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Marvel’s ‘Black Panther,’ Netflix’s ‘Roma’ crash the Oscars’ best picture party

All the arguments, controversies, and surprises behind the most wide-open Oscar race in years.

Art by Adam Peck
Art by Adam Peck

The Oscars are more fun this way, aren’t they? When there’s no obvious frontrunner for best picture, when a comic book blockbuster and a fourth-over remake of a musical — this time performed unironically, with no artifice — and a foreign-language Netflix film share a shot at the biggest prize of the night? The nominees for the 91st Academy Awards were announced Tuesday; the pack is led by Roma and The Favourite, which picked up ten nods apiece. Read on for your guide to all the firsts, the snubs, and the controversies surrounding this year’s nominated films.

Black Panther is the first superhero movie to be nominated for best picture

Remember when, in a fit of desperation and cluelessness, the Academy announced its plans to have a popularity contest Oscar? The mockery was swift, and the outrage beneath it was clear: One, popularity is its own reward (the reward is money) and two, don’t sideline Black Panther in some secondary, made-up category. Ten years after The Dark Knight’s exclusion from the Academy’s highest honor inspired the organization to up its number of best picture nominees, Black Panther — already the ninth-highest grossing film of all time — is up for the night’s biggest prize.

In total, Black Panther scored seven nominations — however, save for best picture, it missed out in all the major categories, including best director and best supporting actress for ThinkProgress favorite Letitia Wright

The Academy is still not convinced that women can, should direct movies

Keep that Natalie Portman gif open in a tab so you can be the first to tweet it on Oscar night! Yet again, there are zero female nominees for best director. Only five women have ever been nominated in this category — most recently, Greta Gerwig was up for Lady Bird last year — and one wonders if, as Hollywood finally begins to address the violent misogyny laced throughout the industry, this strain of inequality will ever be acknowledged or called out.

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Or maybe women are just bad at directing? Better to leave this sort of thing to the men who can handle it, your Bryan Singers and the like. Speaking of…

Behind the scenes controversies don’t stop Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody

Even if there were no issues of note behind the scenes of Green Book, the movie would still feel like an Oscar contender from approximately 20 years ago — in those simpler, dopier times, when you inspired a lot less mainstream pushback for making a movie about a black experience with mostly white audiences in mind — masquerading as a new movie from 2018. As Richard Lawson put it in Vanity Fair, “A comedy about race relations, in which the white guy learns that black people aren’t so different from him, is the kind of thing that used to win Oscars, but is now, in a hopefully more aware era, largely viewed as placating and problematic.”

But oh, were there issues. Relatives of the real Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali in the movie, called the movie’s portrayal of Shirley “a symphony of lies.” This did not help the troubling public perception of Green Book as a movie ostensibly about a black person’s life that had as its primary concern the comfort and enjoyment of white people. The movie was co-written by Nick Vallelonga, who is the son of the Frank Vallelonga (played in the film by Viggo Mortensen), insists this is not the case and that his script does right by the Shirley, who died in 2013.

As Vulture pointed out, when First Man failed to take off (yes, sorry, but if you’re going to keep making movies about the same four white dudes who went to space, my jokes will be as derivative as your filmmaking efforts), Universal put all its Oscars race capital behind Green Book. The campaign “has been working hard to combat allegations that it’s a film for white people: Producer Octavia Spencer introduced the film at the Globes, and icons like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Quincy Jones, and Harry Belafonte have publicly co-signed Vallelonga’s efforts.”

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And it worked. Green Book pulled in five nominations: Mortensen for leading actor, Ali for supporting, film editing, original screenplay, and best picture.

Bohemian Rhapsody was a troubled production from the jump. On top of early reports that Freddie Mercury’s sexuality would get the soft-focus treatment, the movie had the seemingly insurmountable problem of having Bryan Singer as a director. Singer — who was fired for failing to show up to work, forcing production to halt for days — has a career thick with allegations of sexual violence, harassment, and assault. Just days after his removal from Bohemian Rhapsody, Singer was accused of raping a 17-year-old boy. Cesar Sanchez-Guzman sued the director, saying Singer assaulted him in 2003 at a yacht party.

The film that resulted is a narrative and cinematic mess, both redeemed by Rami Malek’s performance and also made sadder by it — so much potential in the match of actor and role wasted on a totally abysmal movie. But anyway, the Academy didn’t seem to think so, and now we have about one month left to watch everyone involved in this movie artfully find ways around mentioning or acknowledging Singer’s direction of or connection with the film as they campaign for all their awards.

Like Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody is up for five Oscars: Malek for leading actor, film editing, sound editing, sound mixing, and best picture.

HAAAAAAA AH AH AH, AHHH

A Star is Born picked up eight nominations, including nods for Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, and Bradley Cooper, as well as original song (“Shallow”) and best picture, proving that the surest route to Oscar glory is to make a remake of a remake of a remake.

Netflix, having already replaced television, aims to conquer movies, may soon take over the entire entertainment industrial complex

Last year, Mudbound racked up four nominations, helping Netflix make Academy Awards history as the first streaming service to score eight Oscar nods. This year, for the first time ever, a Netflix movie is a nominee for best picture.

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Roma, which in addition to best picture is up for a nine other awards, is like a gateway-to-streaming drug for the Academy, given its serious film specs: Shot in black and white, in Spanish with subtitles, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who was nominated in 2013 for Gravity. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a Coen brothers Netflix original that doesn’t not sound like a parody of a Coen brothers movie (its nominated original song is called “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings”), earned three nominations, including costume design and adapted screenplay. There, too, the Academy is dealing with a known quantity in the Coens, who have been Oscar nominees and winners several times over since 1997’s Fargo.

But even three years ago, it probably would have seemed absurd for a movie with Oscar aspirations to debut on — shudder — television, especially on a streaming platform known largely as the prelude to “and chill.” Netflix and its ilk of streaming giants are already giving HBO et al. a run for their subscriber money and Emmy hardware. Could Oscar domination be next?  

And come to think of it, this would have been a good use of that briefly-floated and quickly-trashed “best popular film” category. Imagine a “best film for streaming or television” category that would get your internet boyfriend Noah Centineo on a red carpet next to Timothée Chalamet.

‘The Favourite’ makes LGBTQ movie history

After Rachel Weisz’s well-documented, years-long campaign for gay rightsThe Favourite is the most-nominated lesbian/queer female film in Oscar history. It earned ten nominations, including acting nods for all three stars (leading actress Olivia Colman and supporting actresses Weisz and Emma Stone) and best picture. The Favourite is tied with Cabaret for most Oscar nominations for an LGBTQ film.

As GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis observed in The Hollywood Reporter, half of the best picture nominees involve LGBTQ themes and narratives.

An Oscar first, a long time coming

With BlackKklansman, Spike Lee landed his first nominations for best picture and for best director. Clearly the Academy realized it was slacking in its acknowledgment of Lee’s work — previously, he was nominated for best original screenplay in 1989 for Do the Right Thing and for his 1997 documentary feature 4 Little Girls — because in 2015, he received an honorary award. This year, he’s up for three awards, including best adapted screenplay.

If you want to see how that whole no-host thing goes

The Academy Awards will air live on Sunday, Feb. 24 at 8:00 on ABC.