Last week the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — you know, the Oscar people — uproariously announced that next year’s telecast will include a new category: Best “Popular” Film. An obviously terrible choice by any estimation — one that undoes all of their baby stepped progress at recognizing good movies at all levels of mass popularity — the collective film culture twisted itself into serpentine knots to explain in as graphic detail as possible every last reason why it is not only unnecessary, but counterproductive toward the continued health and relevance of film as a narrative medium.
My main takeaway was that it was good old fashioned Hollywood gatekeeping against plebian mass entertainment at the big kids’ table on Hollywood’s big night: basically a separate-but-equal Oscar that falls uncomfortably within the overlap of “popular entertainment” and “non-white cinema.” In fact, the elevation of less Oscar-baity nominees largely coincided with the rise of minority filmmakers within the industry. Movies like The Shape of Water (2017), Get Out (2017), and presumably Black Panther (2018), which many critics and commentators have been calling the movie to beat since it debuted all the way back in February, helping to lead the way.
Now that the dust as settled on the decision (at least a little), it’s clear why this happened; or, rather, it’s clear why they say it happened. Telecast ratings are down. ABC wants to make back the money it’s paying in to broadcast the ceremony. Adding more categories that people (theoretically) care about it simply the most straight-forward way to do this.
The problem is, though, that this kiddie Oscar category will serve only to keep the movies that general audiences care about out of the all-important race for Best Picture. You give a movie like Black Panther (or Get Out, or The Shape of Water, or Mad Max: Fury Road) its own consolatory category, do you really think that the stuffy old white guys already on edge with recent Academy shake-ups (and who still very much represent a majority of that organization) will give them Best Picture consideration as well?
Of course not! Just like Best Animated Picture or Best Foreign Language Picture, the effect will be to police the category from the kinds of movies that just got “their own category.” And with so many of these “popular” movies being directed by, written by and starring non-White filmmakers, the whole sordid affair can’t help but draw comparisons to Southern segregation. Whether it motivated by a well-meaning strain for modern-day relevance or a product of good-old fashioned racist gatekeeping, all this category will amount to is keeping a lot of high-end movies the critical recognition that they deserve.
And yet, when you look at how this particular Oscar season is starting to shake up, you have to wonder if Black Panther will even win the Oscar category tailor-made to keep it out of the Best Picture Race.
Think about the kinds of movies that would fill out a category like this. Of course there’s movies like Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018). Certain animated movies like Incredibles 2 (2018), action movies like Mission: Impossible: Fallout (2018) and comedies like Deadpool 2 (2018) will probably worm their way into the shortlist too. But then you have romantic comedies like Crazy Rich Asians (2018), which just opened to rave reviews and a boatload of cash, or A-list dramas like A Star Is Born (2018), whose distributors are pushing hard for a Best Picture run down the line, which can, in a way, act as spoilers for the exact kind of movie that this category seems tailor-made to single out.
However this particular category ultimately shakes out, it’s a pretty safe bet that at least three of the nominee slots will go to the usual sort of summer blockbusters that dominate at the box office week after week. Black Panther was one of the all-time great movies of the year and a cultural flashpoint for those that saw it. At the same time, however, Infinity War was the narrative, thematic and climactic culmination of everything that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been building to for the last decade: in effect, carrying the weight of every preceding movie in the franchise (up to and including Black Panther) and viscerally feeling “more important” (even though it actually isn’t). Incredibles 2 is the long-anticipated sequel to the Pixar classic and is already the odds-on favorite for the Animated Feature Oscar. And regardless of how good it actually was, Fallout is being lauded as some kind of transcendent franchise-best outing: often being mentioned in the same breadth as The Dark Knight (2008) and Fury Road.
With so many action (and in many cases, superhero) movies splitting the vote between them, it seems quite possible (if not probable) that a sufficiently good “popular” movie that’s just different enough from the existing crowd of nominees can swing in and take the award out from under everybody. As the first all-Asian cast of a major American studio film since 1992’s The Joy Luck Club, Crazy Rich Asians carries the same diversity meta-narrative as Black Panther, and been taking the box office by storm since its release early last week. With its recognizable cast of A-listers and based on one of the most beloved and frequently remade movies from Old Hollywood, A Star Is Born already seems to be angling to cash in with movie-goers, and with its seemingly more Academy-friendly narrative of love and redemption, it seems to be just the kind of blockbuster that Academy voters can get behind for this category.
So even though this category seems to have been designed from the ground up to lock movies like Black Panther out of the Best Picture race while giving it as consolation Oscar all it’s own, it might not even walk away with that much. One of the very best pictures of the year — and up until last week, the unrivaled Oscar frontrunner — might walk away with nothing to its name because of some dusty old curmudgeons who couldn’t stand to share the stage with “the wrong sort” of movies.