Each year, I try to watch every movie nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award before the Oscars ceremony. As I do this, I will write a brief review of each movie, along with a suggestion of what to eat and/or drink to pair with the movie.
The release of Black Panther was one of the major cultural events of 2018. Many very good articles have been written about the impact of a mainstream superhero movie made up of an almost exclusively black cast and so I will leave that commentary to them. This article will be about the merits of the movie and why I think it was nominated for a best picture Oscar. I have a lot to say about it, so this piece will be a bit longer than my usual reviews of Oscar-nominated films.
Black Panther is about Wakanda, a fictional African nation which the rest of the world believes is third-world, but is actually rich in a powerful metal called vibranium. Their exclusive access to vibranium has allowed them to build a prosperous city and advanced technology. However, they are isolationist which is a problem for the villain Killmonger [Michael B. Jordan] a half-Wakandan who was abandoned in Oakland by the previous king T’Chaka, after T’Chaka killed Killmonger’s father [who is also his own brother] for betraying Wakanda. Killmonger’s father betrayed Wakanda because he believed vibranium should be used to help the plight of African-Americans, a cause which Killmonger takes up. He challenges the current Wakandan king and the Black Panther, T’Challa [Chadwick Boseman], son of T’Chaka and briefly wins the throne, throwing Wakanda into chaos.
What makes Black Panther good is that it’s a complex movie about complicated racial and economic issues. A good story always has a good conflict. The best conflicts are ones in which the audience can understand both sides. This is true in Black Panther; we sympathize with Killmonger, even if we don’t agree with his methods. In fact, Nakia, T’Challa’s love interest [Lupita Nyong’o] gives the same argument Killmonger makes: Wakanda should be helping the rest of the world. When we first meet her, she is on a mission helping black women who had been kidnapped. She and T’Challa clash on his devotion to the Wakandan philosophy that they must keep to themselves and keep vibranium out of the hands of outsiders.
In what I think is one of the most narratively brilliant parts of the film, we see a smaller version of this conflict with T’Challa on the other side. When he asks M’Baku, the leader of a tribe within Wakanda for an army to help defeat Killmonger, M’Baku declines, stating that T’Challa’s problems are not his problems. T’Challa must make the case that if Killmonger is not stopped, these will become his problems and that M’Baku must help his fellow Wakandans. Presumably, this helps T’Challa see the perspectives of Nakia and Killmonger and leads him to make the decision he does at the film’s conclusion.
I don’t think we, the viewers, are supposed to feel great about this ending. We’re meant to feel conflicted. We’re supposed to agree with the majority of Wakandans when they say that vibranium will be dangerous in the hands of the US government or whoever else gets it. But we’re also supposed to agree with Killmonger, his father, and Nakia when they make the case for helping one’s fellow human being. In short: there’s no good answer to the problem Wakanda has. T’Challa made the choice he thought was best, but in addition to providing aid, it will very likely lead to trouble for Wakanda and for the world. This is not a run-of-the-mill, clear-cut, good guy/bad guy superhero movie. It is far more complex--and better--than that.
Black Panther is making a lot of waves for being the first superhero movie to be nominated for a best picture Oscar and my first response to that was that the Academy is wisely choosing not to ignore two things: the increasing influence of films like Marvel movies [see the failed attempt to introduce a new “popular film” category] and the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. And maybe that’s true. But it’s also true that Black Panther is genuinely deserving of a best picture nomination.
It’s impossible to assess Academy Awards nominations without the context of politics. No one thinks that the Oscars are an objective assessment of film quality. The powers that be behind the Academy Awards are concerned with getting people to watch the Academy Awards so criticisms are going to have an impact. This impact has taken a dismally long time to sink in, though, and I wonder if Black Panther would have been nominated for best picture if it had come out in 2010 or even 2015.
I doubt it. Not because it’s not worthy of a nomination but because the Academy and its biases would not have thought a superhero movie worthy.
Then again, there have been blips in the Academy’s best picture nominations. A few horror films have been nominated [The Exorcist being the most representative of that genre, but also Silence of the Lambs and Get Out just last year]. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King while based on a highly respected book in the fantasy literary canon was still a fantasy adventure film which generally goes ignored by the Academy except in the technical categories. So the question is: is the nomination of Black Panther just a blip, or does it represent a larger shift in the thinking of the Academy?
I highly doubt Black Panther will win Best Picture although it’s been a comparatively lackluster year for movies [except for Eighth Grade which, mystifyingly, did not garner any nominations]. And it would certainly be momentous if it did win.
What to make: I like to pay attention to food and drinks that characters consume in the film when thinking of recommendations for this blog. Upon watching this for the second time in preparation to write this piece, I noticed the characters eat literally nothing. The only thing that is consumed is the bright purple drink made from the Heart-Shaped Herb, which gives the power of the Black Panther. So I thought a purple cocktail would be perfect.
It is very hard to make a purple cocktail and even harder still to make one that tastes good. Everything I tried came out more or less the color of watered-down red wine and tasted like all the bad parts of college [or the good parts, depending on your perspective]. The best I can tell you is to get some purple-colored kids’ fruit drink and pour booze in, if you’re so inclined. Bonus points for garnishing with an edible flower. This purple concoction will make everyone say, “Vibrani-yum!”