Celebrating Black Filmmaking: The case for Black Panther winning Best Picture
Black Panther is the first superhero film ever to earn a Best Picture nomination, and the first to spark serious discussion since The Dark Knight in 2008. The two least popular genres for Best Picture nominees are science fiction (of which superhero films are included by broad strokes) and horror. No film purely in these genres has ever won Best Picture, though Silence of the Lambs and The Shape of Water come closest. This is part of the tough road Black Panther has to actually winning the top award,, but it is no less deserving based on how it melds together superior filmmaking, thematics, character work, and relevance to the topic of black identity while existing within a modern franchise that is wildly popular with general audiences. By looking at Ryan Coogler’s filmography to date, the thoughtfulness behind Black Panther becomes even clearer.
One thing that makes Ryan Coogler stand out as a writer/director is that he understands the present state of film culture. Working within the contemporary studio franchise system, he is able to make personal films that succeed at communication his vision as well as finding commercial success. Each of his films are united by theme, and separated by genre and scale. Legacy (especially that of sons from their fathers), identity, and the black experience share equal parts of Fruitvale Station, Creed, and Black Panther. Having these films come from a black writer/director is key to establishing these films’ authenticity, but that perspective is also baked into the very core of these three films.
This is seen from his first feature forward. What makes Fruitvale Station different from many other films that dramatize recent events in the hope of making a political point about inequality is the approach Coogler takes to tell this story. Coogler humanizes Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) by showing the last day of his life and all of the mundane challenges that it brings. It isn’t trying to show him as any sort of model person, but as a flawed individual whose life was ended by structural and societal ills that are much more far reaching, though they impact him every day. In that way, Coogler sets a path where his films do not exist to provide solutions or answers to curing racism, but drawing awareness to it, especially in its invisible–and therefore more insidious–forms.
The most successful auteurs of this decade and the next are going to be those writers and directors who can bring personalized, thoughtful storytelling to franchise films. Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Rian Johnson, Jon Watts, James Wan, and Ryan Coogler are some of the best filmmakers in this mold, bringing fresh ideas and perspective to franchises that otherwise might feel like safe nostalgia plays. Coogler’s first chance at this was by stepping into the Rocky franchise with the ‘legasequel’ Creed, which in many ways is also a dry run for his work on Black Panther.
Creed is one of the best films of this kind, because it is a new growth branch off an otherwise dying tree. Sylvester Stallone has taken Rocky Balboa through many ups and downs, circling a balance of Cinderella stories and grounded family drama. Coogler executes that formula perfectly, because it places the emotional weight of the story on Adonis Creed (Jordan again), a young man in search of his deceased father–his own heritage. While it isn’t a career move I’d advise anyone, I love that Creed quits his job at a financial firm (the most bougie employment imaginable) in order to become a full time boxer. It’s a detail that is easily forgotten, but it informs his journey so much. While he can “pass” in a world of suits and ties, he doesn’t come into his own until he’s wearing his father’s stars and stripes trunks.
This follows from some of the underlying thematic aspects of the original film. Rocky Balboa (Stallone), an Italian-American amateur boxer from working class South Philadelphia boxes for the Championship against a professional boxer in an Uncle Sam costume. Yes, race also plays into the dynamics of the world of professional sports and specifically boxing, but it doesn’t come into play in the subtext of Rocky. One of the main reasons Rocky and the younger Creed connect is that for both men, Apollo Creed represents something they want but can’t have. They both rebel against the establishment, each told by society who they can and can not be, and they each reject that notion to make their own identity and forge their own path in spite of society. Adonis Creed putting on his father’s trunks for the championship fight is him coming to terms with this legacy, which allows him to go the distance when facing “Pretty” Ricky Conlan in his own search for a championship belt.
By the time we get to Black Panther, this is writ large. Like Adonis Creed, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is challenged by his father’s legacy. The film begins in 1992 Oakland with King T’Chaka (Jon Kani) confronting his brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), and then killing him for betraying their country. N’Jobu’s reasoning for this trespass is that Wakanda’s resources should be used to help black people around the world confront the oppression they face. N’Jobu’s death indirectly results in his son, Erik “Killmonger” (Jordan one more time) seeking revenge against Wakanda and the royal family.
As a newly crowned king, T’Challa wrestles with what Wakanda’s role in the world should be. The country has been isolationist in the extreme as a way to protect itself from colonialism, but at the cost of not helping others around the world. Is this an abdication of leadership? Wrapped up in this is the comparative upbringing between the two men. T’Challa grew up a prince in a country that has hoverbikes and supersuits. Killmonger grew up in Oakland, entering military service and performing unspeakable deeds as his way of lashing out against his oppressors while still working for them. With his final line, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from ships because they knew death was better than bondage,” Killmonger wraps himself in this righteous anger at the nearly half-century of exploitation black people have suffered in America. His ideology is twisted by his personal vendetta, but nonetheless it represents a challenge to T’Challa. The entire movie has been our title character trying to figure out what kind of king he will be, especially since following in his father’s footsteps no longer feels like a viable option. He may not solve everything, but by the end of the film he has made a first step.
Each of these three films is explicitly about black identity and the complications that come from it. If you’ll allow me to invoke my Limited White Guy Knowledge for a moment, these are also themes at the center of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Coates, of course, has been writing Black Panther comics for Marvel since 2016. His comics, very broadly speaking, are all concerned with uses of power and our place in history. Coogler’s film is much more accessible than the comic book story being created in parallel, but the themes remain the same.
All of these disparate concerns crystalize in one of the best scene in Black Panther. When T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett) calls out to her son during the waterfall fight against M’Baku (Winston Duke) saying, “Show them who you are!” she is calling out to all young black men. Not only to T’Challa, the crown prince of Wakanda, but also to Adonis Creed, a fatherless man fresh out of jail in search of an identity, and to Oscar Grant and so many others like him, victims of a system that judges them before they can act. She is not advocating for a simple concept like dignity, like Green Book’s interpretation of Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), because that is passive and limiting. Being passive didn’t save Oscar Grant. T’Challa is fighting for his power, and cannot hold back. He needs to be a leader, and that requires demonstrating strength so that he can use his power to create change in his world.
Every film in Ryan Coogler’s filmography builds on the last, synthesizing anger, legacy, and direct action into a call for black men to be leaders rather than waiting on society to change on its own. These are not new concepts, but the chances of a film like Fruitvale Station to top the domestic box office for the year seem hopelessly remote. Black Panther is revolutionary for combining these deeply considered life experiences and societal issues with the film genre most in the zeitgeist. This is something popular movies and Best Picture winners used to have in common (back when they overlapped much more). It’s not a coincidence that Black Panther begins and ends in Coogler’s hometown of Oakland. Bring the people to the message and you will bring the message to the people. These reasons and plenty more are why Black Panther would be a worthy Best Picture winner. Wakanda forever!