The #OscarsSoWhite movement started in January 2015, after April Reign tweeted about the Academy Award nominees. The hashtag she used, #OscarsSoWhite, went viral instantly on social media, and a movement was born.The trend resurfaced the following year when, for the second year in a row, all 20 actors nominated in the lead and supporting acting categories were white (LA Times). Since its debut 88 years ago, the Academy has only awarded 14 black actors with Oscars in acting (USA Today). In the wake of this realization and movement, various A-List actors announced their boycott of the event, and their subsequent revokement of their attendance. This began with Oscar honorary Spike Lee and his wife, and was followed by Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Michael Moore, Mark Ruffalo, and others. This was then followed by recognition from actors like George Clooney, Reese Witherspoon, Lupita Nyong’o, Viola Davis, and President Barack Obama. Those who did attend, but supported the movement, took to the stage to voice their opinions during the live broadcast, causing a stir online and among the media outlets (USA Today).
The Academy has made strides to improve the presence of minorities and women within its membership, offering to double it by 2020, after a unanimous vote. It was referred to as a “historic step” on the Academy’s part (USA Today). This would be impressive if it were not so sad that this small action was considered historic. In 2012, a study reported by the LA Times revealed that Oscar voters were made up of 94% Caucasian and 77% male members. It was not outlined how these statistics would fit into the new initiatives put forth by their “historic step”. But, the entertainment industry still has yet to see a stark change in this, especially in superhero movies. Despite the recent release of Wonder Woman, which quickly became a hit and a pop-cultural milestone, the motion picture was still left out of the most recent Oscar nominations (Variety).
Thus enters Black Panther, one of the most recent Marvel superhero movies portraying the comic book character of the same name. The film tells the story of the fictional nation Wakanda, a conglomerate comprised of four African tribes that hides itself as a third-world country. One soon finds out, however, that this highly technologically-advanced nation utilizes a meteorite called Vibranium to fuel the superhero, the Black Panther. The almost all-black and mixed gender cast of the film portray minorities in powerful positions, and as the heroes in the film, in addition to the minorities highlighted within the film crew. This is a stark comparison to the heavily-focused white male cast and crew typically involved in a Marvel superhero movie franchise.
The film follows King T’Challa as he takes over the reign after his father’s death. Himself and the nation of Wakanda soon become challenged by outsiders, Klaue and Erik Stevens (later named Killmonger), who attempt to steal Wakandan artifacts that contain Vibranium. Epics battle scenes transpire throughout the movie, as T’Challa calls upon friends and other tribal leaders to aid in the defense against those who threaten their culture. But, after T’Challa falls to Killmonger during ritual combat, the King’s family and friends flee, leaving the throne to the winner. Killmonger ingests the Vibranium herb and becomes a super villain-esque leader, ordering Wakandans to ship weapons to operatives around the world. Before this could be fully executed, it is discovered that T’Challa had survived the combat with Killmonger, and he is soon restored to full Black Panther power after his ex-love, Nakia, steals the solution back from the enemies. The film ends with an epic battle scene, in true Marvel fashion, in which T’Challa defeats Killmonger and his army, with the help of the women in the movie. T’Challa then opens an outreach center in America, that he appoints his sister, Shuri, and ex-love, Nakia, to run. But, if you are a true Marvel fan, you know that the beginning of the credits is not the actual ending of the movie – Marvel always places short clips in the middle and end of the credit sequence. By staying, one learns that T’Challa visits the United Nations to reveal Wakanda as it is, and not as a third-world country; they are no longer in hiding from what one would assume to be the Western world (IMDB).
This movie is more than just a superhero movie; it is about black culture, the journey through it, and a future where this culture could be the culture. It shows how the recognition of one’s civilization is not only beautiful, but preferred. It is where black members of society can embrace their traditions and upbringings without the fear of rejection or misunderstanding. Wakanda is shown as an oasis within African culture. This is a stark contrast to the traditional Hollywood portrayal of black actors in roles displaying poverty, antagonism, and savagery, or the past mistreatment and history of black society within the confines of slavery and the civil rights movement. It acknowledges and celebrates the beauty within black culture, and a world where women are just as powerful and smart as men, all while preserving their identity. But, this film also shows the desire to keep this culture hidden away from outsiders, at the risk of the dissemination of information destroying their tradition. Coincidence is possible, but the placement of T’Challa’s meeting with the UN being after the credits roll, is an interesting concept. Although Marvel fans know of this commonality in every franchise movie, there are still a significant amount of viewers who may not even know that this scene exists within the confines of the movie. This then instigates the belief that even now, there is still a desire to keep the outsiders from getting into the inner workings of the culture, for hopes of preserving it. Cultural appropriation is prevalent throughout modern society, and this possible symbol of preservation could be mirroring hesitation within the people of color in the entertainment industry. Black culture is often times mocked or misunderstood in films, so it has found itself in a niche environment within society, just as Wakanda had within Africa. This scene can be understood as a welcoming and opening up of black culture to society, just as the nation was recognizing itself to the rest of the world.
The fictional nation of Wakanda being housed within Africa, a non-fictional location, is also a poignant presentation of ideals. A lot of other Marvel movies take place in dystopian or entirely fictional realms, thus making them inevitably impossible. But, Africa actually exists, showing Wakandan culture as something that is a very real possibility to human beings (aside from the Vibranium superhero tendencies). This strategic placement calls upon members of black society to embrace their cultural upbringings and traditions, and implement them into modern everyday life.
The simple presence of two white males, Klaue and CIA agent Ross, within the movie is also incredibly strategic. A common joke among all or majority white cast movies is the presence of the “token black character”. You see this in practically every movie. Usually they are portrayed as the sidekick or the evil villain, while exacerbating their personalities to hark on stereotypes like the “loud black friend with a big attitude”. Instead, Black Panther took the chance to portray two of the only white characters as both the villain and the sidekick. Personally, this side note was very obvious and, honestly, hilarious. This can be seen in the shift of black actors only acting as catalysts within the portrayal of a white man, rather than the focus being on other races and genders. It was time that the roles were changed, and the stereotypes fell on someone other than a person of color or woman.
So, what does this mean for the future Oscars? Seeing as Black Panther was released only mere months before the airing of the 2018 awards, it was not included in the nominations. But, we did see a stronger presence from people of color within the nominees. Possibly this was strategic on the nominating committees part, but the films included were strong pieces that deserved recognition. Get Out and CoCo both highlighted different races from different perspectives and plotlines. Call Me by Your Name explored the inner-workings of an LGBTQ member of society. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri championed a non-traditional, strong female lead. If viewership is any indication, seeing as Black Panther just surpassed Titanic, the 2019 Oscars are looking optimistic for the #OscarsSoWhite movement and its mission. Other industries in the nation have transitioned to reflect these arguments against stereotyping and gender/race gaps, Hollywood has been slow to join them. The greatest champions of the industry are still heavily white male-focused, despite the presence of incredible cast and crews that prove otherwise. As celebrities and members of society alike utilize the booming social media scene, movements like #OscarsSoWhite can gain traction faster than ever before. Their power is in the form of technology, just as Wakanda had Vibranium, and the world needs to be open to hearing of the existence of it.
It has not been officially confirmed if Black Panther will be transitioned into a sequel, but there is still more content within the original comic book that could be tapped into. Seeing as Marvel typically produces sequels, prequels, and crossover movies without as strong of following as Black Panther has, it can be easily assumed that a sequel is inevitable for the franchise, just from a financial standpoint. But, it should also be evident from a societal standpoint as well. This highlight and championship of black beauty and culture has caused a movement within the industry, and society alike. Black children of all genders now have someone to admire that looks just like them when they look in the mirror. Black women now have role models that show traditional African clothing, hair, and makeup as desirable, especially in contrast of white America. There is no doubt that there were resources within local communities that have been showing this for decades. But, there is a difference in seeing it on film and among Hollywood.
Black Panther now stands as the future of what can become of the American entertainment industry, and its ability to champion all members of society. #OscarsSoWhite outlined the deep rifts within the industry, and Hollywood’s perpetuation of the workforces tendency to think twice when hiring a person of color or woman. One box-office hit is not going to change this problem overnight, but it sparked a fire within the souls of those trying to make a difference in this fight for equality.