It was a great night at the Academy Awards, and a great night for the superhero genre, especially for Ryan Coogler’s fantastic contribution to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the blockbusting, economic and cultural powerhouse that was Black Panther. The movie didn’t just tie a bow on the MCU, it redefined the perception of speculative fiction movies for future generations.
Let me correct an oversight of the Oscars and acknowledge Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s seminal creation which brought home three honors. Unlike most of the critics who reviewed this movie, I am a fan of superhero-genre comics, their themes and stories, and despite the questionable racial dynamics of comics and their creators, I still believe there are stories worth reading, sharing and making the effort to understand despite the slowly changing landscape to one of inclusion and representation. Comics are worth acknowledging as a viable and significant medium, if you know where to look.
The Oscars were a sign of this slow but inevitable transition to a more inclusive society, no matter how many people scream about political correctness and the unfortunate inclusion of minority films into what has been historically a White bastion of privilege. Adding to the honors taken home by the superheroic genre was the addition of Sony/Marvel’s animated visual feast of Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse as the Best Animated Film. I never had a doubt.
Black Panther was nominated in six categories: Best Musical Score, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Picture, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing. Given its pedigree as a science fiction and superhero genre film, most people expected it to win a technical award as are often the case for such movies.
Laying claim to the Best Costume Design and Production Design was a coup for diverse creators since science fiction films are often acknowledged for their visual, audio, CGI and technical chops. Both Hannah Beachler and Ruth E. Carter are Black women with decades of experience between them. Their heartfelt acceptance speeches spoke to the challenges and disappointments being minority creators and their satisfaction at finally being recognized. Hardened as I am, I was moved by their joy.
Personally, I was not surprised for the Best Production Design win because the art direction by Hannah Beachler was due to her incredible attention to detail. She created a 515 page studio bible extrapolating every possible idea ever used in Wakanda. Awarding her efforts to showcase a world which never existed, the creation of an Afro-futuristic paradise which excited and enthralled audiences should have been a no-brainer. Her Wakanda was the stuff of dreams I wanted to wake to. No greater praise could be given.
No less amazing was the costume design work of Ruth E. Carter. Her visual contribution in costume design was one of the most tangible and magnificent representations of Black Panther, as her work incorporated the soul of the African continent melding African culture with an Afro-futuristic tones.
Carter crossed the African continent working with various tribes incorporating their aesthetics into her new designs. The decades of Ruth Carter’s expertise and her critical attention to the colors, coordination — her costuming efforts incorporated a brilliant fusion of the past and the future together seamlessly.
It was the costumes which drew the audience into the movie, highlighting Black excellence, showcasing the culture of dress in the Black community and highlighting examples of flawlessly beautiful designs and the heroes who wore them. One of the highlights of the movie for me was during the challenge scene, the magnificent outfits of the senior tribes and the outfit of Queen Mother Ramonda was enough to bring tears to my eyes. It took me right to church.
Ludwig Göransson wins Best Original Score for Black Panther. His compositions beat out Alexandre Desplat’s score in Isle of Dogs, which I liked more than Black Panther’s; he also slipped by Terence Blanchard’s work in BlacKkKlansman, Marc Shaiman’s musical shenanigans in Mary Poppins Returns, and Nicholas Britell’s soundtrack in If Beale Street Could Talk.
All things being equal, this feels like the Black Panther Oscar at which I look the most sideways. The music in this movie wasn’t much better than music in any other Marvel movie, to be honest. I think Marvel’s movie music has been one of the least interesting aspects of their cinematic universe.
I can’t think of a single signature sound which gives me the same degree of musical association I get from the theme music from Star Wars or Jurassic Park. If you’re being honest, you can’t either.
This is Ludwig Göransson’s first Oscar; now that he has one, maybe he will be given an opportunity to create something really memorable.
ABOUT THAT BEST PICTURE NOMINATION…
Black Panther didn’t win Best Picture last night. I’m a bit salty around this because, if we are being honest and looking at the performances they had to choose from, their choice was the least interesting, least enlightening, least culturally-responsible choice they could have made.
Let me put my claws on and go to work …
Before we go any further, let me say to everyone, every technical skill, every direction, every action which released a movie of quality and standing in this community is recognized by me, even if the Academy didn’t. Making movies is probably one of the hardest collaborative creative efforts being done today. The incredible amount of effort and manpower to bring something like Black Panther to life is extraordinary. You don’t have to like Black Panther. It may not speak to you. It may not be for you. But for those people who were moved by it, who saw something of themselves for the first time represented on the silver screen, it was a truly transformative moment.
We’re going to assume the responsibility of this committee is to choose movies which epitomize the heart of good movies and becomes a record of the best of those choices. A history we would be able to look at twenty years from now and say “Yes, that was the right choice.”
Historically speaking, when decisions like these get made, they shed negative light on the perspectives of the committee and society wakes for a moment from its culturally-assisted nap when the note of dissonance rings through the televised ether. Not to worry, that wakefulness only lasts for a second, maybe two and then they go back to sleep.
Black Panther was nominated but absolutely not expected to win. No superhero movie has ever been nominated for a Best Picture, let alone expected to win one. (Okay, I hoped for it but I knew better. I expected Roma to win…)
Here was a moment to make history. And the Academy flubbed it. Their decision only feeds the perspective that the movies are not chosen on their merits but on the secretive messaging beneath – the cultural encoding we are supposed to take in and remember in our daily lives.
I say the message they could have sent was so much better, leaving me to continue to look with suspicion at a system which says it can be trusted when its experts cannot see past an obviously flawed movie as Green Book.
Instead of voting for a movie which could have acknowledged suffering of Mexicans and changed the cultural dynamic of a polarized America, in conflict with our neighbor to the South such as Roma;
Instead of acknowledging a gay superstar and his musical team of geniuses, helping to share the joy of individualism and being the best person you can be no matter what society thinks of you as presented in Bohemian Rhapsody;
Instead of pointing out the potential Evil in an unchecked government and making people aware of the horrors of a government without controls, without limits, literally without a beating heart as so ably displayed by Christian Bale in Vice;
Instead of acknowledging the challenges of racism, the Klan and the necrotic dysfunction of our national discussion on race; the struggle of Blacks against the nationalized hatred of our very existence as depicted in Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman;
Instead of choosing a movie which might spur an entire generation of young Black creators to imagine they too could participate in creating a work of art as amazing and visionary as Ryan Coogler’s image of an Afrocentric future… Here was an opportunity to foster dreams of being scientists, heroes, kings, to imagine a future which includes them and to teach people to accept people different from them of which Black Panther so ably epitomizes;
Instead, they choose a movie which reverses the famed meme of “Driving Ms. Daisy” making the Black man a musical genius who travels the South with his White driver.Instead of celebrating the incredible genius of Don Shirley, played masterfully by Mahershala Ali who was a legendary musician or talking about why the Negro Motorist Green Book, a publication whose job was to tell Black people which cities and towns would be receptive to their presence from the years of 1936 to 1966, the movie celebrates the White driver, Tony, played by Viggo Mortensen, awakening “Blackness” in the musical genius who was Don Shirley; the worst kind of “White Savior” trope of which there are already FAR too many movies celebrating this racist nonsense.
While I am at it, what happened at the Awards was a travesty for one more reason. When the Best Picture Oscar was presented to Green Book’s production team, no mention of Don Shirley was made. Viggo Mortensen is mentioned more than once, but the man who the story was supposedly being celebrated, however poorly, was completely ignored.
This is why I don’t watch the Oscars. The only reason I know any of what happened is because my wife was in the kitchen cheering for the diversity, for Regina King who has acted for 30 years before winning an Oscar; for the Spiderverse which featured a Afro-Latino Spider-Man, Miles Morales, getting to be as heroic as Peter Parker ever was; for Hannah Beachler’s (whose orange dress was FIERCE) and Ruth E. Carter’s historic wins, for the inclusion of Roma, a Mexican film winning an Oscar for the first time in history, she cheered for this attempt at diversity which was undone in the last seconds of the 91st Academy Awards ceremony.
Choosing Green Book reminds me whose in charge in this society. That any representation we get, is in the hands of those people who decide these things and the message they want to send. Even with this being the most even-handed Oscar ceremony I have seen in decades, the pimp slap of Green Book winning Best Picture puts being Black right back in the national perspective of second class citizens, no matter how close to the future we get; in America, the poorest white man is still better than the most talented Black one.
Yes, I said it.
And for the record, with these wins, we can most assuredly say for Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Reginald Hudlin, Christopher Priest and Ryan Coogler as well as the beautiful Black cast of Black Panther which included: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Florence Kasumba, John Kani, Trevor Noah, and Atandwa Kani …
Thaddeus Howze is an award-winning writer, editor, podcaster and activist creating speculative fiction, scientific, political and cultural commentary from his office in Hayward, California.
Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He has published two books, ‘Hayward’s Reach’ (2011), a collection of short stories and ‘Broken Glass’ (2013) an urban fantasy novella starring his favorite paranormal investigator, Clifford Engram.