Oscars: Disney Makes Up for Lost Time With ‘Black Panther’

Engaging moviegoers was the easy part; now the studio must take the film to Academy voters

Black Panther
COurtesy of Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018

The Oscar circuit is roaring to life with soirees and cocktail gatherings booked throughout New York and Los Angeles until the end of the year and beyond. Campaigns are looking for the usual footholds, shipping in talent to hold court with members of the Hollywood Foreign Press and Broadcast Film Critics associations, angling for representation on the groups’ televised awards shows in the thick of Oscar voting. And a little face time with Academy members along the way doesn’t hurt.

Usually the goal is setting the table for an upcoming release. But in some cases, the task is much more difficult: bringing a contender from earlier in the year back into the fray. That’s what Disney is attempting with the billion-dollar blockbuster “Black Panther,” which hit theaters in February and instantly became not just a pop-cultural event but a meta-cultural happening.

Director Ryan Coogler took most of the year off in the wake of the movie’s landmark success, and really, who can blame him? But he resurfaced last month at a Los Angeles event, easing back into the awards season flow for the first time since “Creed” three years ago. Star Chadwick Boseman has made the latter-year rounds in support of “Panther’s” prospects, while Michael B. Jordan — perhaps the film’s best shot at an acting nomination — has been busy shooting “Just Mercy” in Atlanta.

Before heading to Georgia in August, Jordan told me nothing could have prepared him for the response “Black Panther” received. “One of my highlights was just watching kids react to it and seeing themselves on-screen,” he said. “Having people watch the movie four or five times, taking church members, taking boys’ and girls’ clubs — kids that didn’t have the opportunity to actually go to the movie theater, they were busing them in to see this film. To be a part of something that big and impactful is really important.”

His character in the movie, Erik Killmonger, is ostensibly the villain, but there’s a rich complexity to him as well, one that even inspired a #KillmongerWasRight hashtag on Twitter. An Oakland-raised, MIT- and Special Forces-trained mercenary who is out to equip black communities the world over with the tools — i.e.,“vibranium” and advanced weaponry from the fictional African nation of Wakanda — to advance themselves in a society that systemically oppresses them, Killmonger is in many ways the yin to the yang of Boseman’s King T’Challa. But though he’s a murderous threat, he also scores undeniable points.

“Even for a film with the box office take of ‘Black Panther,’ many voters have yet to give it a shot.”

“I feel like Killmonger has the point of view and perspective of his upbringing; he’s a product of his environment,” Jordan said. “That conversation between him and T’Challa is extremely important, one that’s never been had before on-screen: growing up with systemic oppression versus growing up with culture and history and an environment, a tribe, around you that’s grooming you for positivity in an impactful way. You can see what happens if you don’t have those things early in your life.”

That complexity could appeal to voters. It could also help elevate “Black Panther” above the superhero fray, like last year’s adapted screenplay nominee “Logan.”

Disney isn’t planning a rerelease. Moviegoers flocked to the film. The hurdle, believe it or not, is making sure Oscar voters see it. At a New York post-screening Q&A session in August, I asked who in the modest crowd of guild and Academy members had just witnessed it for the first time. Roughly 75% raised hands. “Now you see what my challenge is with this movie,” a consultant later whispered in my ear.

Indeed, even for a film with the box office take of “Black Panther,” many voters have yet to give it a shot. That will be a major prong in Disney’s efforts: convincing them that this is a contender they should see before they cast their ballots.

Will the Academy catch up with the rest of the world?