Written By: Daniel Kinsley
Hollywood has a diversity problem.
I do not think it’s any kind of grand proclamation to say so, and the research backs it up. A recent USC study found a staggering lack of women, people of color, and members of the LGBT community in front of and behind the camera. In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite at the 2016 ceremony, there was renewed attention on the subject, particularly at this year’s Academy Awards. 2016 was a very good year for diversity, and so was awards season. With films like Hidden Figures doing major business, and Moonlight going on to take the Best Picture crown, it’s a sign that things are improving. Despite these victories, things haven’t moved as steadily or as quickly as they ought to. But the march of progress is often slow, and in this writer’s opinion, it’s worth celebrating the fact that we are culturally moving forward.
In the center of some of the diversity debate this year was a little film called La La Land. It was a film that received a lot of attention this past year from both audiences and critics. By all means, at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and a domestic box office gross of over $100 million (on a $30 million budget), it’s a bonafide hit. Yet, as films perceived to be awards front-runners often do, it faced a significant amount of backlash. A decent amount of the vitriol, at least in the online community, stemmed from the idea that the movie was, essentially lacking in diversity.
Awards-season is ripe with the kind of criticisms that begin to disregard the merits of a film, and take on their politics. Nearly everything about a film, from the way it gets made, to the way they are consumed, is intensely personal. For that reason, I dislike the notion of shouting down a film based on this idea that it’s not enough of something. It’s not fast-paced enough, it doesn’t have enough action; in this case, it isn’t diverse enough. This begins a slippery slope wherein we must ask, does every artist owe it to you, or me, or anyone to ensure that their vision reflects the world exactly as we see it?
I say all of that to say this: the problem is not so much that women or people of color are misrepresented in certain types of stories, it’s that they are too often excluded from the mainstream altogether. That is why it’s so significant that a tiny film populated by all actors of color took home the highest honor at the Oscars. Frankly, however, that doesn’t mean that La La Land owes us a film that resembles the way Moonlight looks or feels at all. Barry Jenkins and Damien Chazelle are both very talented individuals, but a quick bit of research will reveal the many ways in which they differ. Neither is any less valid as an artist, and both men are very exciting, very different filmmakers.
The lack of representation in La La Land is incidental in the context of the larger conversation. No one on the set went into any stage of production thinking they were going to isolate any segment of people from enjoying their film by staging a love story between two hereto white people, just like Moonlight was no less of a triumph to many of us for being a story about a LGBT character of color. It’s important that we see more films like Moonlight because it’s reflective of our world and because enough people that can identify with Chiron’s story are almost virtually never given such a grand stage. But in the same way that the race of the characters in La La Land is incidental to the primary theme of the film (the cross-section between dreams and adult compromise) it’s (similarly) only of ancillary importance to Chiron in Moonlight. It’s a considerably more significant touchstone because of what it represents seeing a gay black man, but his story is no less universal for having those qualities. Almost all of us have struggled with giving up on our dream, making sacrifices because of family, or accepting the struggles that are unique to each of us.
Come Oscar time, and La La Land is a film that received (a tie for) the most Oscar nominations in history, which is basically a “KICK ME” sign to most of the internet. Add that to the fact that it’s main competitor is a vastly different type of film that speaks to people that are often marginalized in films, and suddenly, La La Land is the villain. Did anyone stop to ask why?
Well, sure: there’s this narrative that Ryan Gosling (a white man) is somehow responsible for saving jazz (a genre created and populated almost exclusively by African-Americans) or at least being the last man standing in defending its rightful origins. Okay, except, the film isn’t really about jazz at all. The genre of music is incidental to the arc of the character. Sebastian (Gosling) is a dreamer and an artist, and he’s also kind of a stunted guy at the beginning of the film. Sebastian is portrayed as someone who is very much stuck in the past, viewing the early glory days of jazz as a pinnacle that’s been lost while Keith (John Legend) is the progressive black musician pushing the genre forward and finding a new and appreciative audience. Sebastian looks down on Keith for sullying his great love. This is where those who want to apply the white savior reading come in and argue that this is the film telling us that Keith is bad and only Sebastian can save the music! Except nothing in the film supports this reading, at all.
The issue at play is that people are equating depiction with endorsement. Sebastian is depicted as a talented guy who his co-workers tolerate only because he’s talented, since his attitude about jazz and being in the limelight is kind of insufferable. The film knows Sebastian is ridiculous, and the text supports this. He has a juvenile idea of love; his opinions on the music are all passion manifesting as stubborn obsession, with no room for grace, or growth. It’s why Sebastian is depicted as a talented musician, but the only real taste of success he achieves in the film comes from riding on the coattails of Keith’s progressive jazz ensemble, or in opening a club whose stage is populated by young African American artists.
In a year with so many great films, and especially coming from such diverse voices, why is our (internet, in particular) culture so quick to put a gun to our heads to discount one film in service another? I think we should celebrate the fact that an original musical was made on the big screen, and done so beautifully. We should also celebrate the soulful poetry of a film about a minority LGBT experience that resonated so deeply with such a wide audience. What frustrates me beyond all else is the cases where the criticism come from those who haven’t seen one or both films!
But this is par the course for our outrage culture. People are so eager to cast social criticism, all in search of the great validation that comes from successfully calling someone or something out for not being woke enough. It becomes a bandwagon mentality to jump on the back of what is popular and beat it down. For many of those who disagree, any arguments are shouted down in a flood of accusation that because you are white/black/male/female, you couldn’t possibly relate, let alone possess enough empathy to understand any experience that you have no direct relation to. Seeking equality in representation is of paramount importance, and the way that we reach that degree of understanding is by listening to one another, and by allowing different types of stories to be heard.
What I’m really trying to say is there’s room for all of us, and I for one am grateful for a film like La La Land, and I am grateful for a movie like Moonlight, and I’m so grateful that I live in a world where I have such ready access to such a wonderfully diverse spectrum of films. If you really want to support diversity, do so with your actions. Go spend money on films like Moonlight while they’re playing at your local theater; spread the word to your friends, and family. Put your dollars where your mouth is.
Not every film has a perspective that is worthy of being heard, but every film has a voice, and if we find ourselves in a world where that voice is considered less or more based only on our individual sense of what is deserving, we will all be poorer for it.