‘La La Land’ Dominating The Oscars Tells Us A Lot About White Privilege
I would like to start by saying I loved “La La Land.”
Watching it at the AMC on 84th Street is easily one of the top 10 movie-going experiences of my life. I started sobbing when Emma Stone confronted Ryan Gosling about losing sight of his dreams, and didn’t stop until I left the theater.
I loved how hopeful it was. I loved how nostalgic it was. I loved how fun it was. But most of all, I loved how it encouraged me — a 20-something, middle class, white girl — to follow my far-fetched, creative dreams.
I was so caught up in the magic and the flattery of it all, that a few weeks later when I was watching the 2017 Golden Globes — the night “La La Land” set a Globes record with seven wins — I was baffled by what I saw on Twitter:
A lot of people really did not like this movie.
And even the ones who did kind of like it didn’t seem to think it deserved the praise and Golden Globes it was getting.
My first instinct was to get defensive. I had already publicly declared my love for the film on my own Twitter, and now I felt embarrassed for doing so.
I thought to myself, annoyed,
Why can’t I just enjoy a lovely, inspiring film in peace?
I should have known better than to dismiss critique of what was mostly people of color on my timeline so quickly.
It was time for me to practice what I preached as a supposed white ally and listen. When I finally did, I learned how “La La Land” is the prime example of a film that caters to and then benefits from white privilege.
And now it’s your turn.
If you’re a person who loved “La La Land” — and especially if you’re a white person who loved “La La Land” — I’m not trying to take that away from you. I still love it, too.
But you also need to listen to the criticism. More than that, you need to understand the criticism. So here’s my attempt to break down the so-called backlash of “La La Land.”
1. Jazz, as explained by white people.
This is perhaps the most prominent criticism of “La La Land,” and it’s a good one.
Ryan’s Gosling’s character in the film not only loves jazz, he makes it his mission to single-handedly save the genre. As MTV News writer Ira Madison III articulates in his piece, “‘La La Land’s’ White Jazz Narrative,” this undeniably falls into the white man’s burden trope.
Jazz as a genre was created by African-American musicians in New Orleans, is a staple of black American music and, yet, this handsome white actor is the one getting all the awards for saving it.
Hopefully you can understand why that’s frustrating to black actors and black audiences, who so rarely get to see themselves in Oscar-nominated films (especially ones that aren’t about slavery).
And yes, John Legend is in the movie. Yes, John Legend is black. But John Legend does not want to save jazz like Gosling does — he wants to change it.
The film makes sure to let us know again and again Gosling does not approve of these changes. And though Gosling briefly considers Legend’s point that jazz should be revolutionary, in the end he disregards it.
Gosling quits the band, starts his purist jazz club and that’s that. Gosling wins and saves the genre.
2. The Oscar spotlight in the year of “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures” and “Fences.”
Had “La La Land” not won five BAFTAs, seven Golden Globes and been nominated for 14 Academy Awards — tying with “Titanic” for the most nominations ever — maybe the race issue wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But at this point, it’s all but a guarantee “La La Land” will sweep the 2017 Oscars.
It’s one thing for a white savior film to exist. That happens all the time (see: “Avatar,” “The Blind Side,” “The Help,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and many more). It’s another thing for that white savior film to sweep the Oscars the year after the #OscarsSoWhite campaign gained national attention.
In many ways, that campaign made a huge impact on this year’s Academy Awards. For the first time in Oscar history, black actors are nominated in all four acting categories. That’s no small milestone.
On top of that, three excellent black-lead films are nominated for Best Picture this year: “Hidden Figures,” “Moonlight” and “Fences.” But will any of these actors or films win any Oscars? With “La La Land’s” award season track record thus far, it seems highly unlikely.
Is that a logical reason to hate “La La Land”? Maybe not, but you can certainly see why it’s frustrating. When it seemed the Academy was finally ready to honor black artists, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone swept in and took the honor instead.
3. The underdog narrative.
In her acceptance speech at the 2017 Golden Globes, Emma Stone said,
To Lionsgate and our producers, for taking a chance on this guy Damien Chazelle saying he wanted to make a modern original musical. That’s sort of a crazy notion. Thank you for that.
Director Damien Chazelle said almost the exact same thing when he accepted the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay:
I want to thank Lionsgate for taking the chance on this movie, taking the gamble, and for believing that the audience for a movie like this does exist.
Ah. Would we really call “La La Land” a film producers would “take a chance on”?
This is the final “La La Land” critique I’d like to address: the odd, audacious insistence this film is in some way an underdog.
Spin rightly compares the narrative to the victim role Taylor Swift has fabricated for herself.
Because let’s be clear: “La La Land” is not an Oscar underdog. It’s a two-hour tribute to the beauty, magic and nobility of the film industry.
There’s really no better way to butter up the Academy than by flattering their career choices. This has been seen with Best Picture winners like “Birdman” and “The Artist.”
And not only that, the film had two likable, attractive, A-list white actors and an Academy Award-winning director attached to it (Chazelle’s 2014 “Whiplash” won Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Supporting Actor).
When you compare it to a film like “Moonlight” — a film featuring black homosexuality, an unknown lead and a director who’s never been to the Oscars — the idea of “La La Land” as an underdog of any sort is downright laughable.
And to some, particularly those who have worked so hard and waited so long for the world to see films like “Moonlight,” it’s more than laughable. It’s infuriating.
There are other criticisms of “La La Land” out there — the dancing’s not good, the singing’s not good, it’s boring, there’s not enough music, the sound mixing is bad, etc, etc. But I’d argue those fall into the category of “backlash,” aka resentment for resentment’s sake of a popular film.
But the above three critiques go much deeper than backlash. They speak to an age-old tradition of people of color being pushed aside for white achievement. And if white people ignore them, the cycle of oppression will never be broken.
Enjoying “La La Land” didn’t make me a bad ally, but dismissing that criticism did. And so I’ll be assessing “La La Land’s” Oscar wins with a grain of salt next week — no matter how much I enjoyed hearing Emma Stone encourage me to follow my dreams.
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