By Kele Alfred-Igbokwe '19
Content warning: mentions of racism
I watched La La Land over winter break, in a mid-sized movie theater in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. During this cinematic experience, I felt transported to Los Angeles, California in a flurry of music and wonder. I’ve always loved musicals, and La La Land was no exception. The song-and-dance routines were infectious in their energy, and I felt my spirits being lifted to new heights watching from the audience. The whole film was whimsically charming.
I’m an ardent romantic at heart, so I fell in love with the romance at the center of the film between Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). The chemistry between the two is palpable. I like how they started out with a battle of wits, before succumbing to their love with a sort of exhilarating artistry. The tap dancing while singing “A Lovely Night” with the city of Los Angeles as the backdrop was so pure and wholesome. Later on, “City of Stars” tugged at my heartstrings. Gosling’s piano playing was entrancing to watch.
The entire film was immensely aesthetically pleasing. The scenery was unrelentingly soft in pretty blues, purples, and pinks. The wardrobe of the cast was striking in bold, bright splashes of color amid classic, tailored style choices. The choreography was performed to sharp perfection. The visuals and cinematography certainly appealed to purist Hollywood.
The most profound moments of the film, however, were at the end. It was then that the movie came to an intriguing intersection of art, music, and film, as an impeccably crafted story of “what if?” unfolded before our eyes. The film crushed my heart with the wistfulness of love lost over the course of chasing dreams, of the sacrifices of creative drive.
Throughout the film, however, my mind was bogged down by an incessant observation: all the people of color (except John Legend’s character) were in the background as amorphous jazz music machines. The thing is, they had presences as brilliant jazz musicians, but they had almost no speaking roles, didn’t drive the story, and were only there to supplement the main characters, who were almost all white. The film was centered around two white characters, while subsequently using people of color as musical props.
This is concerning, because jazz originated from Black Americans, and traditionally, jazz was a genre centered around Black Americans, not White Americans. It is understandably troubling to then watch Ryan Gosling’s character, Sebastian, a white man on a quest to return jazz to its roots as a “Traditionalist.” It is a slap in the face to the pioneers of jazz to have this form of white saviorism be so prevalent in the film.
The gender politics of the film are also worth noting. Emma Stone’s character, Mia, is at times overshadowed by Sebastian in the story of pursuing your craft at all costs, and Sebastian spends much of the movie mansplaining art in general, and jazz in particular, to her. He drives much of the story forward, from his initial pursuit of her, to pushing her to continue auditioning, to joining the band that rocks their relationship.
Art is often political, and La La Land isn’t a film with a political statement. It’s pretty to watch and lovely to appreciate from an entertainment and artistic perspective. Still, the film’s fatal flaw is in its total lack of self-awareness in its furtherance of the same dominant narrative. This year’s Oscars may be incredibly contentious, with La La Land (an industry favorite) up against films that blend the arts and the political, and tell fresh, much needed stories, such as Moonlight, Fences, and Hidden Figures. La La Land is a hat tip to the grandeur of Old Hollywood, but it is more important to honor the marginalized communities that have, for so long, been erased from the archetypal Hollywood narrative.
From February 2017 Issue