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Make the Case: ‘Black Panther’ Isn’t Just the Best Popular Film—It’s the Best Picture

The Academy seemed set to give the film a pandering pat on the back with an ultimately abandoned new category. But the Marvel movie deserves the industry’s highest throne.

Marvel Studios/Ringer illustration

No one at The Ringer holds an Oscar vote, but we hold lots of opinions. Every day ahead of the 91st Academy Awards on February 24, one of us will share those opinions about who or what ought to win a little golden man. And since we so rarely get what we want at the Oscars, let our “Make the Case” series stand as the official record on the matter.

Poor Bradley Cooper, poor Ethan Hawke, poor Crazy Rich Asians, poor Claire Foy, poor Barry Jenkins, poor Emily Blunt, poor Paddington 2. Worthy Oscar nominees, all. Egregious Oscar snubs, all. But not quite the most egregious.

This is a thing where I talk you into Black Panther for Best Picture. (Save for the film’s triumph at the SAG Awards in late January, there is, sadly, little indication that this will actually happen.) Not Best Achievement in Popular Film or Dopest Blockbuster or whatever that pandering, hastily abandoned new Oscar was supposed to be called. Best Picture, full stop. Because it was electrifying, and alarmingly beautiful, and far more thoughtful and provocative than its bonkers box office haul might imply. Because Kendrick Lamar did the soundtrack. Because it was funnier than most 2018 comedies and more sneak-attack engrossing than most of the melodramas. Because of the line “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!” But mostly because Danai Gurira deserves an Oscar of her own.

Gurira, whom you might also know from The Walking Dead, plays Okoye, a.k.a. the leader of the all-female elite-bodyguard squad known as the Dora Milaje, a.k.a. the lady who throws her wig at the guy.

“It’s these two Grace Jones–lookin’ chicks,” reports the first person in this movie to encounter members of the Dora Milaje. “They holdin’ spears.” That’s a little thing called “world-building.” Black Panther kicks off with an exposition-dense animated sequence that lays out, well, a comic-book origin story: vibranium, Wakanda, the five tribes, the Heart-Shaped Herb, the Black Panther. It’s a lot to absorb, even if you’d long ago absorbed it; it’s a wondrous tale that is also, like all the great comic-book origin stories, just a little bit silly, and willing in fleeting moments to revel in that silliness.

But from there we quickly jump to a vivid, real-life place and time—1992 Oakland, with Too Short blaring as the Dora Milaje knock on that apartment door—and then to a sleek, present-day aircraft some awed Oakland kids will later describe as “a Bugatti spaceship.” From the start, there is a fantastical specificity to this movie that is also carefully grounded in reality, full of wondrous things and plainly awestruck people gazing at those things in wonder.

Back in the present, our hero, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), is preparing for a rescue mission in the Nigerian jungle. Okoye is the Bugatti spaceship’s pilot. She picks up her spear. “No need, Okoye,” T’Challa says. “I can handle this alone.” “Hmm,” she replies, setting her spear back down and deploying the first of many lethal side-eyes. Big laugh, in my sold-out theater, on the day this movie opened. You love her immediately, and it will soon transpire that T’Challa can’t handle this alone. As directed by Ryan Coogler, Black Panther is, unmistakably, a dutiful product of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—the 18th installment, to be exact, with all the jocular bombast and opulence and careful continuity that implies. But suddenly it feels like you’ve just met that universe’s first actual person.

I implore you to rewatch Black Panther—which hit theaters a year ago this week, made more than a billion dollars in its first month, and, to repeat, should win Best Picture—and lock on Okoye the whole time. The elegant brutality with which she wields her spear. The subtle sunburst smile when we glimpse modern-day Wakanda for the first time and she announces, “We are home.” Her total disdain for that wig, and the speed at which she turns it from an unconvincing disguise into a totally convincing weapon. The mid-chase-scene shot of her perched on a car roof, red dress billowing behind her. The way she delivers the line “If he touches you again, I’m going to impale him to this desk,” in Xhosa. Her trembling lower lip when King Killmonger hurls a battered T’Challa over a waterfall, your standard midpoint–MCU movie tragedy that for once hits with genuine force and radiates genuine anguish.

The movie’s climactic Wakanda fight scene ends with a giant rhino—ridden by Okoye’s husband, W’Kabi, who has chosen the wrong side, which is to say not her side—grinding to a halt and licking Okoye’s face in lieu of trampling her. “Would you kill me, my love?” a defeated W’Kabi wants to know, his ferocious charm only magnified by the fact he is played by Daniel Kaluuya. “For Wakanda?” she replies. “Without question.”

It’s a testament to this movie’s depth and breadth that there are plenty of other characters, both major and minor, who are worthy of your loyalty. Letitia Wright’s Shuri gets all the one-liners, from “Great, another broken white boy for us to fix” to “When you said you would take me to California for the first time, I thought you meant Coachella, or Disneyland.” Even What are those? is funny when she says it, and only when she says it.

But there is also Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia (who is more interested in being the movie’s moral center than its mere love interest), and Winston Duke as M’Baku (who barks whenever Martin Freeman tries to talk to him), and a rare human-form appearance from Andy Serkis as Klaue (the rare late-MCU villain who seems to be enjoying himself). Down to the smallest detail—the collective cliffside shoulder-shrug dance during Challenge Day is my favorite—all these wildly appealing people get a wildly appealing universe to play in, one largely and mercifully walled off from the exhausting and claustrophobic confines of the larger MCU.

For as much fun as it was to watch Shuri show up the Incredible Hulk in Avengers: Infinity War a few months later, she’d already helped prove that the other Avengers were hardly necessary at all. The MCU is the sort of place where you can now watch a trailer for a movie out in July that stars a character who is, according to the end of Infinity War, currently extremely dead. The pathos is out of control, as is, not coincidentally, the silliness. What makes Black Panther Oscar worthy is the way it never loses its heart or its brain amid all the usually mindless spectacle. It gets across its big ideas—about isolationism vs. interventionism, about inaction as a particularly shameful kind of action, about what the powerful owe the powerless—without getting preachy or pedantic or self-serious. It wears its profundity lightly, but still hits hard when it wants to.

If any one Black Panther actor was going to get nominated, it was Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, a chilly and viciously casual supervillain who forcefully delivers the movie’s thesis (“Ain’t all people your people?”) but also anchors the movie’s single best scene. The Ancestral Plane is another fully realized element of this universe, the sky a riot of pinks and purples, the panthers lazing in the trees. But when Killmonger gets there later in the film, it’s only visible out the windows of that old Oakland apartment, the CGI splendor deferring to something far humbler and more human, with Killmonger lapsing back to his childhood self as he meets his father, N’Jobu.

“No tears for me?” N’Jobu asks. (He is played by Sterling K. Brown, in another nonchalant display of this movie’s absurd surplus of firepower.) “Everybody dies,” young Killmonger replies. “It’s just life around here.” He could be talking about the MCU, but he’s not. “The sunsets there are the most beautiful in the world,” N’Jobu tells his son, rhapsodizing a Wakanda that by then hardly needs rhapsodizing, and the rare instance where telling makes a stronger impact than showing.

That scene, to my mind, is as beautifully composed and exquisitely heartbreaking as anything you’ll find in, say, Roma. It’s folded into a movie with all the defiant swagger of BlacKkKlansman, all the strong-female-character subversion of The Favourite, all the sociopolitical provocation of Vice, all the exhilarating musical whoosh of Bohemian Rhapsody at Live Aid or A Star Is Born at its deepest and “Shallow”-est. One explanation for why the Oscars proposed that Achievement in Popular Film award and then sheepishly rescinded it is that Black Panther embodied that idea to such a degree that it was instantly rendered obsolete. If we’re gonna get populist, let’s get populist; if we’re gonna honor the single 2018 movie that best married commerce and soul, galactic grandiosity and luminous individual humanity, the smallest gestures and the biggest payoffs, than let’s do that. Give this movie the throne it deserves, for proving that the very best sort of mindless fun is mindful to its very core. Do it for Okoye, and do it precisely because she could’ve done it alone.