With this year’s best picture nominations, the academy has a choice to make

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It’s hard to apply a uniform narrative to the nominees at this year’s Oscars, good or bad. We remember the 2015 and 2016 ceremonies for #OscarsSoWhite, the 2017 ceremony as the year that “La La Land” and “Moonlight” were in a dead heat up until that infamous fiasco of a finish line and the 2018 ceremony for being so predictable we were all bored to tears — and for all the jokes about fish sex.

Cultural conversations sprang up around those past ceremonies, particularly about the lack of representation in Hollywood and which kinds of movies should be deemed relevant (“Moonlight” and its portrayal of Black and queer identities) versus not (“La La Land” and its whitewashed nostalgia, “Three Billboards” and its redemption of a racist character). But looking at this year’s crop of nominees, the road ahead looks a lot murkier, and not just because the best picture category still seems to be anyone’s game.

The best picture award is, arguably, meant for the film that most defined the year in which it was released. The best picture winners are memorable not only because they were great films but because they had something to say about the cultural moment during which they were made. With the privilege of picking the best picture each year, the academy is also saddled with the responsibility of taking the cultural pulse of the last 12 months. And this year, more than in past years, the nominations for best picture indicate that the academy is hopelessly undecided about what it wants to say.

On the one hand, there are offerings that seem to reflect a more modern take on the current cultural climate: “Black Panther” is a movie that seemingly everyone in America saw and one that brings Black female characters to the forefront in a way rarely seen in commercial films; Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” offers timely commentary on the continued prominence of white supremacist groups in the U.S.; “Roma” is an intimate portrait of a Mexican domestic worker’s life, released in the midst of the current administration’s grotesquely racist anti-Mexican sentiments; and “The Favourite” stars three queer female characters, acting as a decidedly bawdier, more experimental option than what the academy usually goes for.

But then there are “Vice,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Green Book” and “A Star Is Born”: two biopics about white men (one of which is a mediocre condemnation of Dick Cheney, the other a mediocre effort directed by a man accused of sexually assaulting minors), a period comedy that comments on race relations through scenes such as one in which a white man teaches a Black man to eat fried chicken and a fourth movie that is a remake of an old-school romantic drama. These are decidedly more traditionalist, conservative — and, in some cases, straight-up bad — perspectives on which artistic effort deserves to represent the cultural milieu of 2018.

To sum it up, there are quite a few directions that the academy could go in this year with the best picture award, and each one seems more radically different from the last. Ironically, this seems to represent the collective cultural pulse of Americans pretty well. If the variance in this year’s nominees proves anything, it proves that the academy’s membership is just as divided as the American public on issues of cultural identity. And just like the American public — though, blessedly, with much lower stakes — the Oscars have a choice to make about what kind of impact they want to make and what kind of voices they want to use their platform to elevate.

Naturally, there are different ideas about which choice will be the right one, the rare decision that will pass the test of time; “Roma” would be a victory for foreign films, “Black Panther” for commercial films, “BlackKkKlansman” for the long-overlooked Spike Lee, “Green Book” for, uh, someone’s grandpa — and so on.

There’s lots of dispute over which group is the one that should be appeased, about which film has the most compelling things to say about today’s world. But there’s next to no dispute about the fact that television ratings for the Academy Awards have been in dire straits for a while now, and choosing correctly could mean the difference between continued cultural relevance and fading into obscurity.

So let’s all hope that when this year’s best picture winner is announced, it will be a film that indicates the academy’s willingness to get with the times — rather than a verdict that ties it once and for all to the bygone culture of the past.

Contact Grace Orriss at [email protected].