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How whiteness distorts the power of romance and nostalgia in ‘La La Land’

The film is proof of Hollywood’s historical struggle with black intimacy on the big screen

Stormy Weather, the 1943 movie musical starring Lena Horne and Bill Robinson, is supposed to be a romance.

I say “supposed to” because no one would fault you if you watched Stormy Weather and came away a little confused about the fact that Selina Rogers (Horne) and Bill Williamson (Robinson) were mad about each other but tragically torn apart because they wanted different things out of life. Selina wanted to continue her career as a performer and Bill wanted to marry her and give her a house to fill with children.

Alas, Stormy Weather is so chaste, it’s not only short on sex — there is none to speak of — it’s short on pretty much any indication of epic romance whatsoever. In the limited time they share the screen together and they’re not preoccupied by singing, dancing, or both, Selina and Bill don’t share a kiss, or even a look that would suggest a sense of longing or intimacy.

Contrast that with Oscar favorite La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s primary-colored, sweetly escapist paean to idealism and dream-chasing that’s nominated for a record-tying 14 Academy Awards. Like Stormy Weather, it’s about two performing artists, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) madly in love with each other, who break up because they want different things.

Not only is La La Land a sweeping fantasy about two artists in love, it’s a modern-day tribute to the golden age of Hollywood, one that recalls all the wistfulness of Casablanca and the on-screen charm of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. In short, one of the chief factors that makes La La Land so appealing is also what makes it seductively dangerous when it comes to awards season.

There have been plenty of pieces detailing and celebrating Chazelle’s many cinematic references, and as the Oscars approach, it’s worth thinking about the factors that give La La Land its oomph — the things that help make it not just a noteworthy and well-executed piece of fantasy, but an awards juggernaut. La La Land is helped by the cocoon of nostalgia in which it wraps its viewers, and also by the fact that it’s a film that lovingly celebrates the very industry responsible for showering it with plaudits. That doesn’t mean it’s undeserving. It just means it’s worth examining the context in which it exists.

Even when black romance found its way to the silver screen, it was scandalous and steamy, but it wasn’t exactly romantic, per se.

In considering the ways La La Land calls back to the epic film romances of An Affair to Remember or the onscreen charm and chemistry of Rogers and Astaire, it’s worth remembering that such complexities, at the time, were limited to white actors, which is how we wound up with emotionally kneecapped films like Stormy Weather.

Even when black romance found its way to the silver screen, it was scandalous and steamy, but it wasn’t exactly romantic, per se. Yes, Dorothy Dandridge finally kissed Harry Belafonte in the 1954 release of Carmen Jones, the all-black adaptation of the Georges Bizet opera, and the performance netted Dandridge the first best actress nomination for a black actress in film history. But Carmen Jones, like its source material, is ultimately about a willful, independent woman being punished for doing with her body what she wishes, and with whom she wishes. It’s about punishing female sexual agency. After all, Belafonte’s character, overtaken by jealousy and a need to control the titular Carmen, murders her at the end of the film.

Even though you’d be hard-pressed to find two more explosively attractive black people in film in 1957, when Dandridge and Belafonte did another movie together, it was Island in the Sun, in which they’re both playing romantic interests to other white people.

How well Stone and Gosling nail the execution in La La Land is really beside the point. The point is that Fred and Ginger exist as icons. The point is that you can say their first names and most people will know exactly which Fred and Ginger to whom you are referring. A picture will spring up in their minds, or a quote about Ginger doing everything Fred did but backward and in high heels. There is a frame of reference. There is memory. And because it was considered important to understanding who we are, care was taken to preserve it.

Would that black art have enjoyed the same attentiveness when it came to preserving it. We were here too, dammit, distorted and disfigured and incomplete as our presence might have been rendered.

There is a rich history of black film to be mined for new stories, or there would be, if it wasn’t literally crumbling away. Made outside of the Hollywood system with its many dictates for how black people could show up onscreen, the “race films” of the early 20th century existed to counter the racist stereotypes and incomplete renderings of black people in film. These films were produced by black people and employed all-black casts, and they comprised an entire genre. They weren’t always great — the production values may have been lacking, and the acting could be laughably bad, but they played an important role in film history. Unfortunately, the vast majority of race films have been lost to history — the prints have been so degraded that they’re beyond restoration. In 2015, film distributor Kino Lober released a new collection of restored race films entitled Pioneers of African-American Cinema.

The genre of surviving black film that actually boasts a large enough repertoire to establish widely recognizable tropes to be referenced, remixed and satirized is blaxploitation, which Quentin Tarantino has not only employed to great effect, but used as the basis on which to build a highly successful career. Keenan Ivory Wayans and Robert Townsend both put their own spins on the genre, as well. To a lesser degree, gangster films like Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society helped establish a similar basis for Friday director F. Gary Gray and Dope’s Rick Famuyiwa.

However well-intentioned, La La Land hearkens back to a time when black humanity onscreen was deliberately hamstrung.

Whiteness doesn’t have a monopoly on nostalgia — hip-hop employs it, too, albeit in a slightly different way. Whereas whiteness affords the opportunity to deploy nostalgia for its own sake, art such as hip-hop looks backward in its references and its source material while remaining focused on the future. The emphasis remains centered squarely on newness, innovation and experimentation, whether it’s references to Cab Calloway in Idlewild or Kanye West’s decision to deploy Nina Simone in “Blood on the Leaves.”

When you’re drawing on historic black art, you’re almost always drawing on some form of black pain. The resulting projects are much more attuned to incorporating the past without overly romanticizing it, which is why modern revivals of shows such as Shuffle Along, Porgy and Bess and Cabin in the Sky inevitably require surgical excisions of their most egregious racial stereotypes and tropes. In the case of George C. Wolfe’s revival of Shuffle Along, that included adding a great deal of humanizing historical context. Horne’s Tony Award-winning 1981 Broadway revue Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, wasn’t just Horne presenting her greatest hits — it included interludes of the actress wryly recalling the absurdities of working in a racist film industry.

Perhaps, for black people, art that begins to evoke the romantic nostalgia of La La Land begins with the musical adaptation of the 1997 film Love Jones. It sounds insane until you realize just how much the modern era of filmmaking ushered in fully-formed depictions of black people that made romance explicit rather than merely a suggestion.

This year, in the Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro, director Raoul Peck set his sights on James Baldwin, and in the process redirected our attention to Baldwin’s ideas about the many ways the product of Hollywood is not only corrupted by white supremacy, but sells it to us. Reading his work, Samuel L. Jackson imbues Baldwin’s words with the bitterness the writer expressed in consuming and becoming enchanted by what he saw as the grotesque innocence of Doris Day, compared to the gritty candor of Ray Charles.

It’s debatable whether we’d even be discussing this were it not for the rise of Trumpism, in particular its distinguishing features of curdled self-referentialism and poison-tipped nostalgia that guarantees restoring a cultural hegemony centered around white supremacy. Trumpism has brought to the fore that which was always lurking, unleashed on a wave of populism that threatens to obscure its true mission to “Make America White Again.”

The fact that it’s so foregrounded forces you to rethink what your eyes are showing you a little bit. It sets you on edge. It makes it more difficult to just let something like La La Land just passively wash over you when, however well-intentioned, the film hearkens back to a time when black humanity onscreen was deliberately hamstrung. It forces us to remember that what you don’t see is just as important as what you do. The golden age of Hollywood has come and gone. A golden age of black film has yet to dawn.

More than anything, Trumpism has sapped us of whatever collective innocence we might have been clinging to. It’s like kudzu — it’s stretched its vines and wrapped itself around everything, including the culture war we’d deluded ourselves into thinking we’d won, or were at least on the way to winning.

When you’re drawing on historic black art, you’re almost always drawing on some form of black pain.

We’re already primed for the coming wave of forceful rhetorical rejections of our 45th president and all that he stands for in the form of Oscar acceptance speeches, and rightly so. All art is political on some level, and on the biggest annual broadcast celebrating artistic accomplishment in film, artists should be free to speak their minds.

But the next piece is more difficult, because self-examination always is. So is weighting impact more heavily than intent. The next piece requires interrogating how and where Trumpism lurks, even within one of the most self-identified liberal communities in the country, in a community that almost uniformly reviles the president, and then asking what can be done about it and how to eradicate it.

The mission is clear: identifying and stamping out white supremacy, even in its most innocent, most seductive forms, is everyone’s responsibility. How will Hollywood respond?

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.