"Black Panther" for Best Picture
By: Michael R Klabunde, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus
“Black Panther” is certainly in good company among this year’s Oscar nominations for Best Picture, and the only clearly action oriented one in this category.
But, I doubt it will win due to its obvious science fiction based premise—something which usually tolls the death knell in that category among Academy voters, who instead acknowledge the contributions (and box office success) of such films with other nominations; in this case: Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Original Score, Original Song, Production Design, and Costume Design.
This is a shame because I believe this movie blazes a welcome trail of “against the grain” thinking in this age of identity politics and recent hoopla about snubbing black-themed, -acted, and -produced pictures.
Now, if it were just a superhero movie, I guess I too would have to think long and hard about giving “Black Panther” the top nod. It is well written to be sure, with enough plot twists, reveals, and the like to make even old Aristotle proud! It is wonderfully cast and acted, too, with witty dialogue and gentle humor, heroes and heroines to love, and bad guys to hate. It is also visually rich in stunning images, none of which are gratuitous or get in the way of the storytelling. Ironically, the beautiful visual effects in the movie are not reflected in any of its other Oscar category nominations, perhaps a sign of just how easily we accept “sci-fi” digital effects nowadays.
And even Joseph Campbell would be pleased both with the mythology forming the backstory, and the hero’s archetypal journey, replete with numinous encounters, magical plants, and special materials. From this point of view, then, it all does seem rather standard superhero fare.
Yet from a science fiction perspective, the apparent normality in “Black Panther” is exactly where its real significance lies, because it completely overturns the viewer’s expectations of Africa, Africans and African-Americans, and black-white relations more broadly.
The “novum” or difference from the real world—the gimmick, if you will—required of all science fiction in Darko Suvin’s terms (which in turn leads to what he calls “cognitive estrangement” experienced by the sci-fi audience in trying to accommodate it in the story and square it with reality) is in “Black Panther” a deliciously simple one: Wakanda, the home of our hero the Black Panther, is a native African utopia along the lines of Shangri-La, Xanadu, or Atlantis which, far from ever having been colonized or subjugated by Europeans, has had a rich and unbroken history of self-autonomy and benevolent influence, albeit hidden, down through the ages.
Indeed, Wakandans are ahead of the game and have, just to name a few things, an obviously superior technology, more gender equality and cultural diversity, and a deeper philosophical understanding of the universe than those of us in the audience privileged to live in today’s developed world.
That is the conceptual stage upon which the story of “Black Panther” unfolds, grounded in a sub-genre of sci-fi known as “Afrofuturism.” In quite literally subverting the dominant paradigm, it trumpets resoundingly not only African strength, power, and pride, but also just as loudly African desire to share in and contribute to the betterment of the entire world. It really is a shame, then, that this remains only science fiction.
"Spiderman: Into the Spider Verse" for Best Animated Feature
By Jennifer Morris, Ph.D., Professor
My teenage daughter, who is an avid devotee of Spiderman, urged me to see this film with her. I’d lost track of the Spiderman narrative after the film with Toby Maguire and had no idea what to expect. To my surprise, the story had veered into new territory with the death of Peter Parker. Apparently, once Peter died, another arose to take his place.
This is where “Spiderman: Into the Spider Verse” picks up the thread. Its main character, Miles Morales, is unwittingly bitten by the same radioactive spider that endowed Peter Parker with his extraordinary powers. Miles is a gifted teenage kid who attends a private school in Brooklyn, but his background is not posh. His dad is a cop who does not think highly of Spiderman--it’s up to the cops to catch the bad guys--and his mother is a nurse. When Miles discovers he has superpowers, he does what any normal, angst-ridden teen would do, and freaks out.
He turns to his beloved Uncle Aaron for help, but that’s when things begin to get interesting.
Set in present-day New York, this animated film makes the best use of computer techniques to illustrate the strange goings-on Miles encounters at about the same time he acquires his new powers. Seismic rumbles begin to shake the city, and the film’s depiction of these glitches is vibrant and disturbing as scenery shifts, colors become discordant, and everything goes out of focus.
Miles, who follows the soon-to-be-dispatched Peter Parker as Spiderman underground as he investigates the disturbances, discovers that the super villain Kingpin has orchestrated the construction of a time travel machine that causes both the rumbling glitches and, to Miles’s surprise, tears in the fabric of time itself.
The tears admit Spidermen from a variety of time periods into Miles’s New York, including Spiderman Noir from the 1930s, Peni Parker from the future, Spiderham, an animated, Spidey-suit wearing pig, and the recently deceased Peter Parker himself. Once Miles recovers from his shock, it becomes clear that it’s up to this collection of class Arachnida to stop Kingpin before he destroys not only the present, but the past and future as well.
It’s clear to me why this animated film is nominated for an Academy Award in its category. The characters are well developed, and rounded enough to make even the super villain a bit sympathetic. When viewers discover why Kingpin is obsessed with traveling back in time, it gives them a moment’s pause as they consider his motives.
The dialogue is crisp and clever, at times funny, at others heart wrenching. It is as important to the film as the animation, and benefits from being delivered by Nick Cage, John Mulaney, and Lily Tomlin. The animation is stunning, from the depiction of the various New Yorks from which each Spiderman hails to gritty New York subway to the classrooms of Miles’s school. Using focus as a means of changing scene and mood really was unsettling, and evoked just enough tension to make me sit on the edge of my seat for most of the film.
Admittedly, I enjoy comic-genre films, and have seen “Wonder Woman,” almost all of the X-Men series, most of the Batman films, and many more. This film, with its animated actors and special effects, tells as convincing a story as any of the others. I wish it the best on Oscar night, and I’m glad that my teenager still wants to go to the movies with me once in a while. Otherwise, I may have missed this excellent film.