Near the middle of Damien Chazelle’s recent movie musical, La La Land, Emma Stone’s character Mia wonders if her proposed one-woman show is too nostalgic. Her love interest, Ryan Gosling’s resplendent Sebastian, rejects the premise: No amount of nostalgia is too much. And on the movie goes, recalling in form and function the 1940s and 1950s aesthetics of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and the grand Hollywood musical—a vision of the past reanimated in the present.
The film has been hailed by critics and fans alike as a piece of popular art in which to rest for a moment at the close of a punishing year. It’s escapism. However, the politics of the past do not satisfy universally. A McClatchy poll on the eve of the election found 56 percent of America’s white population believed life was better in the 1950s, and, according to the same poll, 72 percent of likely Trump voters agreed. Meanwhile, 62 percent of black voters thought contemporary life was better. The 2016 election wasn’t a chasm into which the nation fell, it was a time machine into which many white Americans hoped to escape.
If La La Land holds the power to transport, we might ask where—and importantly when—it takes us. There lies a profound irony in liberal white folks heading to La La Land to repair after a political season overflowing with the nostalgia of white supremacy. (For all its gauzy backwards glancing, Chazelle’s film might be subtitled Make Hollywood Great Again.) If seeing Gosling and Stone tap dance in the Hollywood Hills tickles something deep in some viewers, perhaps it’s worth investigating the roots of that feeling and its supposed universality. Quite simply: The past represents liberation for one group, a horror show for another.
Novelist Zadie Smith spoke recently of white nostalgia while receiving the Welt Literature Prize in Berlin. “Meanwhile the dream of time travel—for new presidents, literary journalists, and writers alike—is just that: a dream,” she said. “And one that only makes sense if the rights and privileges you are accorded currently were accorded to you back then, too.”
White fantasies of the past are not innocuous, it turns out; they link to discrete economic and political policy. Even in the platitudinous past tense of “Make America Great Again,” Trump’s red hats told a truth of a kind: Their way forward was back. Smith rejects the image of white, regressive time-space with the succinct, “But neither do I believe in time travel.” How could a person of color long for a past bleaker than the already admittedly bleak present? Many white viewers of La La Land may well consider nostalgic escapism as a horizontal unifier—something with which everyone identifies—but longing for the past is itself a political act.
Through a Los Angeles ruined by modernity, technology and commerce, Mia and Sebastian wander. The latter longs to open a “real” jazz club to save the genre; Mia longs for Old Hollywood, a poster of Ingrid Bergman on her wall. Eventually they long for each other, and Chazelle’s camera conspicuously longs for the days of the Hollywood musical. Mia and Sebastian watch Rebel Without a Cause on their first date, only now the generational conflict isn’t between disaffected young people and their conservative parents, it’s between young people and their present. La La Land’s cultural language speaks in the vocabulary of loss. Like Trump voters pining for an idealized, mythic past, La La Land articulates a displaced, if no less powerful, nostalgia.
So where exactly does Chazelle send the viewer? The allusions begin with Rogers and Astaire, whom Chazelle first saw while studying film at Harvard. Of the moment he discovered Rogers and Astaire, he told the New York Times this fall that he felt like he’s “been sleeping on a gold mine.” The Times interview was even aptly titled “‘La La Land’ Makes Musicals Matter Again,” beating the reader about the head with Trump-ish sloganeering.
Of course, the key difference between Chazelle’s homage and Astaire and Rogers’ films lies in temporality. The musicals of the 1930s rarely sought historical displacement. Consider Rogers and Astaire’s most famous works, films like Top Hat and Shall We Dance, movies Chazelle references with varying degrees of explicitness in La La Land. The musicals of the 1930s were escapist, to be sure—singing and dancing in the teeth of the Great Depression—but the films occurred in a version of present day. When Hollywood did traffic in nostalgia in the first part of the 20th century, it looked, famously, to the Civil War and Reconstruction, Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind being two of the most famous and, to put it extremely mildly, racially problematic films of the era. The racial politics of nostalgia, not unlike America’s racial history, are rarely anything but gnarled. For the Hollywood musicals of the 1930s, escapism could be found in a European setting or a “cheek-to-cheek” dance routine. Chazelle, in returning to the visual aesthetics of Rogers and Astaire, suggests that escapism is instead found in the past.
Singin’ in the Rain, the famed 1952 musical, did look backwards, to the 1920s. But the all-white cast did not confront the politics and social changes. The issue of the day involved, not unlike La La Land, a changing Hollywood: one moving from silent films to “talkies.” A key plot point in in Singin’ in the Rain revolves around a studio responding to the release of The Jazz Singer, the first Hollywood film with synchronized sound and one of the most famous musicals of its day. Of course, The Jazz Singer, though progressive for its historical moment, featured Al Jolson parading around in black face. As with so much of American cultural history, looking backwards with a romantic eye courts dangerous contemporary politics. What does Chazelle hope we see when we look back?
Among the deepest of Chazelle’s references is Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a musical from the 1960s related to the French New Wave and known largely for its heart-breaking love story and decision to have characters sing, not speak, all of the film’s dialogue. Chazelle told IndieWire The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was a movie that “go[es] for broke.” Of course, this reference point seems, at first, not to conform to Chazelle’s dangerous white nostalgia, at the least because it emerged in the wake of a progressive school of cinema, and it isn’t American. But, like so many artifacts of Western history, some investigation might suggest more than a little darkness beyond the love story in Demy’s film: The main plot device dividing the two lovers, Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve), is the Algerian War. Guy leaves to serve in the conflict, returning years later with war wounds. In this case, Chazelle’s reference point, and context, is bleak.
The tragedy for some viewers might well be the lost love—two white characters divided by a war—but a more critical eye might see the war itself as the tragedy. The longest and latest running of all the post-WWII colonial wars for independence, the French fought brutally to retain the Algerian nation as a colony. Ending just two years before the commercial release of Umbrellas in 1964, the Algerian War saw the French terrorize the Algerian people—the people the fictional “Guy” was sent to kill. The French, inventors of the guillotine, routinely beheaded opposition leaders in Algeria, eventually leaving more than a million Algerians dead. In a 1958 essay entitled “We Are All Assassins,” philosopher and critic Jean-Paul Sartre wrote of the French army’s brutal behavior, “it’s beginning to horrify, and that is all.” Repression of colonized people, a tradition the very term African-American references, is not the unique purview of the United States—it’s all over Western art. Perhaps this is not the past Chazelle considered when the film inspired him.
One suspects Chazelle and his defenders will say analysis of this sort over-interprets, goes too far, but this is a luxury, too, a privilege. “It’s only a movie” is the apologia of people who have never been victimized by culture.