Black Panther is heating up the Oscar race in categories that are usually not the main event. The movie may have a shiny best picture nomination, but its other nominations, including a history-making one, show the Academy didn't miss the artistic excellence surrounding the phenomenon.
Ryan Coogler's epic Marvel masterpiece garnered a Best Costume Design nom for the previously-nominated Ruth E. Carter, as well as a Best Original Song nomination for “All the Stars” by Kendrick Lamar and SZA and a historic nomination for Hannah Beachler, who became the first African American nominated for Best Production Design. The movie’s costuming, production, and soundtrack were instrumental to cementing its vision of a radical afrofuturistic kingdom, helping usher in the broader global craze that surrounded it. These three nominations bring a certain gravity to the more technical categories that are typically less loaded with political symbolism than the other big awards of the night. Just as it would be monumental for the Academy to award the radical separatist politics of Black Panther for Best Picture, these other aspects of the film have an unmistakable power too.
The Best Costume Design category has largely become a space reserved to honor period pieces that take inspiration from old European or white American period dress. Just look at Black Panther's competition this year—The Favourite, Mary Poppins Returns, Mary Queen of Scots, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs are all period films. But Black Panther’s costumes not only stand apart from that tradition, they explicitly call attention to western societies discounting the history of regal African clothing because the bold afrocentric looks are worn by a society that's gravely underestimated by Americans in the film.
The power of the film's costumes was certainly not lost on moviegoers, who made dressing up for Black Panther part of the experience. Carter was relentless in her effort to portray King T’Challa and other Wakandan royalty in clothing inspired by various African tribes and societies, making the costumes part of the movie’s afrocentrism by mixing references to regions across the diaspora. Angela Basset’s now-iconic headdress, for example, was inspired by Zulu flared hats and created using a 3-D printer, literally making it afrofuturistic by using the latest technology to build a traditional look. In another memorable scene in which Wakanda's tribal leaders convene, one leader dons a tailored suit and a green plate stretching out his bottom lip. “Usually we see this lip plate in National Geographic on women with no tops who are sitting on the ground, and here he is with his legs crossed and a beautiful suit by the fashion designer Ozwald Boateng [a Ghanaian-British designer]. He is bringing so much pride and so much honor to it,” Carter told Vulture.
While Wakanda may be a fictional world, the fashion stories within it are rooted in real histories of both African tribes who have often been depicted in media as unsophisticated, or African royal figures, whose clothing has rarely been captured so intentionally on film. Though Carter is no stranger to the Academy Awards, having been nominated twice before for Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) and Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997), taking home a win for Black Panther is arguably an even greater achievement because the movie’s costumes themselves critique the very history of the costume awards category that previously treated European clothing like it was the only honorable tradition. The film makes the point that there are other places in the world with traditions as long-running (if not longer) and deep (if not deeper) than European history and shows those traditions with dignity and without those societies being conquered or subject to any rules imposed by the west. So the movie shifts viewers' perspective to a world where western tradition, history, and culture doesn't hold any value. It celebrates that through its design.
As for Best Original Song, that category can sometimes lead to hot-button races as its nominees capture the emotional punch of the films and the topics they represent. Notably, Common and John Legend got the crowd going performing “Glory” from Selma in 2015 before winning the Best Original Song award that night, and the first Hindi song “Jai Ho” by A.R. Rahman from Slumdog Millionaire won in 2009. In 2002 Eminem became the first rapper to win the award for "Lose Yourself" from the movie 8 Mile, and three years later Three 6 Mafia shattered barriers of respectability too, performing "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from Hustle and Flow—the first time a rap song has been performed at the ceremony—before taking home the win that night.
“All the Stars” by Kendrick Lamar and SZA presents a similar opportunity for a watershed moment as the breakout hit music video of the Lamar-produced soundtrack is almost an extension of the film itself, and it ushered in new voices to the tradition of afrofuturist music. But much like the movie’s costumes, it’s also a radical song as the lyrics and visuals together paint a picture of the two stars searching for personal meaning and self-worth away from their white-dominated society. Including, at one point, not seeking validation from western reward systems as Lamar raps, "I don't even want your congratulations ... You important? You the moral to the story? You endorsing? ... I don't even like you."
If it won, the Academy would be showing it can appreciate a project about black self-determination that's divorced from a larger tie-in to white culture, like when Eminem won for "Lose Yourself," or a statement about the direction of the country as a whole like there was in “Glory.”
Black Panther also makes it impossible to vote for a more technical category like Best Production Design without thinking politically. Production design is responsible for the actual look and feel of Wakanda, the butterflies viewers get when T'Challa's hovercraft flies through the hidden cloak. Production revises history, depicting a black nation that's grand and technologically advanced yet in tune with nature, evoking a certain rightful connectedness with the continent compared to societies that pillaged land. Wakanda also looks more lush and vibrant than any of the drab, concrete-filled inner-city scenes in Oakland, which conveys its own statement that America is failing its urban black communities leaving them to rest their hope in a literal superhero swooping in to save them.
All together, Black Panther’s central concepts show up in all facets of its production, which helped solidify it as the major phenomenon that it was. A win for Best Picture would certainly be a big victory for their efforts, but wins in these categories would make significant statements of their own too. They each unmistakably represent an explicit radical vision of non-western power. But if Black Panther doesn't win for costume, production, soundtrack, or any of its other five awards, it’s still no water off of creators’ backs. If there’s anything Black Panther and its surrounding projects stand for, that's to avoid seeking validation from historically white power structures. A win for Wakanda would say more about the project's power to subvert the awards ceremony than it would say anything about the value of the work itself.
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