Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Uncomfortable Subject of Race in La La Land


I was hesitant to write this, because I really am in support of Hollywood making movie musicals again. Not to mention that many of my friends enjoyed this movie and I didn't want to be the Asian that rained on their parade. 

But I didn’t like La La Land. You can un-friend me now.
I’d heard good things about La La Land, but I confess it wasn’t really at the top of my list. Probably because I’m not a huge fan of romantic comedies (though there are some exceptions- Shakespeare In Love, The Princess Bride, and basically any other movie where handsome men wear very tight pants). I am a Broadway geek, however, and a music school grad, so my friends were surprised that I wasn’t scrambling to see this film. I guess something about it just screamed ‘seen it before.’ Which I suppose is the point- it’s meant to elicit nostalgia.

I understand the appeal. The Golden Age of Musicals was a simpler time, with simple stories that drew in crowds. A cowboy and a farm girl fell in love to a golden melody. A conman changed his ways to impress a librarian. A little girl from Kansas went on the acid trip of the century before telling her family that she saw them in her sleep. In this complicated world of cell phones, social media, and Dippin Dots, “retro” is in. Albeit a very specific understanding of “retro.” Because tap dancing in the moonlight is all good and fun, but when you consider that black men were lynched for drinking from white-only water fountains, it starts to look less golden. See, for me and for many others the Golden Age of Musicals is hard to romanticize.

Perhaps part of this review is coloured by context. We are at a unique point in history when you can legitimately have an argument with a Nazi while riding a hover-board. With the resurgence in popularity of white supremacy and a longing for so-called old school values, I simply found it impossible to ignore the racial politics at play in La La Land. The distraction proved too great to enjoy the film.

Before I continue, I want to state that I actually really like Emma Stone and Ryan hot Gosling. And considering that they’re mainly straight actors, they did decent jobs in the lead roles. 

https://static01.nyt.com/images/2016/11/06/arts/06LALALAND1/06LALALAND1-articleLarge-v3.jpgBut here is where my frustration with the film lies. They did decent jobs. As a plethora of brilliant dancers fanned through an LA highway in the film’s opening number, my heart sank. None of these talented people got to star in the film. And in a story about seeking fame and fulfillment, none of these people became stars in the film. Here was a movie where a rainbow of phenomenal dancers, and singers- some of whom, I have to reason, must also be good actors- surrounded two people who bounced through basic tap choreography, and lacked all expression in their vocal performances. 

I felt like I was watching these talented people of colour move about like set pieces in a minstrel show, bringing excitement to the world of the two white protagonists; one of whom has the absurd plotline of being the only person that understands jazz, and needs to save it from extinction.

You see, in La La Land Gosling’s character, Sebastian, is a jazz prodigy, who loves the genre for its purity and complexity. In one scene, he brings Stone’s character, Mia, to watch old, black musicians perform. Nevermind the awkward juxtaposition of these performers, who probably lived through segregation, playing their hearts out for the happy white couple. Sebastian is made to be Mia’s gateway into this world of authentic (ie: black) music, and in this presumption, he’s somehow a part of that specific world. Unlike the suits and the young upstarts, he alone can introduce his girlfriend (and the audience) to “real” jazz. The jazz band itself is only a prop meant to enhance a white story- their “retro blackness” is a sign of how cool and down-to-earth Gosling’s character must be. But the band’s struggle, culture, and voice is completely erased from the narrative.

To be fair, at one point I thought there might be some redemption for this bizarrely insensitive plot-line. But then the only group of young black musicians in the film lose touch with their roots and seek only gimmicky flash (that our hero Sebastian of course hates and eventually rises above).

At the other end of this frustrating story, Emma Stone plays Mia, an actress who is struggling to get by. She faces rejection after rejection, before finally proving her worth to a casting director and rocketing to stardom. This is after she writes her own one-woman show, and performs it out of pocket. Her story is structured around the Protestant work ethic which permeates American philosophy- plainly, what you give is what you get. The suggestion here is that, anyone who is talented enough, and willing to put in the work, will be discovered and all their dreams will come true. But Mia is surrounded by many other actors and actresses- many of whom are ethnic, many of whom work hard, and many of whom are clearly talented. Yet none of them seem to achieve stardom. In a time when Hollywood is really under the lens for whitewashing and racebending, when it’s being criticized for its lack of diversity, it seems almost too meta. These actresses only serve as background fodder for Mia.  Just like their characters, the actresses hit a ceiling in the film itself.

Thoroughly Modern Millie
There is an infuriating unawareness in La La Land throughout. An earnest desire to see “diversity” but only insofar as it paints a backdrop for the “real” heroes. Maybe this is part of the nostalgia- two familiar girl/guy next door types who fall in love beneath the moonlight- but in a modern twist they are surrounded by a diverse ensemble. Barf.  

It's nothing new. Movie musicals certainly have a history of racial exclusion. The Golden Age featured blatantly racist films like Thoroughly Modern Millie (which was thankfully updated and modernized for the stage). And then there were the countless films that committed the crime of invisibility. Remember, this is a genre that took its roots from jazz music and tap, yet rarely featured black protagonists. Not to mention performers of other races.

Like all epochs, though, it's not so cut and dry. As with any other Hollywood production, movie musicals were bound by agreements like the Hays Code, and influenced by public ideology at the time. Despite their flaws, musical theatre, and musical movies, do actually have a long history of subversion. Showboat dealt with racism, poverty, and sexism. My Fair Lady with classism and female autonomy. Even the racist Thoroughly Modern Millie challenged ideas of gender norms, and women’s rights. In musical movies, the love story was often the starring narrative, but the setting was the message. This is arguably because music has the incredible power to move us, and allows for a freedom of storytelling you don’t see in straight drama. Because of its relatively “safe” reputation, it’s able to make a point without being too threatening to audiences. IMHO subversion is in fact a key element to the genre

Which brings us back to La La Land.

What does La La Land do except glorify a bygone era and transplant it into the 21st century, in a weird fulfillment of every alt-right wet dream. It tells a love story. One we’ve seen before, with archetypes we’ve seen before, in a setting we’ve seen before. And it does nothing to challenge our view of society, in a time when we really need to be questioning ourselves.

This is a shame, because there was a chance for this film to be very modern. How much more interesting would this film have been with a black male lead? What if Emma Stone’s character were a woman of colour? How would that change her journey to stardom? How much more of a disadvantage would she be at at the start of the film?

As it is, racial representations in the film were simply too distracting for me, especially considering political events as of late (which, to be fair to the filmmakers, happened after the release of the film).  I found myself rolling my eyes every time people of colour performed for the leads. I felt like I was watching racial insensitivity in motion, where two people are inspired by “cool ethnic culture,” and then rocket to stardom.

Was La La Land a solid movie? Objectively well-structured, well-shot, and well-acted? Yes. Am I glad it was made? Yes. Because I hope it will inspire studios to take more risks on musicals. And was I glad I saw it? Yes. Because it reminded me of how much further we have to go.

So yes, La La Land is a good film, and I don’t blame anyone who finds it enjoyable. But no, I didn’t like it. Even though it stars Ryan hot Gosling.


  1. It seems that only you are trying to make this about race. I wonder how often you play that card.

    1. Oh all the time. I use the race card to get through life and reverse oppress everyone around me. Then I use it to get 5% off at Denny's. The race card is great, and comparable to other cards with similar benefits. 10/10 I recommend it.

    2. Yes bribo- that's kind of the point. She's bringing up race because if no one talked about it, it would get swept under the rug, and there would be no progress for minorities.

    3. Great article, love reading different perspectives on the topic. Your response to that comment is the tits though. 10/10.

  2. Hey Amanda, thought this was a great article and shed light on a lot of stuff I hadn't considered (which I understand is part of the point), I just have a thought -- movies and tv should obviously reflect how diverse our world is today, but if we make every movie with the perfect amount of race distributed throughout, it would seem unrealistic, and I think there's something to be said for specificity in a movie. Think of the type of posters of groups of people you see in... I don't know... A McDonald's ad. It's usually a "rainbow", as you said, of different races all placed next to other. This is great symbolically but in my opinion groups that hangout just aren't always that diverse. Sometimes they are. So sometimes we should see that, but it doesn't always have to be the case, and these conversations are important, but not ALWAYS applicable to every situation.

    I think what Hollywood needs to do is not always have everything be mixed all of the time -- though obviously sometimes, because that does happen in real life and it's a good thing -- but have a wide variety of movies that are specifically about different diverse types of people.

    Put another way, you mention how La La Land would've been different and as interesting (or more interesting) had there been a black male lead instead of white. I completely agree. That would be interesting. I want to see that movie, but I'm also pleased to have this one, because in my opinion it feels like a very specific point of view (Damien Chazelle's view). It's not meant to represent "this is what the world wants", it's Chazelle going "this is what I saw in my head". Hollywood needs to green-light more stories about what diverse people see in their heads, their specific visions and stories.

    In short, I want more of what I'm getting AND more of what I'm not, rather than wanting what I'm not getting to replace what I am.

    Does that make sense at all?

    Thanks again for the article.

    1. Hi Alex,

      Thanks for reading the article and giving it so much thought. In response to the points that you raise, I think it's important to remember that Hollywood is not simply a reflection of real life. In fact, it's an industry that has a lot of power to influence the way that people think through storytelling. So although there may be single-race groups of friends, or diverse groups of friends in real life, there's something that can be said for the way that the industry systemically portrays friendships onscreen. By constantly portraying white people as protagonists, and ethnic people as side characters, it continues the cultural narrative that white people are "neutral" and ethnic people are "other." With so much media coming out it forms an idea of "normal" that begins to permeate society. Often it's the things we take for granted that have the most effect on us.

      It's also important to remember that when plot elements take their roots in specifically ethnic cultures (eg: jazz), that a certain level of responsibility on behalf of the filmmakers is expected. So although this may be Chazelle's view, the fact that he's using jazz in his film means that he must also consider the history and deep cultural importance of the genre, and evaluate what his choices as an artist communicate.

      I think, as you've said, Hollywood needs to green-light more projects that are helmed by people of colour, and more stories that see the world from outside of the white-neutral narrative. The problem with this is that a lot of the decision makers are white, and are apt to pick stories that resonate with them. Even when they have the best intentions it can be difficult to put aside your own experience and understand why you may or may not relate to a character or story. And because of this, people of colour have a hard time getting their projects picked up, and thus a harder time rising through the ranks. It's a slow process, and we've seen a lot of progress on TV as of late. I think as time goes on, it will change and we will start seeing more stories like you've described. But until then we have to be willing to talk about the issues that Hollywood has in an open and honest way, and work together for change.

    2. Amanda -

      Thank you for a very thoughtful, informative write on not just this film, but speaking to a much larger narrative about a troubling trend in Hollywood films. I understand and empathize with readers who are tired and wary of the race card being played when others critique lead casting and narratives in a big name Hollywood film.

      But, when at least 80+% of lead roles continue to go to white actors, despite their clearly being talented actors of other ethnicities, I think that's a matter worth discussing. More of the latter are showing up in well-received TV, cable and films -- but, they're also largely lumped into all-black cast vehicles.

      And, Hollywood continues to be "surprised" when a big film w/ a multi-ethnic or largely non-white cast kicks ass at the box office. "Well, will you look at that?" Then, it's largely back to business as usual. No shortage off black actors to cast as background thugs, or blacks and Latinos to cast as drug dealers and users (See almost any urban crime drama). No shortage of Latinos to cast as kitchen help (see Justice League).

      When previews roll before the film, I've started counting how many films have non-white or female actors are in lead roles. Of 8-10 shown, maybe 1 has a non-white actor in a lead role. Usually, abbout 3 have females in lead roles. Google 'Now Showing in Theaters' and see for yourself.

      I don't think anyone wants a quota for diverse lead casting, but outside of maybe a film w/ a historical or geo-specific re-telling, there's nothing exclusive that a white actor brings to a role that a non-white actor couldn't bring. And, for black actors, there's a wealth (literal and figurative) in Marvel's "Black Panther" movie. There's a wealth of talent in FX's "Atlanta." There's a wealth of talent in Showtime's "The CHI."

      Lastly, films do impact how people see other people. Start seeing non-white actors in lead roles, in top-level professions, in high-level academia, as close friends, with stable families, as your next--door neighbor, as trusted community members -- as something more than easily comparmentalized stereotypes -- and it broadens their presence and worth in society. That's what it's important.

  3. I dont think its fair to say just because its jazz it had to have been a black actor. Its jazz in the 21st century where its already been saturdated by all races. And to show each one of those in the beginning number to have turned out famous, well thats the pitfalls of this pipedream that we as actors and musicians face. Its a wild card. Ryan gosling paid tribute to his white techno band. He also highlight in his club at the end of the movie that the black pianist was essentially next. This movie wasnt meant to make musicals how they were as in musicals back in the day were white, so lets make this a white movie. The shots, the costumes, the choreo.. this is what made it timeless.. as for ryan and emma to lead.. they verywell could have cast others. But theyre a package deal.. theyve worked together before and already have such a chemistry. To get another actress in place of stone would be cool.. but itd lack what these 2 actors already have. I thought this movie was perfect. And im all for a fun race debate... but i dont feel this movie warrants one.