The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, better known as "those people that give out the Oscars," recently announced several changes to the format of the Academy Awards for 2018. The most notable alteration was the addition of a new award for "Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film." While the Academy has not released criteria for what films will be eligible for this award or how they are to be judged, the reasoning behind its creation seems clear. The Oscars have been struggling with a declining audience and relevancy alongside increasing criticism over the past decade. This tack towards "popular film" seems like a purposeful pivot to nominate and award more pictures that have been seen by the largest audience possible. In the past several years there has typically been a single film nominated for "Best Picture" that observers note for possessing mass appeal, movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and Get Out, while similar films are normally nominated only for technical achievements related to make up or sound design. This new award is likely to bring in far more movies that rake in big dollars in the summer.
It has even been suggested that the push by ABC for this award came from its parent company Disney, who specifically wanted one of their most popular new releases to be acknowledged on the grandes stage possible: Black Panther. While there was little doubt that another Marvel Studios film would be well received by critics and at the box office, Black Panther blew all expectations out of the water. The critical reception was nothing short of glowing and its domestic gross remains the highest of 2018 as of this moment. As of right now it appears a shoo-in for the new award. However, that doesn't mean that it should be. Both the creation of this prize and its likely reception by Black Panther is an insult to this film, not a commendation.
A Jury-Rigged Prize
Even without the criteria released, it's already apparent that "Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film" is not a category for recognition that was severely lacking within the modern awards landscape. Other popular awards ceremony have divided their top prizes by category. The Emmys break down media between humor and drama. If the Academy wanted to recognize a broader swath of film, they could have done something similar, perhaps even expanding the division into a variety of genre-like categories including "action," "drama," "comedy," "suspense," and so on. What they elected to do instead was to create a special section for the most popular movies.
It is a brazen appeal to two different interests, viewers and studios. One of the most consistent criticisms of the Academy Awards has stemmed from the lack of audiences for many of their most highly nominated films. Celebrating movies with limited appeal has resulted in a diminished audience for the actual ceremony. By creating a single prestige category that is packed with high profile films, they hope to increase that viewership. It also appeals to studios who may want the acclaim of the Oscars, but focus primarily on profit margins. Disney will control more than 40% of total box office dollars following their acquisition of Fox Studios, and they are much more likely to be celebrated in this new category. It is difficult to see the award as anything less than acknowledgement and appeasement of the seemingly unstoppable Disney juggernaut.
Black Panther Is Good Enough For Consideration
The seeming creation of an award to celebrate Black Panther overlooks one very important aspect of the hype surrounding the film: it is entirely earned. While Marvel Studios' films generally do well at the box office and on Rotten Tomatoes, Black Panther exceeded even its reasonably high expectations because of the quality of the film. On the level of pure craft, the movies provides plenty for audiences to ogle over. The cast delivers stunning performances across the board. It speaks volumes about their overall quality that many fans of the movie walked out talking about performances beside that of the deservedly lauded Chadwick Boseman. Both Letitia Wright and Winston Duke delivered breakout performances bound to lead to even greater things, and there's not a single dull not in the entire ensemble. Everything about the design of the film is noteworthy as well. Sets, costumes, effects, and sound all provided an immersive experience, one that reveals a great deal of thought and study about the African diaspora in how it constructs a fictional nation-state. Black Panther is certainly a film that deserves some recognition both for its performances and technical merits.
It also succeeded in being the single most thought provoking Marvel Studios picture to date. While its climactic action sequence falls into line with the studios standard origin story model, it is a battle about far more than good and evil. The picture tackles themes of oppression, colonialism, and equity with more nuance than any other blockbuster this year. The hundreds of hot takes to spin out of Black Panther did not emerge by accident. They are a response to a film with a lot on its mind, one that delivers a fantastic cinematic experience and one that resonates with audiences long after its over. Black Panther would be an unlikely winner of the award for "Best Picture" in 2018, especially with stiff competition already emerging from the likes of BlacKkKlansman and Eighth Grade, but it has certainly earned a nomination.
Separate Is Not Equal
This is where the crux of the problem emerges, both for the creation of a new category for "Popular Film" and Black Panther's likely win. It will all occur under the pretense that a new category was required to celebrate the achievements of this movie. By cordoning off space for Black Panther and other high grossing films, the Academy is implying they are something different than the films typically nominated for "Best Picture."
It would be better for Black Panther to be nominated and lose an award for "Best Picture," or for the Academy to be criticized for a lack of nomination, than for them to create a special award in order to appease fans and studios. Those of us who pay attention to the Academy Awards and who loved Black Panther are not so foolish as to miss the reasoning behind this decision. It is dismissive of the value of every contribution in Black Panther, from its stirring script to the beautiful costuming, to state that it has merit but a different form of merit than the other movies who will be applauded as being the "real" best movie of the year. If history should have taught an American academy anything though, it's that separate is not equal.