These are tumultuous times that we live in. A racist is President of the United States, foreign affairs are a shambles and the NHS is in utter disarray. The media is giving a platform to sexists like Piers Morgan, and the US police are killing black people on the streets. It’s a sordid state of affairs, and apathy is a dangerous thing. And so, whilst we should all be engaged, escapism is perhaps more important than ever. Feel-good films, for example, are seen as a form of escapism. But no – according to some irascible critics, Damien Chazelle’s new hit musical film, La La Land, is racist – yes, concretely racist – for not being explicitly ‘black’ in its depiction of jazz. Which in itself, is utterly incorrect anyway.
La La Land is breaking records with its brand of being a modern-yet-classic musical. It’s being praised for reviving the dying tradition of the jazz musical and being a feel-good escapist film amidst a backdrop of a depressing environment. You go into the cinema and feel joy, you leave and realise that Trump is still President. People are finding problems with the film though. Some have said it’s downright racist. The main fury is directed at Ryan Gosling’s Seb – how dare a white person play a main character who loves jazz?
Revoice magazine claim that Gosling ‘whitesplains’ the history of jazz without mentioning its black history. I feel like this is really clutching at straws to find faults with the film. Yes, he’s an arrogant and, at times, irritating character – yet he talks passionately about his idols who are black musicians, tirelessly trying to perfect a Thelonious Monk sequence; and at the end of the film, he works alongside talented black musicians in his jazz bar. Paste magazine, however, says that this particular action, whereby Seb takes it in turn playing with the said black musician, is actually “Gosling taking over the piano from a black musician: the erasure of black art is complete.” The attempt to racialise this irrelevant action is truly laughable. Another criticism of the film is that “[Seb] speaks over the black musicians in the jazz club he’s brought [Mia] to.” Erm, it’s a film, whereby characters tend to have dialogue – what did you expect to happen? Seb is telling Mia about his appreciation and love for jazz’s origins, using the musicians as an example, actively engaging with them instead of passively ignoring them. The film is rooted around a love for an art form created by black people, not around a malevolent desire to steal it from them.
The role of Hollywood is particularly pertinent here, and although it has certainly had its fair share of issues, the Oscars tend to give the Best Picture award to hard-hitting dramas that tackle serious issues; 2016’s Best Picture ‘Spotlight’ tackled paedophilia in religious communities, 2014’s went to 12 Years A Slave, an epic focused on slavery and racial issues. It’s rare for a film like La La Land to be seen with enough respect and dignity to be a shoe-in for the award, and people can’t seem to get their heads around it. Dear world: it’s just a happy film, a musical, with the odd annoying character or two but, nonetheless, it’s pretty harmless. I’m overjoyed that this year three incredible films with black characters will be honoured at awards shows worldwide; Moonlight, Fences and Hidden Figures. Black representation has been an issue in Hollywood for a long time, but I truly believe that this year has kicked that issue to the curb. Whether it’ll return or not is a separate matter; despite having two white main characters, La La Land is a film that represents a variety of ethnicities and is wholly rooted in a love for a black tradition.
John Legend’s character, Keith, is a black jazz musician who wants to reinvent the jazz genre to make it more inspiring to the contemporary generation, and in this manner, actually shows up Seb’s potentially archaic view. It’s not that this black character “does not understand jazz,” as some critics suggest. Seb and Keith’s musical differences have genuinely been discussed in relation to today’s “political environment of white supremacy.” It makes me so unbelievably angry, and is a complete insult to everyone who worked on the film to lazily shove on some sort of hegemonic criticism that is so utterly unfounded and abstract in its delivery. Seb’s sister marries a black man, Mia’s flatmate is a person of colour; the first person you see in the film is a person of colour. The accusation of ‘whitewashing’ L.A is an inattentive designation focused on the zoning in of the main characters.
There are more pressing issues at hand in the world today than La La Land. Don’t devalue the valid argument of race issues in the world today by applying it somewhere where it doesn’t belong.