Just to be clear, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar liked "La La Land." A lot. In fact, in his critique for The Hollywood Reporter, he called it "bold, daring and deserving of all its critical and financial success." However, the NBA legend/culture critic is not joining the cult of "La La Land" -- which suffers no criticism of any kind -- so he pointed out "a few elements that warrant closer examination" in the Oscar frontrunner, "particularly regarding its portrayal of jazz, romance and people of color."
As he added, "In fact, the better a work of art is, the more we must dissect it, because now we're not just measuring Rotten Tomatoes popularity or boffo box office, we're assessing its proper place in our cultural canon."
Right away, he clarified that his issue is not with the number of black people. He respected writer/director's Damien Chazelle story choices. But he was disappointed with the use of the white savior trope in relation to the one black main character. That has been discussed before in other "La La Land" reviews, but he also sounded a different note on the romanticizing of the "crash and burn" of relationships. That seems to be getting ignored in the larger debate about the film, but he makes some good points.
Here's part of his thoughtful critique:
WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD.
Jazz is a uniquely African-American music form born in New Orleans and raised in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. Sure, I would have loved to see a film like La La Land years ago starring singer-dancer Gregory Hines, the master of improvisational tap dance whose tapping could sound like a jazz drummer. Having said that, I'm still delighted to see Ryan Gosling play a man (Sebastian) devoted to the artistry of traditional jazz. But I'm also disturbed to see the one major black character, Keith (John Legend), portrayed as the musical sellout who, as Sebastian sees it, has corrupted jazz into a diluted pop pablum.
Wait just a minute!
The white guy wants to preserve the black roots of jazz while the black guy is the sellout? This could be a deliberate ironic twist, but if it is, it's a distasteful one for African-Americans. One legitimate complaint that marginalized people (women, people of color, Muslims, the LGBT community, etc.) have had about Hollywood in the past is that when they were portrayed, it was done in a negative way. The ditzy blonde, the Muslim terrorist, the gay predator are all familiar stereotypes from years of TV and movies. So much has been done in recent years to overcome those debasing images, but we still have to be careful. It's not that a black man can't be the sellout or the drug dealer, it's just that they shouldn't be if they're the only prominent black character in the story. Whether it's intentional or unintentional, that sends a bigoted message rippling through our society.
I'm equally interested in how the film portrays romance, because pop culture (movies, TV, books, music) is the major source of information about romantic relationships for our youth. That's where they learn about what to look for in a mate, what a relationship should look like, how to treat each other. [...] The problem comes when we romanticize the crash and burn. Then the drama of the breakup seems more fulfilling than the prospect of actual romance, which can then seem mundane in the long run. Now a continual series of melodramatic breakups makes a person seem more tragically edgy and becomes justification for why they can't find real love. [...]
That's where the romanticizing comes in. The whole childish doomed-romance genre celebrates personal achievement with only an obligatory sad nod toward the consequences. Mia also sings this about her aunt: "She lives in her liquor / And died with a flicker / I'll always remember the flame." Sure, you'll remember the flame because you're too blinded by your own ambition to see the real moral: She died with a flicker because she was an alcoholic burnout! Even Sebastian wonders about how accurately he sees things in "City of Stars": "City of stars / There's so much that I can't see." Starlight romanticizes whatever it illuminates. [...] As Mr. Antolini says in The Catcher in the Rye: "The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one." Had Mia and Sebastian chosen to live humbly, they might have had their success — or not — and been happy together.
Kareem (who has been on screen a few times himself, from "Airplane!" to "The Stand") reiterated that he found the characters and movie delightful and he knows he'll watch it again and again over the years. "But every time I do, along with the immense joy, I'll have a tiny nagging feeling of, 'What if?'"
However, perhaps because his review was headlined "Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: How 'La La Land' Misleads on Race, Romance and Jazz," and his "bigoted message" comment was given prominence, the comments are quite defensive. There are already nearly 400 comments, after the post has only been up a few hours, and they mostly focus on the race angle, skipping everything else, and asking why everything has to be about skin color. This is what happens not only when you challenge "La La Land" -- even when you say you liked it (just like the "SNL" sketch) -- but also when anyone brings up race, even in the context of a positive review. No wonder we can't all just get along!
"La La Land" tied for the most-ever Oscar nominations with 14. It will surely pick up a few trophies when the show airs live Sunday, Feb. 26 on ABC.
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