THE function of the Academy Awards has always been self-promotion. They were created in 1929 to defend the industry against bad press, with sex scandals and on-screen violence causing a stir among the era’s crusading moralists. Hollywood players created an awards show to improve their image; if there could be a “best” picture, they implicitly argued, some of the films must be “good”.

These days, it is not so simple. What constitutes “best” is a matter of heated debate. This year, is it the nostalgia-driven escape of “La La Land”? Or will the politics of representation win out and elevate “Hidden Figures” or “Moonlight”? Over the past few years, popular culture has become the site of America’s most divisive political discussions, and the Oscars have gone through some growing pains as they try to reflect the changing landscape. What film it chooses to honour on February 26th will tell us how far it has come.

In recent years, the Academy has frequently ignored films with political and social relevance (like “Selma” and “Carol”) in favour of those like “The Artist”, “Argo” or “Birdman” that speak specifically to the film industry. “La La Land”, the favourite to win this year, offers the same insular pleasures. It is a joyful, toe-tapping musical that has offered effective escapism for American moviegoers in troubling times, but it’s also a love letter to Hollywood, evoking the style and themes of classic Tinseltown musicals. In any year, it would be a shoo-in for Best Picture.

But “La La Land” has faced a significant backlash that could cost it the top prize. Critics have noted that a by-product of the film’s pervasive nostalgia is a set of regressive political values on race.  “If you’re gonna make a film about an artist staying true to the roots of jazz against the odds,” wrote MTV news, “you’d think that the artist would be black.” Instead, the only prominent black character in the film is its de facto villain (played by John Legend), a sell-out who rejects Sebastian’s preferred traditional style of jazz for something more commercial.

Other critics have complained of sexism. The Los Angeles Review of Books noted that the script gives Ryan Gosling’s character more agency in the romance. “It is his melody that recurs through the film to denote particularly important moments in their relationship…he comes to ask her out at work; he introduces her to jazz; he takes her to see ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ for research (despite the fact that she is the actor and supposed cinephile).” “La La Land”’s status as a front-runner has put a bullseye on its back. 

The Academy cannot afford to ignore such complaints; with #OscarsSoWhite, it has become a focal point of debates about representation in recent years. Recognising its flaws—Chris Rock delivered a blistering monologue at last year’s ceremony—the Academy has made a concerted effort to reform and induct more women, people of colour and members of the LGBT community into their membership. But if “La La Land” sweeps the awards, it will indicate that the Academy has not fully received the message. Efforts to promote diversity in the Academy and in the movie industry overall are likely to intensify, and the culture wars will get even more contentious.

If “Hidden Figures” or “Moonlight” takes the top prize, however, it will signify the Academy’s openness to change. Both films tell marginalised stories that would have previously had trouble getting made in Hollywood, let alone winning its top award. “Hidden Figures” is the true tale of three black women who worked at NASA and were partly responsible, although never credited, for getting the first American astronaut into orbit. “Moonlight” follows a gay, black man in a community that violently rejects his sexuality. In years past, its creative vision might have been too bold for the Academy; Barry Jenkins, its writer and director, has three actors play the protagonist at different stages of his life. If it wins Best Picture, it will be one of the rare times that the Academy has got it right: there is no braver or more daring film among the nominees.

With the makeup of the Academy in a state of transition and the political character of America itself so deeply divided, the Oscars seem torn. In these troubling times, will they seek solace in the past with the self-congratulatory “La La Land”, or will they choose to amplify the voices of the sidelined with a view to a more inclusive future?  The Best Picture Oscar is always the most hotly anticipated award of the night; this year there is more riding on it than a gold statuette.