La La Land’s White Saviour


Full of colourful nostalgia and indulgent escapism, La La Land has captured the hearts of millions, enough even to get into IMDb’s Top 250 at an amazing #51. However, between the wonderful costumes and attractive stars, many people haven’t noticed one pretty significant detail. As Aziz Ansari points out in SNL’s wonderful “La La Land Interrogation” sketch, “It’s a whole movie about jazz and there’s no black people in it!”

Sebastian, Gosling’s character, tells Stone’s character, Mia, that “jazz is dying” and he has made it his mission to “save it”. Now, first of all, jazz is not an endangered genre! Speaking as part of an international community who dance to jazz several times a week, there is no question that jazz is alive and well all over the world. Secondly, jazz is a genre which has its roots in African-American culture. So in this film we have a weird situation where a white man has decided that it is his mission in life to save African-American culture, perpetuating a bizarre variation of the old reliable White Saviour trope. But that’s not all.

I’ve argued with a lot of people who say that Keith (played by John Legend), Sebastian’s friend, is good black representation because he explains that “jazz is about the future”, and criticises Seb for living in the past. That said, at this point in the film we know that Seb doesn’t respect Keith as an artist, as he considers his fusion music as a betrayal of jazz, to the extent that he barely speaks to Keith when they first meet in the film. We also know that the only reason Seb has agreed to play with Keith’s band is to earn money so that he can open his own jazz club, and not for any artistic reasons.

Moreover, Keith plays smoothly to the Magical N***o trope, giving Seb the life-changing advice so that he can fulfill his dreams, while not really having any narrative arc of his own in the film. So, not only is Keith a throwaway character whose only function is basically to help the hero, Seb, along in his career, but his actual musical and cultural insight is ignored, as Seb ends up pretty much doing his own thing. The last significant piece he plays is the same one as he played at the start, presumably to remind Mia of their first meeting, but with no variations or inventiveness. Both in terms of music and his life, Seb decides to keep living in the past.

Thus, Keith serves as an opposite to Seb, an artist who has betrayed the purity of jazz, and whose music is worthless. In short, Sebastian has spent the film saving jazz from people like the only black character in the film who has any significant amount of dialogue. While the film makes ample use of black musicians and dancers, they are all in the background, the stage settings for the two white protagonists. What is left is just another Hollywood troubled white saviour, determined to save a minority from itself.

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