‘BLACK PAN­THER’ POISED TO BE­COME AN OS­CARS HEAVY­WEIGHT

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“Black Pan­ther” has, in a way, al­ready been the Os­cars.

Much of the film’s cast was ea­gerly high­lighted at March’s cer­e­mony: a wel­come splash of block­buster luster at an Academy Awards that largely lacked it. “Black Pan­ther” had at the time al­ready been in the­aters for a few weeks, lead­ing host Jimmy Kim­mel to note:

“This is a night for pos­i­tiv­ity and our plan is to shine a light on a group of out­stand­ing and in­spir­ing films, each and every one of which got crushed by ‘Black Pan­ther’ this week­end,” said Kim­mel while much of the au­di­ence ei­ther laughed or winced. (On Os­car Sun­day alone, “Black Pan­ther” grossed $19.9 mil­lion.)

As Hol­ly­wood’s awards sea­son prop­erly gets un­der way, “Black Pan­ther” is poised to re­turn to the Academy Awards, but this time as a nom­i­nee — and po­ten­tially a ma­jor one. Ryan Coogler’s su­per­hero sen­sa­tion has al­ready notched count­less records, pul­ver­ized box­of­fice myths and set new marks for in­clu­siv­ity. And now, “Black Pan­ther” is in line to shat­ter Os­car norms, too.

All of this year’s con­tenders have by now screened, and Os­car prog­nos­ti­ca­tors gen­er­ally have “Black Pan­ther” in, com­fort­ably, as a best pic­ture nom­i­nee. Both the pun­dit sur­vey “Gu­rus of Gold” and Hol­ly­wood Re­porter awards an­a­lyst Scott Fein­berg place “Black Pan­ther” fifth, be­hind front-run­ners “A Star Is Born,”“Roma,”“Green Book” and “The Favourite.” Gold Derby slots “Black Pan­ther” in at No. 7, still eas­ily within the cat­e­gory’s range of up to 10 nom­i­nees.

Much is still in flux in the Os­car race ahead of Thurs­day morn­ing’s Golden Globes nom­i­na­tions. But un­less some­thing dras­tic hap­pens, “Black Pan­ther” will next month be­come the first comic book film to be nom­i­nated for best pic­ture and eas­ily Mar­vel Stu­dios’ most sig­nif­i­cant Os­car con­tender ever.

That’s very good news for ABC’s Feb. 24 tele­cast which is com­ing off an all-time low of 26.5 mil­lion view­ers. Some 55.2 mil­lion watched “Ti­tanic” sweep the 1997 Os­cars, and pro­duc­ers have long har­bored dreams of an­other big-tent block­buster pulling view­ers to a broad­cast in­creas­ingly dom­i­nated by in­de­pen­dent films like “The Shape of Water,” “Moon­light” and “Spot­light.” Usu­ally, big­ger movies mean big­ger rat­ings.

For the mak­ers of “Black Pan­ther,” it’s a new chap­ter for a film — with more than $1.3 bil­lion in ticket sales, the third-high­est all-time do­mes­tic gross and the big­gest box-of­fice hit ever di­rected by a black man — that has al­ready filled record books. What does Coogler think of “Black Pan­ther” as an Os­car movie? “For­tu­nately, I don’t have to think about it that much,” the 32-year-old film­maker of “Fruit­vale Sta­tion” and “Creed” said in an in­ter­view. “I’ve grown to have close re­la­tion­ships with my col­lab­o­ra­tors, so I care about the crafts peo­ple who work on the film and the ac­tors who work on the film. Be­cause of those re­la­tion­ships, I’m happy when they’re happy. It’s al­ways nice when peo­ple are rec­og­nized for their work. But be­yond that, I re­ally don’t worry about it.” Yet few films will be watched more closely through awards sea­son than “Black Pan­ther,” which is also in the run­ning for Ruth Carter’s cos­tume de­sign, the cin­e­matog­ra­phy of Rachel Mor­ri­son (who last year be­came the first woman ever nom­i­nated in the cat­e­gory), Han­nah Beach­ler’s pro­duc­tion de­sign, Coogler’s di­rec­tion, the script by Joe Robert Cole and Coogler, Ken­drick Lamar’s song “All the Stars” and Michael B. Jor­dan’s sup­port­ing per­for­mance. “Black Pan­ther” has al­ready been at the cen­ter of the up­roar over the Academy of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sciences’ short-lived plans to in­sti­tute a “best pop­u­lar film” cat­e­gory. The academy’s move was in­tended to rope in more box-of­fice hits to the broad­cast, but crit­ics said such a cat­e­gory would po­ten­tially ghet­toize films like “Black Pan­ther” from the pres­ti­gious honor of best pic­ture. (Coogler de­clined to ad­dress the cat­e­gory’s scut­tling.)

While su­per­hero films have dom­i­nated mul­ti­plexes for the last decade, the Os­cars have been fa­mously re­sis­tant to them. Ten years ago, “The Dark Knight” earned eight nom­i­na­tions but missed out on best pic­ture, prompt­ing the film academy to ex­pand the cat­e­gory the fol­low­ing year.

Many of the academy’s mem­bers re­sent how su­per­heroes have come to dom­i­nate the in­dus­try, but there have been some signs lately that anti-Mar­vel sen­ti­ment is eb­bing. Last year, while “Won­der Woman” failed to earn a nod, the Wolver­ine se­quel “Lo­gan” be­came the first su­per­hero film nom­i­nated for best adapted screen­play . This year, best an­i­mated film may also be a su­per­hero bat­tle, with “In­cred­i­bles 2” and “Spi­der-Man: Into the Spi­der-Verse” among the fa­vorites.

But the awards cam­paign for “Black Pan­ther” is pred­i­cated less on its su­per­hero DNA than on its cul­tural im­pact and on its per­sonal na­ture as, de­spite its bud­get, an au­teur film by one of the most widely re­spected young film­mak­ers in Hol­ly­wood. “Black Pan­ther” last week for a day played for free in art­house the­aters na­tion­wide in an event put on by Art House Con­ver­gence and Film Com­ment.

For Coogler, mak­ing “Black Pan­ther” couldn’t be more per­sonal. It was a jour­ney in find­ing his own con­nec­tion to Africa. While de­vel­op­ing the script, he vis­ited South Africa, Kenya and the King­dom of Le­sotho — a tiny na­tion that in­spired Coogler’s Wakanda.

“In sim­ple terms, the film is what brought me to the con­ti­nent,” says Coogler. “It was kind of a life­long thing just to get there and see it.

The thing that I found was a sense of iden­tity as an African per­son. I found in those trips and through that re­search a def­i­ni­tion for my­self of what it means to be African. That was a ques­tion I was seek­ing as a film­maker.”

Coogler had a sense he wasn’t alone in want­ing that con­nec­tion, that oth­ers felt a need for it, too. “But,” he says, “I could never imag­ine to the ex­tent that it did.”

“Black Pan­ther” ar­rived to fever­ish en­thu­si­asm and de­buted in the most re­splen­dent and re­gal Hol­ly­wood pre­miere of the decade. It has been called “a defin­ing mo­ment for Black Amer­ica,” pop-cul­ture myth-mak­ing at its best and the best big-bud­get stu­dio epic in ages. Par­ents took their kids and kids took their par­ents in a ground­break­ing gen­er­a­tional event. The­aters were rented out. It was the No. 1 film at the U.S. box of­fice for five straight weeks.

“We al­ways saw it as a film to watch with your loved ones, with your friends and with strangers, in com­mu­nal set­tings,” says Coogler. “Peo­ple are still in­ter­ested in do­ing that and it feels for­tu­nate.”

In a year where Net­flix has a for­mi­da­ble Os­car con­tender in Al­fonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” and fears of the di­min­ish­ing of the the­atri­cal ex­pe­ri­ence per­vade the in­dus­try, that may be the most ap­peal­ing rea­son for academy mem­bers to vote for “Black Pan­ther”: It proved the still-vi­brant, earth-shat­ter­ing power of the movie the­ater. Black Pan­ther, to the res­cue.

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