In 1958, Alfred Hitchcock did something audacious.
Working in the heart of the Hollywood studio system, he made a film as intensely personal as anything contemporary audiences would expect from the Sundance Film Festival. He used two of the biggest stars of the day and put them into a story where what mattered to him was front and center.
The film was “Vertigo,” starring James Stewart and Kim Novak. It was not well-received, and a long time passed before it was taken seriously.
But in 2012, when the respected British film journal Sight & Sound released its once-a-decade poll of critics worldwide selecting the best films ever made, “Vertigo” was picked as No. 1. You can look it up.
I thought of “Vertigo” when I started thinking about “Black Panther” — about what the superhero blockbuster accomplished, why it has been under-appreciated, and why it would be my choice for the best picture Oscar this year.
Of course, parallels between “Black Panther” and “Vertigo” are far from exact. For one, “under-appreciated” is not a term most people would choose for a film that has accumulated a worldwide gross of $1.346 billion, six Oscar nominations and the coveted SAG ensemble cast award, all while spending an almost unheard-of six months in theaters.
But despite its undeniable success, there is no shortage of those who devalue the accomplishments of “Black Panther,” who either dismiss it as just another superhero movie or refuse to watch it at all for the same reason. The motion picture academy, which denied the film writing, directing and acting nominations, likely has voters who fit that description.
Those doubters may not grasp the extent of what director-cowriter Ryan Coogler and his team have accomplished. Very much like Hitchcock, they’ve gone into the belly of the beast, expropriated the deep-pockets resources of the Marvel/Disney juggernaut and used them for their own purposes.
This is not easy to do. Those big clanking Hollywood machines exist not to serve individuals but to bend them to their will. Indie and foreign language directors without number have been lured to studios by the promise of being able to make films their own way, only to find the reality very different.
And yet here is “Black Panther,” a film so intensely personal that when the classic Marvel elements appear — like a cameo by the late Stan Lee — they almost feel out of place.
“Black Panther,” however, deserves a best picture Oscar not because it managed to go its own way but because of what going its own way meant.
Before examining that, it’s important to underline that “Black Panther” fulfilled its part of the bargain with Marvel by delivering a superhero saga that pleased the entertainment behemoth’s massive core audience.
This is by no means a given, and although it’s not a reason to give a film an Oscar, neither should it be — as has often been the case — a reason for disqualification.
Nowhere is it written, though voters sometimes act as if it is, that the Oscars are an elitist award for which mass-appeal movies need not apply. In a sane world, intelligently satisfying an enormous audience should be one of the things the Oscars are all about.
The key word there is “intelligently,” and if you’ve watched more than your share of superhero movies, you know that quality is often in short supply in a genre dominated by business-as-usual boilerplate.
Coogler (who cowrote with Joe Robert Cole) ensured that “Black Panther” would be an exception, in part by retaining his core creative team of collaborators, including composer Ludwig Goransson and production designer Hannah Beachler (both Oscar-nominated) as well as editor Michael P. Shawver and cinematographer Rachel Morrison.
Adding costume designer Ruth E. Carter (also nominated, for the third time in a distinguished career) was icing on the cake.
The result of their combined efforts is a singular superhero movie where the characters have integrity, intelligence and dramatic heft, and the crises and action are grounded in a convincing reality. In fact, to call “Black Panther” a comic book movie is to mischaracterize a film that has more in common with grand adventure epics of the past including “Lord of the Rings” and “The Man Who Would Be King” than with “The Incredible Hulk.”
And there is something else — something that is both the most obvious and most significant factor.
The filmmakers behind “Black Panther” were intent on creating a vibrant Afrocentric world, and to bringing a culture Hollywood has habitually ignored or denigrated to glorious notice.
Not only are characters such as Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger nuanced and complex, with perspectives never before articulated in a Hollywood blockbuster, but also the film’s dazzling design references everything from Ghanaian textiles to a 5th century Nigerian script to the dress of tribes including the Maasai, Tuareg, Dogon and Zulu.
“Never before in Hollywood have we had the chance to show the continent intellectually — it had all been ‘Africa, dirt floors,’ ” Carter said in an interview at the time of the film’s release. “We were trying to understand ancient African culture in a way that didn’t look ‘savage’ but looked glorious, kingly, warrior-like.”
That approach embodies the truth that as filmgoers we want all cultures and colors represented on screen, because it makes for a richness of cinematic experience that everyone enjoys being exposed to.
“Black Panther” not only enriched America’s movie culture, but also opened eyes all over the world. It was hands down the cinematic event of the year for the way its artistic and box office success led to opportunities for filmmakers to make their voices heard and audiences to experience settings and stories that previously would not have been seen.
If all of that, plus high-octane entertainment, isn’t worthy of a best picture Oscar, I don’t know what is.