When the 2019 Oscar nominations were announced last week, some awards purists were left aghast that a comic book superhero movie like Black Panther could be nominated for Best Picture. Normally I’d say it has no chance of winning, but a big victory at the SAG Awards over the weekend may have bolstered its chances.
In Sunday night’s Screen Actors Guild Awards ceremony, Black Panther walked away with the Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture trophy, SAG’s equivalent to “Best Picture.” Competition in the category included fellow Oscar nominees BlacKkKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Star Is Born, as well as the hit rom-com Crazy Rich Asians (which was ignored entirely by the Oscars).
What’s interesting about this is that Black Panther claimed the top prize despite not being nominated in any individual acting category. Its only other nomination (and win) was for Outstanding Action Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture – which seems completely ridiculous given that the green-screen action scenes in the film were mostly very poorly choreographed and fake-looking. These two victories amount to a big vote of confidence in the film as whole from the SAG membership, despite the fact that those same voters didn’t find any specific acting performance in it worthy of their acclaim.
Because the two voting bodies share a lot of the same membership, the SAG Awards are considered a key predictor for the Oscars. In recent years, SAG called the victories for underdog champions Argo, Birdman, and Spotlight. On the other hand, it also gave last year’s prize to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and didn’t even nominate eventual Oscar winner The Shape of Water. SAG also had more love for The Help, American Hustle, and Hidden Figures than Oscar did.
How’d It Get Nominated?
The Oscars have long been accused of being out of touch with movies that so-called “real people” want to watch, and have struggled against a perception of being voted on by a collection of stodgy, elderly white men. Additionally, the Oscar telecast’s ratings directly correlate to the popularity of the movies nominated. When all of the nominees are low-budget art films, the show’s ratings plummet.
The Academy tried to address these issues in 2009 by expanding the Best Picture field to ten possible nominees, in order to include some genuine money-makers that might draw viewers back to the ceremony. Nevertheless, more often than not, movies that fit the traditional definition of being Oscar-friendly fare are still heavily favored over the more populist picks. Best Picture nominations for blockbusters like Inception, Gravity, and The Martian were viewed as token recognitions with little chance of actually winning at the end of the night. And indeed, none did.
In many respects, Black Panther easily fits into that same company. Aside from Best Picture, the movie’s seven Oscar nominations were mostly in technical fields. It was shut out of the acting, screenwriting, and directing categories. All of this points to a slim chance of it being taken seriously as a Best Picture contender.
However, recent initiatives to diversify the Academy membership to more women, people of color, and people under 70 could possibly take hold this year with a big shift in the voting. Additionally, the Academy is still stinging from the backlash it faced for snubbing The Dark Knight for a Best Picture nomination back in 2008. This could be the year a comic book movie is anointed Best Picture.
But Should It Win?
I talked about this a bit in my comments to the Oscar nominations post last week, but I see Black Panther as more symbolically important than actually good filmmaking. As the first big-budget superhero movie with a black director and mostly black cast, dealing with story issues of interest to black audiences, its massive billion-dollar blockbuster success proved to Hollywood that audiences are eager for big mainstream movies about people of color. On those grounds, I recognize its cultural significance, and can understand the argument for its inclusion in the Best Picture field.
Is it actually a good movie, though? Frankly, I was not terribly impressed with it. The movie’s action scenes and visual effects are pretty awful. Although Michael B. Jordan is a good villain and the big story beats work well enough, the plot machinations around them are dull and pedestrian. Overall, I found it to be a lower-tier Marvel movie. It’s over-long, plodding, and sometimes quite dumb (traits that could be said about many Marvel movies, honestly). Cultural significance or not, I have a hard time justifying a film this sloppy and poorly made as a “Best Picture.”
Then again, I felt the same way about Gladiator and that somehow won. What the hell do I know, anyway? I’m not an Oscar voter and I am notoriously poor at predicting awards. Maybe Black Panther stands a real shot at being the Best Picture after all. I’ll probably roll my eyes if that happens, but that’s not an uncommon reaction for me to most Best Picture winners.
For the complete list of SAG nominees and winners, visit the the official SAG Awards web site.