The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced several changes this week including a new category; “Achievement in Popular Film.” If you think that sounds rather vague? A lot of people are agreeing with you. The Academy, along with ABC which is contracted to televise the Oscars through 2028, saw the worst ratings in the Oscar’s history last year, the first of the ABC contract. ABC apparently started discussions with the Academy the day after last year’s telecast. Among the changes the Academy agrees to was limiting the broadcast to three hours and moving the ceremony up in the calendar year. It is the new category which disregards quality, the base criteria for every existing Academy Award category, in lieu of box office receipts.
This comes at a time when the Academy Awards has received great criticism for it’s failure to honor a significant number of minority Actors/Directors which led to the #OscarsSoWhite movement beginning in 2016, which had considerable evidence for its claims. Also converging on the Oscar’s is the Black Panther film that is eligible for consideration next year and may well be the most influential film in many generations, featuring an almost all-black cast, writers and director.
Under the old rules, Black Panther might well have gotten nominations in categories like cinematography for its wonderful depiction of Wakanda and costuming for the Dora Milaje (female warriors) and other Wakandans. The rub comes when discussion comes of consideration of Black Panther for Best Picture, the top award of all.
ABC has it’s conflict of interest as it is part of the Disney companies that include Marvel Studios which made Black Panther. While wanting more popular films to be in the running for Academy Awards to hopefully improve ratings for the Oscar’s. It cannot have escaped their notice that some of the films that might benefit from the “Popularity” category in the future include Avengers 4, Black Panther 2, Captain Marvel and the next wave of superhero movies from their studios. But the existence of the category is all on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which is doing nothing to stave off another #OscarsStillSoWhite campaign.
The creation of a separate category based on popularity means that Academy members will decide which category a film may be nominated in with the near certainty that films will not qualify for both. Black Panther might be a shoo-in to win in the popular film category but also never have a chance to be recognized as the best film nor credited for being as good at the ultimate winner of the Best Picture Oscar. Many Academy voters were upset that, “Get Out” received a nomination last year for Best Picture though it had no chance of winning. Separate will no more mean equal now as it did for segregated schools in America’s recent history including some current Charter Schools under Betsy DeVos. While in future years the category could reward films with no racial considerations, it could just as easily become the Affirmative Action Oscar where films with minority casts and crews go to be considered, never having a shot at the real brass ring. The “Popularity Oscar” will be much like being named “Miss Congeniality” in the Miss America contest. No one will remember the winner, except the winner.
It is worth noting that Black Panther isn’t actually a “black movie” but it is one where a major studio financed a film with black themes, an almost all-black cast, and a black director, blowing up the concept that films with any of the above won’t be profitable, especially in foreign markets. For all of what it wasn’t, it did let us picture an African nation that was never colonized. We saw black leaders and a black militant who some saw as the hero of the film. It provided an opportunity for black patrons to amass in Wakandan and other African attire and was a huge source of pride. That pride should extend to the ability of seeing the film recognized as the Best Picture of 2018, not just one that sold lots of tickets. Let Black Panther compete against the best of the best, it will hold its own. Otherwise, it will become a Jeopardy question. Name the first film to win an Oscar for popularity? Should the film win in the new category, Disney will gladly accept it. I wonder what would happen if none of the black principals went to the stage to accept the back of the bus Oscar?