And why it didn’t deserve to (not that “Green Book” did)
When I walked into the theater to see “Black Panther” a year ago, I feared that I was about to watch a movie that had been grossly overhyped. By the time the end credits rolled around, I was glad to realize that my fears were unfounded. Despite thoroughly enjoying the movie and appreciating what an accomplishment it is for both diversity and for expanding the possibilities of the superhero genre, I must say I was relieved that “Black Panther” didn’t win Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony.
While avid fans of “Black Panther” may disagree with this sentiment, especially given the movie that did win, I hope that they would listen to my reasoning before concluding that I’m racist, or worse, hating on superhero movies. On second thought, there may actually be a bit of the latter, but I can assure you, it’s justified.
Again, it isn’t possible to overstate the importance of “Black Panther” as a cultural milestone — it’s full of progressive promise for the industry and that, along with its diversity and inclusion, should be celebrated. The movie embraces blackness and pan-Africanness in ways that are seen nowhere near enough on both the big and small screens. This can be seen in the movie’s exquisite level of detail, such as its costumes, weapons, interiors, colorschemes, landscapes and futuristic cityscapes of Africa.
Additionally, it’s hugely significant for people of color to see themselves occupying the starring roles and the director’s chair in a genre and industry that has marginalized them through stereotypes and underrepresentation. Because of this underrepresentation, having prominent and powerful black characters, and of course a well-rounded cast of black actors playing them, serves as an important source of empowerment and inspiration.
It’s also worth mentioning the movie’s title, the significance of which may be so obvious that it goes unnoticed. Given the historical connotations of the Black Panther Party, I guarantee that many of the most unprogressive, unlettered, uncultured and unpigmented Americans probably immediately condemned the movie, thinking that anything called “Black Panther” was simply too radical. This helps make the movie subversive in a good way.
While these elements may be touted as reasons for why “Black Panther” should win Best Picture, they actually don’t relate to the quality of the movie as a work of unique visual storytelling. For the most part, this movie is much closer to average than exceptional. While the movie does distinguish itself visually from other superhero movies through the costume and design aspects, most of this novelty is not a result of unique filming techniques being used in unique ways to say something unique.
While “Black Panther” goes further than previous superhero movies to address racial themes, it is inherently held back from being more poignant and profound due to the nature of the genre. Additionally, the movie’s narrative arc is pretty similar to most other superhero movies. It misses a glorious chance to do something truly revolutionary for the genre by not actually killing off the main character when it seemed certain he had been killed. Instead, he survived in a miraculous way, which felt cheap. There are many over-the-top, on-the-edge-of-your-seat action sequences that also feel cheap. And while the villain is compelling and complex, this is not novel, not even for a superhero movie (see “The Dark Knight”).
We must remember that this is the Best Picture category, so shouldn’t we reward the film that actually is the year’s best example of filmmaking (*cough* “Roma”)? Rewarding “Black Panther” simply for breaking racial barriers may seem like a morally good, progressive and politically correct thing to do, but this wouldn’t be based on merit — it would be tokenism. Effectively incorporating these progressive aspects does not necessarily mean that this is an example of the highest-quality filmmaking. The fact that we have collectively given much less attention to recent films far superior to “Black Panther” (and especially to “Green Book”) that deal with racial issues in much more artistic and cinematic ways demonstrates that we really don’t care about embracing diversity as much as we do about revelling in the escapism that is the intended feature of the superhero genre.
Two years ago, “Moonlight” won Best Picture. In “Moonlight,” writer/director Barry Jenkins deals with how drugs, the absence of a father, repressed homsexuality and extreme poverty impact a young black man in Miami. And it does this with a gorgeous color palette, sweeping cinematography, immersive music and poetic nuance, finely tuning every cinematic technique to perfectly complement the story. I was overjoyed that this film won the award because it is one of the most worthy winners, both for its quality and its radicalism.
This year, Jenkin’s new film, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture even though it oozes with the same level of filmmaking swagger as “Moonlight.” The film still takes on its own entirely distinct aesthetic, this time perfectly tempered for tackling how the criminal justice system and flawed policing tactics fail African Americans. Luckily, Spike Lee’s new film “BlacKkKlansman” was nominated this year for deftly bringing both seriousness and absurd humor to a rough adaptation of a true story of white supremacy and Nazism in 1970s Colorado, while drawing frightening parallels to modern-day trends in Trump’s America.
When trying to objectively evaluate these films based on how the cinematic techniques enhance the stories and make larger points about problems in society, it’s difficult to say that “Black Panther” is superior to any of these three films. All three viscerally force viewers, sometimes uncomfortably, to confront and contemplate serious societal problems, giving viewers an experience that changes them for the better. These are the signs of high quality films.
“Black Panther” only does a little bit of this, and doing so is not the intended function of the movie. It is escapism, just like every other superhero movie. After Stan Lee died last fall, Bill Maher got in trouble with Marvel fans for criticizing superhero movies and comic books, saying that it’s dangerous, stupid and, above all, childish to think that comic books are profound literature, adding, “Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.”
Based on how obsession over a superhero movie like “Black Panther” promotes escapism and detracts from the more sophisticated films that have deeper things to say about those problems, it’s hard to disagree with Maher.
Written by: Benjamin Porter — firstname.lastname@example.org
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