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What happened to Black Panther’s Oscar momentum?

The popular superhero film’s reward is its Best Picture nomination. Why its snub is bad news for the Oscars telecast on February 24.

What happened to Black Panther’s Oscar momentum?
[Photo: courtesy of Marvel Studios]

With the announcement of this year’s Academy Award nominations early Tuesday morning, the race to Oscar gold became a lot more clear, with certain films edging out ahead–Roma, which swept with 10 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay—and certain films losing steam.

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Among the latter is Black Panther, a film that just a few months ago gave Hollywood great hope that finally there was a film that could unite the elite snobs of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the masses whom they pray will tune in to its increasingly ratings-challenged telecast every year. 

But on Tuesday the film came up short. Although it made history by becoming the first superhero film to be nominated for Best Picture, all of its other six nominations are in technical categories. Most notably, director Ryan Coogler was overlooked for Best Director. 

But why, given the film’s pedigree and popularity?

Most say that Black Panther‘s superhero credentials are what held the film back, even as Disney and its Oscar whisper team dutifully set up screenings, feted the film at cocktail parties, and even sent home a book devoted to the film to subscribers of The Hollywood Reporter. Because there is no precedent for a caped-crusader film as a Best Picture winner (or, until now, nominee), the Academy, or at least a good portion of the Academy–which has an enlarged, more diverse membership this year–turned up its nose.

“There was resistance to the movie from the beginning,” says one insider, who notes that some Academy members were reluctant to go to screenings of the film. The Old Guard within the institution brushed the film off as a summer popcorn movie–though many who actually did go see it came out impressed, according to the source.

The movie was also not embraced, or at least written about very extensively, by the squad of Hollywood awards pundits who circulate like bees this time of year, attending screenings and after-parties, and hobnobbing with Oscar voters. Their stories often set the tone for which films are winning (and losing) the race, and can help craft the narrative that publicists are pushing around a film.

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Yet the awards press tends to focus on statistics, such as the fact that a superhero movie has never moved the Oscar needle, and what films are winning in the lead-up to the Oscars, an area where Black Panther fell short. Coogler was snubbed by the Director’s Guild when it announced the nominations for its awards earlier this month. Black Panther received no nominations for any American Cinema Editors Eddie Awards, and it got just one BAFTA nomination, for special visual effects.

Even before the nominations snub, there was a sense that Black Panther wasn’t a part of the Oscar conversation the way that Roma and A Star is Born–and, more controversially, Green Book–have been.

In the weeks leading up to the nominations, many in Hollywood held out hope that Black Panther could save a telecast that desperately needs saving. What with the Kevin Hart debacle; the creation of a new Most Popular category that was then quickly revoked; reports on presenters being strong-armed into only handing out awards at the Oscars–to name a few of the controversies that have plagued the Academy over the last few months–Black Panther represented a way to unite Hollywood behind a film with an important message and a popular following. As one Academy member told me last week: “I voted for Black Panther (for Best Picture) because of the cultural dialogue–and because it’s a damn good film.”  

But perhaps even more important than winning over people who normally find the Oscars too highbrow and out of touch with popular culture (see Moonlight or The Shape of Water, among many other possible examples), Black Panther offered an opportunity for the Academy to change the perception that it’s also out of touch with the cultural and social issues that are roiling our times. Despite the 2017 Best Picture win for Moonlight, a coming-of-age story about a gay, African-American man from the projects, the Academy is very much still devoted to tradition. Yes, BlackKklansman received several nominations, and Barry Jenkins and Regina King are nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for If Beale Street Could Talk (the film also is nominated for Best Score). But to say that twilight has settled on #OscarsSoWhite would be a stretch.  Just check the nominations list: All of the Best Director nominees are white men; the Best Actor category is also all white.

To be sure, it wasn’t all mourning for Black Panther on Tuesday. Supporters were relishing its Best Picture nomination, pointing out its historic significance, and calling the recognition a “great step for the Academy.” 

But as for the great step that the Oscars need to take, and that Black Panther could have contributed to by focusing the buzz and pre-show talk around a movie that is universally loved and respected–better luck next year. 

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This story has been updated. 

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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