It began early, the sense that Black Panther would be more than just another comic book movie. The seeds were planted when Marvel recruited director Ryan Coogler, the Oakland native who broke hearts with Fruitvale Station and made grown men cry with Creed.
The viral clips that spread of African-American children looking up at the impeccably retouched faces of Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, and Angela Bassett on the Panther poster — for once faced with a choice of which black character they wanted to be — were the early flowers of cinematic revolution. As were the Twitter videos of the women in an African-American hair salon giddy over the first trailer, and a black teenager asking, “Is this how white people feel like all the time?” In a mall last January, I walked past another black man and, rather than just give me the customary “nod,” he simply said “Black Panther’s in a month, yo.”
Black Panther was the 18th Marvel movie of the Kevin Feige Era — which started with 2008’s Iron Man — but it was the first one that carried with it the hopes and dreams of a demographic who’ve never seen themselves on screen like this, rendered with all the care and resources usually summoned for movies starring paler protagonists. They were responding to Coogler’s telling of the story of a young king in a fictional African nation that had never been colonized.
And in an era when people of every hue were shouting from the rooftops that black lives did indeed matter, Black Panther felt like the dot on that exclamation point.
That remarkable social momentum led Black Panther to the top of the 2018 domestic box office — earning more than $1.3 billion worldwide — and now this, a Best Picture nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The first comic book movie ever to get one.
It’s not that comic book flicks never got love from the Oscars, it’s that it’s usually the same kind of below-the-line nods that go to big action-franchise movies, like special effects, sound design, sound editing, makeup, and occasionally production design, costume design, or original score. But if there’s a genre bias among the Oscar voters for real-world dramas over the fantastic, it’s double for material drawn from the funny pages. So the rare attention gets paid; for instance, an adapted screenplay nomination for Logan, a supporting actor nod for Al Pacino in Dick Tracy. (If your comic-book movie isn’t a superhero movie, you’ve got a better shot: Road to Perdition with a best supporting actor nomination, Ghost World and American Splendor with adapted screenplay; A History of Violence with both.)
It wasn’t until 2009 when a superhero movie actually won a main category at the Oscars: Heath Ledger’s posthumous Best Supporting Actor honor for his performance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. But the film wasn’t among the five nominees for best picture that year, despite its obvious quality and enormous popularity (it grossed $1 billion worldwide, the first superhero movie to cross that mark). The next year, the Academy changed its rules and expanded the nominee field from five to 10, making room for mainstream films that might bring new viewers to the Oscar broadcast — lest we forget the importance of a TV audience, which may tune in more enthusiastically to see if a box-office behemoth like Avatar or Titanic takes home the ultimate prize over less-familiar flicks.
If the Academy hadn’t widened its gaze, Black Panther might not have gotten the nomination. Despite its critical acclaim — according to Rotten Tomatoes, it’s the best-reviewed (and most reviewed!) wide release of 2018 — Black Panther isn’t a traditional Black Oscar movie. Because it isn’t about the thing that almost every black film that’s been nominated for Oscars is: pain.
No matter how amazing such films as 12 Years A Slave, Selma, Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Precious are, they are all about black suffering. They are all about tragedy and triumph because they are all about the black experience in white America and that experience is laced with brutality and degradation and, eventually, hope. They are a history lesson in what can be overcome, often by a Great Man (or Great Woman) doing a Great Thing.
There is a place for films like that, of course. We should never forget those history lessons. But until now, every black Oscar film has felt, to some degree or another, like homework.
Not Black Panther. It doesn’t feel that way because it’s not about pain; It’s about excellence. It is, as Coogler said during the press campaign leading up to the film’s release, about the hyphen between “African” and “American.” What does it mean to be each of those things, both of those things, and neither of those things, all at once?
What does it mean to be T’Challa (Boseman), newly crowned King of Wakanda, inheritor of generations of prosperity, of technology, of power…the kind of power no black person in the world at large has ever held? What challenges face a man trying to be good, confronted by voluminous evidence of the bad? What does it mean to be Nakia (Nyong’o), a spy who walks the world and understands the role Wakanda can play in it but is forced to keep it a secret?
And what does it mean to be Killmonger (Jordan), Wakandan royalty by birth, Oakland orphan by circumstance, witness to the meatgrinder the Western world can be for people of color? To know there’s a place that could be a paradise for men and women like him, but turns its back on its own children the world over? How does it feel to be young, black, brilliant, and angry?
Coogler and his collaborators crafted a Best Picture contender that wrestles with those questions, while infusing it with its own sense of place. Costumes by Ruth E. Carter that melded the traditional with the timely. Production design by Hannah Beachler that conjured an entire world, from the largest spire to the smallest piece of jewelry, all conveying the heritage of the unconquered. A score by Ludwig Göransson that wrapped its arms around a vast mosaic of African music and musicians and embraced modern hip-hop as well. A script by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole that gave a white audience all the superheroic adventure they’ve come to expect from a Marvel movie that has only one Caucasian character with dialogue that matters (Andy Serkis’ Klaue), which closes out Killmonger’s story with a line like, “Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage.”
I saw the film three times before I fell in love with it. The first time I didn’t see it for everything it was, I just read what was on the surface — I was impressed with it, but still apart from it. The second time, I saw some of the subversion that Coogler built in: For instance, the final confrontation between T’Challa and Killmonger doesn’t take place on an underground railroad by accident.
But the third time…the third time, I took my newly teenaged son, who is just beginning to reckon with who he is in this world. There is an early sequence, when Danai Gurira’s Okoye is piloting the royal shuttle through the cloaking device that keeps Wakanda hidden from the outside world. She says three simple words and, when I was sitting next to my son, those words shattered me.
“We are home.”
Because “home” is a concept that’s difficult for the average African-American to wrap their mind around. Too few of us know where home is. Of course, I know where I was born, I even know where my parents were born. But the displacement that came with hundreds of years of slavery has stripped bare the memory of where I am from. Most other people have a sense of it: I can ask an Italian person where her people are from, and there’s a fair chance she can point to a place on a map. Same with many Scots, Poles, Brazilians, Australians, Japanese…there is a city, a town, a village that their people hail from.
But me? Once you drive past Haiti, where my father was born, or Trinidad and Barbados, where my maternal grandparents are from, my answer is…“Africa?” Maybe Ancestry.com or whatever can narrow that a bit, but there is no connection between me and whatever place comes up in the genetic Yahtzee.
The power of Black Panther is that it imagines a place that could be home to millions who don’t have one. A place that isn’t marked by pain, but instead by progress. A land that knows its history and revels in it, rather than be embarrassed by it. Black Panther speaks to children who might still believe in fairy tales and gives them a new one — one with kings and queens, magic and honor, palaces and passion. And it speaks to their elders who might’ve forgotten how to believe in fairy tales. For the first time, I saw white kids dressing up as a black hero at comic-book conventions.
Will Black Panther win the best picture Oscar? If I had to guess, I’d say no. It simply isn’t miserable enough — for a Best Picture or a Black Best Picture. The gold it will win, though, is the sparkle in the eyes of every lost child who discovers a home on the screen, a luster that will never fade.