February 27, 2017

Living in La La Land

Moonlight may have won big at the Academy Awards, but La La Land’s problematic popularity merits more conversation.

I’ll be the first to admit that I cried when I saw La La Land. How could I not? The romance, the theatricality, the music—it was exactly the movie everyone in Hollywood wanted to see, starring the same people Hollywood always wants to see, even if it didn’t win Best Picture. La La Land was a visual masterpiece, a musical feat, and an engaging story. But it was also a story told by an essentially all-white cast. In comparison with other Oscar-nominated films like Moonlight and Hidden Figures, which explore narratives unfamiliar to white America, La La Land, for all its hype, lacks the diversity that would have made for a truly nuanced story. Of course, the film ultimately lost Best Picture. But its Oscar-sweeping predictions, its colossal number of nominations, and its plethora of awards outside of Best Picture are still a source of concern, and a telling sign of the narratives Hollywood continues to be enamored with.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, the iconic duo, were chosen to portray Mia and Sebastian, respectively. Both are characters with tragically complicated aspirations, who fall in love, if only briefly, to create a tragic yet soul-stirring love story. The nostalgia created by the upbeat, jazz-infused soundtrack almost distracts us from the fact that this very same love story could have been told by any combination of diverse actors. The only non-white characters were either extras or John Legend’s character, Keith, who primarily served as a frustrating foil to Sebastian’s insistence on jazz traditionalism. This was an especially infuriating plotline, considering the movie never acknowledges the historically African-American roots of jazz. Compare this with a movie like Moonlight, and it seems problematic that most major media outlets even predicted that La La Land would win Best Picture, alongside the chance of winning one of the whopping 14 nominations it received.

The hype surrounding La La Land is absolutely understandable, and it’s not unfounded. The cinematography achieved a perfect balance of old-school charm and modern excitement, at once playing on our romanticizing of the past and the fast-moving pace of the present—this was certainly reflected in the other Oscars the film picked up that night. But ultimately, much of La La Land’s awards show–successes can be attributed to the Hollywood-centric narrative of the film. We obsess over the movie because it acknowledges our existing desire to somehow be a part of the glamorous entertainment industry, and, if we cannot be a part of it, to see within it. Hollywood’s “love affair” with the movie, according to the Guardian, happened because it sent the message that “nothing—nothing— is more important than becoming a really big movie star.”

The problem is, by telling a story about an industry that systematically shafts minority actors and artists without acknowledging the discrimination taking place, we miss out on a key component of being an entertainer in the modern era. The obstacles that Mia and Sebastian face are not invalid or unimportant, but they don’t scratch the surface of the depth of challenges that minorities in this industry encounter. The movie is beloved by Hollywood because it romanticizes rather than criticizes Hollywood. As a result, although La La Land is praised for its uniqueness, it fails to differentiate itself completely from every other Hollywood love story. The record-tying number of nominations and the commendable number of victories are shocking, if not uncalled for.

We can enjoy La La Land as a movie while still criticizing the media that gives it attention at the expense of arguably more deserving, and definitely more diverse, films. The phenomenon we should be paying attention to is the system that consistently rewards narratives like La La Land over movies that strive to depict alternative narratives and explore perspectives that white America often ignores. The universal appeal of La La Land should spark some questions about why we gravitate to these sorts of movies, ones that are pleasant but almost deliberately uncontroversial. Moonlight's victory is an incredible sign of the path that is being paved for more films like it to get the attention they deserve, but it is certainly not a sign that Hollywood has changed completely. For that to happen, we need to start paying attention to the stories we celebrate and glorify in a city full of stars.

Ashvini Kartik-Narayan is a first-year in the College.