The Unbearable Whiteness of La La Land

What does Damien Chazelle hope we see when we look back?

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Which brings us back to La La Land and its longing. What Gosling’s Seb and Stone’s Mia share is a commitment to the past—a place where, supposedly, dreamers dream their dreams awake. But which dreamers dreaming what dreams? Why do white Americans (in politics and film) often so wistfully return to the era before federally mandated desegregation, voting and civil rights? (Would La La Land ever have been made with two leading actors of color? Obviously not.) The film only functions as an ode to a lost era of white supremacy, and its viewers, consciously or unconsciously, participate in the delusion. The film’s politics of nostalgia and whiteness are inextricable.

La La Land contains other more explicitly problematic politics—in fact, Gosling’s “white jazz savior” narrative has been unpacked well by MTV’s Ira Madison III. John Legend’s Keith is cast as a sell-out to “pure jazz,” which Gosling promises to successfully save by the movie’s end. The movie concludes with Gosling taking over the piano from a black musician: The erasure of black art is complete. Madison documents the opening number, full of the many diverse faces of Los Angeles, only to see the film retrench into the middle-class bourgeois love affair of two white people. That one of them drives a Prius and the other a drop-top convertible seems to be the extent of the film’s commitment to diversity.

However, Chazelle, Stone and Gosling are almost certainly not racists, if judged by the metric of personal unkindness. Their missteps lie elsewhere in the blurry discourse of cultural hegemony, the degree to which dominant ideological and political structures of oppression—like a longing for the past—must be consistently affirmed and reified. In portraying the romance and escapism of watching two beautiful people mourn the past by returning to it, Chazelle suggests viewers might enjoy this transportation, that these stories are universal. Considering the long history of racism in Los Angeles, it’s uncertain which part of the past would provide a comfortable landing spot for the viewer.

How many in a La La Land audience would be unable to vote, live in their neighborhood, marry their partner, work in their job, attend their school, if Chazelle’s film were successful in landing them in 1940s Los Angeles? Where do LA’s Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, when thousands of white folks organized themselves into street gangs to assault people of color, fit in Chazelle’s reverie? Or what of the historical record of housing discrimination, whereby 80 percent of 1940s Los Angeles real estate was off-limits to buyers or renters of color? When Gosling’s character wishes the public to remember the history of jazz rightly, it’s no wonder so much else must be redacted to suspend disbelief.

These realities are best forgotten in La La Land. Much is lost when we dream of—not recognize—the past. When Gosling and Stone walk into the stars, and into the past itself, at Griffith Observatory, they traffic in a dangerous political invention. People do not long for the past equally. Many do not long for it at all.

Chazelle and his movie will receive much deserved acclaim. The film is an achievement of a sort—it’s beautiful and charming, if one doesn’t think too hard. He’s even done the work to feature a few characters of color at the margins of the action, a gesture that insulates the film from the outright racial ignoarance of the musicals to which Chazelle pays homage. But these efforts at contemporary posture, quite literally, pale in the face of the film’s white nostalgia. La La Land isn’t the escapism America needs right now, it’s a regressive effort at time travel with no sense of shame for America’s many historical sins. Chazelle engages in the most dangerous type of cultural production: to have an audience feel without thinking. In this case that means the past seems like a good enough place to escape our current problems. The film isn’t as far as you might think from the asinine phraseology of “Make America Great Again.”

The word “nostalgia” originates from a merging of the ancient Greek words “nostos” and “algos”—meaning “returning home” and “pain.” Modern application means “nostalgia” translates to home-sickness. Of course, bizarrely enough, the Trump voter and the La La Land viewer, however separate from one another they imagine themselves, often long for a past they never experienced. They feel homesickness for a home in which they never lived.

Part of the artistic satisfaction of La La Land is in its ability to produce the pain of longing. For many white viewers—and voters—the pain reads as pleasure, like a middle-aged person walking the halls of their high school, remembering themselves more grandly than they ever were. While the romanticizing of one’s youth isn’t the purview of one race or another, longing for the historical past has become a dangerous cultural habit for white Americans, and whiteness more globally in the age of Brexit. But about Zadie Smith, a Brit, who knew better than to dream of time travel? Art like La La Land is best approached with a measure of circumspection. In grappling with the modern displacements jarring us all, white Americans engage in a peculiar and troubled fantasy: A time machine is the only vehicle that can bring us back home.


Geoff Nelson is a music and culture journalist working out of Brooklyn. He’s appeared in The Village Voice, Bandcamp Daily, DIY Magazine and Consequence of Sound. He tweets @32feet and isn’t sure if that’s a compliment or not.

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