La La Land and Race in Regards to Jazz Music

Paper by Delaney Rond.

Jazz music originated in the late 19th century in New Orleans, Louisiana within the African American community. It has been a staple of African American culture for as long as it has been alive. In the 2016 film La La Land, directed and written by Damien Chazelle, much of the plot revolves around jazz music. The controversy stems from the actors the filmmakers chose to cast as the characters who play jazz in the film. One of the main characters, Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling, is a white male. He is portrayed as the ‘hero’ of the film and the one who wants to spread and preserve jazz music so it lives on forever. Meanwhile, Keith, played by John Legend, is an African American male. The film portrays Keith as the character who wants to help jazz evolve and change it into something new. He ends up becoming the one who the audience does not agree with because he is tampering with Sebastian’s goal of preserving jazz music. The irony here stems from the fact that jazz music was born within the African American community. The filmmakers tangled themselves into somewhat of a social problem film when they casted a white man as a preserver of jazz music, and a black man as the one who is, in a way, aiding in its death. This is where the backlash and racial issues stem from with La La Land. Through a deep analysis of this scene we can further observe just how racially conflicting these casting choices are, as well as delve deeper into the reason as to why the filmmakers may have decided to cast the people that they did. This argument is especially relevant and important in today’s society due to the extreme racial awareness we have been confronting as a country. Discussing African American culture and the injustices they have faced has never been so important than it is today with the rise of many movements speaking up for racial equality.

It is continually stated by main character Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling, that jazz music is dying. He argues that it needs to be listened to, played more, and spread around in order to preserve its original sound and continue to be played throughout future generations. There is one character in the film who challenges Sebastian’s perspective on preserving jazz. In one scene of the film, Keith, played by John Legend, recruits Sebastion to join his jazz band. However, when Sebastian shows up on his first day to play with the band, their jazz sound isn’t quite what he had expected. You see, Sebastian was expecting to show up and play the real, true, grounded jazz music that he so dearly loves. However, he quickly realized that Keith’s goal was to keep jazz alive in a much different way. Keith knew that if they wanted jazz to live on through generations to come, that it would need to evolve into something new, still containing the roots and foundation that jazz layed down but with an added twist of pop. This caused issues between the two characters for obvious reasons.
This is such a racially bizarre scene due to the fact that the white man in the film, Sebastian, wants to preserve jazz music along with all of its roots within the black community. Meanwhile, the black man, Keith, would rather push jazz music forward in a different direction, thus, erasing its roots and disconnecting it from the black community.

In an article by Samuel Gilman, “(The Lack of) Race in La La Land,” he recognizes that “Usually, we would expect Gosling, not Legend, to want to push jazz forward (and thus erase the “Black presence” from it). La La Land flips the conventional racial script on its head—the white man is playing the black man’s role and vice versa.” In saying this, Gilman acknowledges the fact that the film has reversed a common racial struggle onto a white man.

The use of editing, lighting, shot design, music, sound, and more all played a huge role in defining and creating the racial impact of this film. All of these elements combined managed to construct this scene into what it is and what it stands for. In particular, the lighting techniques and use of colors throughout this film were nothing short of mesmerizing. There were many times when the lighting and wardrobe was bright and vibrant, especially during most of the song and dance scenes. However, this scene of the film pictured duller lighting. Although the white walls and background of the music room they were in made it look a little brighter, the scene was still set to be very dull and shadowy. After having seen so many bright and vivid lighting and colors in other scenes, this gave off the effect that this was potentially a turning point in the film. Based on the lighting alone, it can almost be assumed that some things may begin to go downhill from this point in the film, and they did for Sebastian who, at this moment, instantly disagreed with how Keith was changing jazz music. As for wardrobe and clothing for this scene, I think that some interesting choices were made. Sebastian strode in sporting a full suit of a deep blue color. Meanwhile, the rest of the band, including Keith, were dressed rather casually in clothes such as t-shirts and jeans. The clothing may suggest how Sebastian represents the original, old school jazz while Keith is dressed younger looking and represents his new style of jazz music.

Obviously, the use of sound, music, and dialogue was a huge part of making La La Land due to the fact that it is a musical and much of the plot revolves around jazz music and jazz culture. However, in this particular scene of the film, aside from when the band is rehearsing their song, there is no background music in the rest of the scene. While Kieth and Sebastian are talking, before and after the band’s rehearsal, is it void of music behind their words. In many films, the lack of music or noise adds a layer of suspense or awareness to the scene. I believe it also does so in this particular scene in La La Land. Because Keith is the one doing all of the talking, it adds a bit of skepticism to what he is saying. In the scene, Keith asks Sebastian, “How are you going to save jazz if no one is listening?” He continues by arguing that “Jazz is dying because of people like you… You’re holding on to the past, while jazz is about the future.” The lack of music behind his words makes the audience feel somewhat nervous about the fact that he is disagreeing with what our white savior character, Sebastian, has been saying all along.

Throughout the film, viewers watch as two young lovers, Sebastian and Mia, meet, fall in love, and, eventually, begin growing closer to their dreams and farther from each other. Such a simple plot, yet so much analysis to be done. In every film, the audience must question the intentions and the deeper message the film is trying to depict. The editing, lighting, shot design, music, sound, along with all other creative elements and film techniques, play key roles in morphing films into what they become. Each and every one of these aspects of film plays a crucial role in La La Land by adding to the depictions of race, gender, sexuality, politics, etc. In an article by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar entitled “How ‘La La Land’ Misleads on Race, Romance and Jazz,” he states that he does not “think the film needs more black people. Writer-director Damien Chazelle should tell the story as he sees fits with whatever ethnic arrangement he desires. However, it is fair to question his color wheel when it involves certain historical elements — such as jazz.” Still, this particular scene is certainly problematic and controversial in regards to racial issues and, in my opinion, the whole film could easily be considered a race movie simply based on how the filmmakers involved jazz. There is a sense of the white savior narrative embedded within the plot of La La Land because of how Sebastian is successful in achieving his dream of opening up a thriving jazz music bar that is helping keep jazz alive.

In La La Land, Keith, the black character, is portrayed as the character who wants to essentially progress jazz music which would, in turn, disaffiliate it from its roots within the black community. Meanwhile, Sebastian, the white character, is portrayed as the white savior of the film who wants to restore jazz music and reconnect it with its origins within the black community. The irony of this stems from the fact that we would normally assume the perspectives of both characters to be the other way around due to their racial backgrounds, with Keith wanting to preserve jazz and Sebastian wanting to further progress it. Making arguments and analyzing scenes and instances such as these is especially important in today’s society with the recent upwellings of multiple rallies and protests attempting to raise awareness for racial equality. This connection between jazz music and African American culture is just one aspect of racial awareness to be seen and interrogated within modern filmmaking.

Works Cited
Gilman, Samuel. “(The Lack of) Race in La La Land.” The Prolongation of Work F171, 12 Dec. 2017, nd/.
Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem. “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: How ‘La La Land’ Misleads on Race, Romance and Jazz.” The Hollywood Reporter, The Hollywood Reporter, 22 Mar. 2019, ed-race-portrayal-childish-romance-975786/.

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