wore to its premiere, to public screenings, and on Halloween! (Side note: Black Panther's legendary costume designer Ruth E. Carter has never won an Oscar, and the film's production designer Hannah Beachler and makeup/hairstyling artist Camille Friend are both poised to become the first black people — not just women — ever nominated in their respective categories.)

Perhaps most importantly, Black Panther has come along at a moment at which the industry, generally, and the Academy, specifically, seems hungry to celebrate a film just like it. For one thing, the #OscarsSoWhite episode motivated the Academy to significantly diversify its membership, and today thousands of people of color and women are voting members who weren't just a few years ago. (Sadly, Coogler himself is not one of them, having turned down an invitation in 2016; I hope he reconsiders, as I know the Academy would be happy to have him join at any time.) For another, Hollywood has never despised Trump more, and much like the last two best picture winners, Moonlight and The Shape of Water, were, on one level, about hot-button topics in the zeitgeist (race/class and outsiders/immigration, respectively), so, too, is Black Panther. And I know that many Academy members would jump at the chance to send a message to Washington that Hollywood stands for something very different than what Trump does.

Voting to determine the Oscar nominations will run Jan. 7-14, and final voting will follow Feb. 12-19. Over the coming months, you can expect Disney, advised by Strategy PR (which is led by one of the original and most respected awards strategists, Cynthia Swartz), to keep its pedal to the medal, deploying high-profile surrogates from inside and outside of the industry to hammer home to Academy members many of the same points that I have made above. Could Wakanda forever be etched into the history books at the 91st Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 24? It's way too early to predict that outcome, or another, with any degree of confidence. But, with little more than three months until Oscar night, it looks to me more plausible than ever.