Destroy All Monsters: Oscars Stay White As Long As Movies Like LA LA LAND Exist

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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Destroy All Monsters: Oscars Stay White As Long As Movies Like LA LA LAND Exist

Watching La La Land, for me, was accompanied by a sinking feeling, a pronounced "of course"-ness, a sensation halfway between grudging admiration and simple exhaustion at the obviousness of it all.

Not the obviousness of La La Land itself - it's not as on-the-nose about what it's trying to do as, say, Hidden Figures; nor is it as beguilingly subtle as Moonlight - but rather the brazenness of the whole enterprise. We talk about "Oscar bait" a lot and whether or not the moniker is fair; more thoughts on that another time, perhaps. But if any studio or filmmaker ever intentionally baited a hook with the exact size, shape, and flavour of worm that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will have no instinctive choice in its tiny lil' fish-brain but to devour, La La Land is it.

Mind you: this isn't even to knock the work! The work is fine! La La Land is technically impeccable and contains an absolute honey of a final movement, and it's next to impossible not to like it at least a little bit.

At least, it's next to impossible not to like it if you're part of the dominant hegemony, i.e. the white people. I can't speak for any other vantage point on this one, but boy, La La Land is one hell of a movie about how amazing it is to be white, pretty, and impassioned (I am at least 2 of the 3) in Los Angeles (I am in Toronto).

It is a film where the aching history of jazz is represented by white Ryan Gosling with nary a black person in sight, because of course it is. (The only significant, supporting person of colour in the film is John Legend, who is there to rep a nu-jazz electronic monstrosity that the white characters all consider beneath Gosling's talents.)

It's a film where Emma Stone, bless her, is a struggling actress trying to make it, who doesn't gain any traction until she does whatever the opposite of "selling out" is ("underselling in?"), playing a one-woman show to an empty house, an act which somehow catapults her to the very top of Hollywood's A-list. (So, Emma Stone territory.)

It's a film where the rhythm, facades, and glamour of a Golden Era Hollywood musical invades the story of these two shmucks and, while not entirely saving the day per se, at the very least reminds us how fucking magical and romantic everything actually is. In the aforementioned final movement, Emma and Ryan watch their entire history unfold once again in an entirely musical alternate timeline where everything is wonderful and nothing hurts, before dropping back to their (albeit successful) real lives where they took an alternate path. It is literally a movie about how movies are better than life.

So, of course it's the movie that will win Best Picture.

Let's attend briefly to all the usual caveats: Oscars are meaningless, the Oscars themselves are an industry trade show (i.e. a group of industry professionals giving awards to themselves and their friends), and none of this actually matters.

But a year after the second coming of #OscarsSoWhite, and having done a better-than-average job this time of noticing that films like Moonlight and Hidden Figures and 13th and I Am Not Your Negro and Fences exist, La La Land is still the movie that will sail down the middle and win the lion's (no pun intended) share. Here's why:

Because all of those nominations will have already made them feel better about not being quite so racist, and La La Land will still be the movie that makes them feel better about thinking any of what they do matters in the first place.

And if it happens to offer this reassurance in the guise of a throwback Hollywood populated near-entirely with white people (and John Legend), to subtly reinforce that minorities remain minor, supporting actors continue to support, and it's an honour just being nominated - so shut up and be honoured, will ya? - so much the better.

I've watched the Oscars for a long time. When I was younger, I knew that "issue movies" were like candy to these people, because awarding an issue (and the movie around which it was built) made them feel good about themselves. It made them feel as though the movies remained a relevant part of the human arts. And maybe, as solipsistically as possible mind you, they were right.

But those days are past. Now, the goal isn't even to crowd around movies that make light work of heavy issues; it's an increasingly desperate attraction to something - anything! - that assures the ruling class that they're still ruling.

In the slow transition from rewarding good work because it makes them feel good about themselves, to rewarding okay work because it explicitly says that Hollywood itself is good, La La Land is the magnum opus.

Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.

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Damien ChazelleEmma StoneRyan Gosling

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J HurtadoJanuary 24, 2017 12:33 PM

*disgusted sigh*

VyceVictusJanuary 24, 2017 12:47 PM

I know whiteboys telling people when they should be offended is gauche, but there's no lies here.

chuckJanuary 24, 2017 1:16 PM

Without this race-bait #EverythingTooWhite shouting match I would have not known this was Oscar time!

Thank you for bringing this up once again, maybe this time if we all shout loud enough Blacks/Hispanics/Asians/Indians will finally get the reins and start making movies that we can all enjoy but lets hope they don't have any of those race-baiting white people in them!Or at least they can minimize the whites to smaller roles or just background characters.I think that would be fair, don't you?

And I am glad my people are so well represented this year among all the "Oscar-bait" Black folk films up there...oh wait there ARE no big Asian films or even Asian actors are there...oh I guess we might get an Animated film...

I hope one day they will make some films about struggling Asian Americans that are lofty enough for the Oscar-Bait title, an older Asian man can dream.

TerryJanuary 24, 2017 1:18 PM

curse my white skin

bricriu .January 24, 2017 1:40 PM

The Oscars are a popularity contest. Popularity contests are typically won by the majority. Personally, I don't respect awards shows enough to give two shits about who wins or loses. Those who want to find diverse content have no trouble finding it. Those who don't aren't going to be converted by award trophies.

bricriu .January 24, 2017 1:44 PM

With the amount of Chinese companies investing in Hollywood, and the world ticket sale market, (i.e. Chinese market), becoming increasingly important, I believe it's only a matter of time before we begin seeing more and more Asians in big-budget movies. Maybe I'm wrong though...

KurtJanuary 24, 2017 2:49 PM


HeijoshinJanuary 24, 2017 3:10 PM

I personally could care less about the color of an actor's skin, the director's skin, that of the producer, the writer or any other member of a movie crew. And I certainly don't believe that a movie or a person should be given an award BECAUSE of the color of someone's skin, their gender, sexual orientation or even the 'importance of the topic' that is being addressed in the production.

When its all said and done I believe that the best story, best presentation and best portrayal should win the day and that politics should have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with it.

All that being said I would like to remind anyone that may have forgotten of something. The people that decide which movies get made, which roles go to which actors and actresses, what films and performers are nominated and ultimately which ones win are the same people that make up Liberal Hollywood and champion causes like 'Equality' and 'Diversity'.

Just a reminder that if you find yourself feeling like Blacks, Latinos, Women or whoever are being unfairly represented or under celebrated, you only have to look to Hollywood to see who the real culprit is here in America.

CutshawJanuary 24, 2017 5:30 PM

This just sums up the significant nonsense of last years #OscarsSoWhite movement. Straining (and you clearly are) to find problems with a movie pretty much universally agreed to be outstanding on every level to make a point about an issue that's been largely misrepresented only serves to further cloud water that's already been muddied by misguided, cause rallying halfwits. You're more than entitled to not like La La Land, just don't try to paint it as being because of it's lack of diversity or apparent safeness, it's a movie that walks a far more precipitous tightrope walk than any of the competition you mentioned above.

My biggest problem with the controversy last year was the ridiculous lack of supporting quality to back up the argument. There is a very valid argument that minorities (not just black people, contrary to what you'd be forgiven for believing last year, if we're really being honest people weren't rallying behind #OscarsSoWhite, they were championing #OscarsSoNotBlack) are under represented in Hollywood, but that's not an issue with the Oscar's, it's an issue with the film industry and indeed society as a whole. The only (arguably) valid complaint last year was the omission of David Oyelowo, who was excellent, but in my opinion that snub was nowhere near as egregious as that of Jake Gylenhaal being ignored for Nightcrawler (In my opinion far and away the performance of the year). Selma was a solid, functional movie, not a great one, the direction was fine, not exceptional, and whilst people seemed to feel that there was something strange and tawdry about the director of a best picture nominee not getting a director nod, the fact is 9 into 5 just doesn't go. If the best example people can come up with bar that is the defiantly mediocre Straight Outta' Compton then they're grasping at straws that aren't even present. That this whole thing was kicked off by Jada Pinkett Smith throwing her toys out of the pram because her husband didn't get a nomination for his laughable performance in a glorified movie of the week should really sum up the ridiculousness.

The quality of product created by 'minorities' is infinitely higher this year. Moonlight and Fences got the nominations they deserved (Hidden Figures I'll hold judgement on but to be honest it looks very much like the kind of 'Oscar bait' we rally against). I also have no doubt that Birth of a Nation would have been nominated to the gills were it not for the controversy surrounding Nate Parker. Would these films have been nominated pre-#OscarsSoWhite? Who knows, last year was a strong year for movies. But they're better movies than those that were in contention last year, so, yes, they probably would have been.

Here's the thing though, your assertion that the likes of Moonlight and Fences are being nominated in some of form hollow gesture when they've got no chance of slaying the prancing white musical dragon is an insult to both the quality of those films and to a film that frankly, in my opinion, is better than them. If Ruth Negga wins for Loving it'll be because her performance is better than those of her rivals, but that's just my opinion, not fact, I don't begrudge anyone their opinion that Emma Stone or Isabelle Hubbert would be worthy winners and I certainly don't think the outcome of either of them winning will be as a result of their whiteness. If people are going to forcefully demand that a film be nominated solely on quality and not on the race or sex of those involved in making it, they have to accept that sometimes, the best film might just happen to have been made by white men. You can't have it both ways.

Now if you really want to rally to the cause of an unfairly marginalized people, try the lack of recognition for Amy Adams this year (and indeed, David Caruso any year). #OscarsSoNotGinger

CutshawJanuary 24, 2017 5:34 PM

Okay, so i got my years a little mixed up there. Not that taking Selma out of the equation and replacing it with Creed does anything whatsoever to diminish my point.

ZachJanuary 24, 2017 5:50 PM

Without speaking to your larger point, since when does "universally agreed to be outstanding" classify as objective truth? I for one, found the cheesy self-aggrandaization of LLL pretty hard to watch, namely because Oscar-bait of this kind makes me squeamish and nauseas. The John Legend character was especially laughable. That LLL is breaking award records (which means nothing) is all too predictable and makes me resent it all the more. Remind me which Best Picture film in the last however many years actually represents something cutting edge? And please don't say Birdman. While I'd love to applaud the Academy for that choice, their neglect of Boyhood is a joke. Yes, I know this is all a matter of opinion.

CutshawJanuary 24, 2017 7:44 PM

It's a fair question, as I stated above, personal opinion is just that and I do consider critical opinion to be the same. I'm also about as far as you'll get from someone who blindly agrees with critical consensus. Me stating La La Land's overwhelmingly positive reception was an admittedly lazy way of illustrating my feeling taken from the article that Matt Brown was straining quite unconvincingly to make it look like he had more of a problem with the film than he did in order to make his other points appear more convincing.

Again, personal opinion and all, but I strongly disagree with this backlash notion that La La Land was intended as Oscar Bait. Firstly because I genuinely believe that Chazelle is a real talent with a passion for what he's doing that bellies the hackery being suggested. Secondly, because I also believe what I said in my earlier post about it actually being a far riskier piece of work than some of it's competition, films like this have an elevated chance of not landing as they're intended to and when they fail they fail hard. Thematically it might be safe and fluffy, you may even find it mawkish and saccharine (an effect I can definitely, quite reasonably, see it having on some people), but that doesn't make it lazy or overly calculated, as has been suggested, it also certainly doesn't make it any less personal a piece of filmmaking. Could it do with more diversity? Absolutely, it's not a perfect work by any stretch of the imagination, I just personally don't agree with some of the things Matt Brown and yourself feel about it. I also felt that, whether intentionally or not, Matt Brown's comments on the film being safe and calculated in the article suggest that he feels Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Fences aren't. To me these films are actually far less risky propositions (the latter two in particular, tell me Hidden Figures and Fences don't carry many of the traits you'd associate with 'Oscar bait').

Also don't mistake me for someone who gives the Oscars much credit. My stating that the #OscarsSoWhite movement was a croc was a criticism of an ill thought out, knee jerk movement, not a defense of the Academy. The fact, as has been stated by many others, is that the Oscars are very much a Hollywood backslapping event. What a lot of people do seem to forget or just plain miss is that they don't just pull these nominations out of thin air, studios have to put films forward for consideration and different studios tend to campaign harder than others, which is why the Oscars tend to look so wildly different to your average (half decent) critic or movie fan's end of year lists. It manages to be both largely political and largely in house and as a result they tend to prefer to reward themselves rather than others. None of this is news, but it does tend to get conveniently put aside in these arguments. The best films of the year, the more daring, cutting edge fare, don't get nominated largely because the studios don't give a shit about them and even when they do get put forward fewer of the voters will likely have bothered to actually watch them, making it a hugely skewed popularity contest rather than a showcase for genuine artistry, it's not devoid of it, but it's hugely not the focus.

We'll all have differing opinions, that's one of the great things about being a genuine lover of film. I happened to like Birdman more than I was expecting to, though I agree it's not cutting edge. I agree for the most part about Boyhood (though I know plenty of people whose opinions I respect who don't). The irony is that for all my defending of La La Land, it's far from being my favourite film of the last year and i personally don't think it should win best picture. As good as I felt it, Moonlight and Fences all were I personally felt Manchester By The Sea was better than all of them (may as well also state that I liked Hacksaw Ridge and Arrival and loved Hell or High Water). I can also quite easily name at least a couple of films released in the qualifying period that I thought were better than that, but they were never going to be in contention.

It is however one thing to have a personal opinion and another to skew that opinion in order to further an agenda, which, whether intentionally or not, is territory that I felt the above article strayed into. I'm a fan of Matt Brown and think highly of his writing, but this felt like borderline trolling, not genuinely objective commentary. As I think we've clarified though, that's just my opinion.

ZachJanuary 24, 2017 11:22 PM

I think Damien Chazelle is a great talent. Whiplash was my third favourite film of ’14 and Birdman was my fourth (Boyhood was my number one). I know that Damien has been keen on making the great modern musical since the onset of his career so I have no negative accusations about his intent. But just because he didn’t set out to make Oscar bait per say, doesn’t mean that it isn’t, in fact, Oscar bait - just like The Artist (a film I dug), which people have been likening it to. It’s an easy sell. My point about La La Land is that it is annoyingly “likeable”.. to a fault. I was among the first audiences to see it at TIFF and given my love for Whiplash, I was by no means out to hate it. But as a big fan of musicals, I found the music extremely underwhelming. City Of Stars is a song I would never otherwise listen to. I felt like I was watching something that was trying to be way more endearing than it actually was and that kind of embarrassed me. So that’s that.

But your point about the Oscars is a good one. That they are more of a reflection of the studios' ability to spread the word rather than an accurate depiction of a year’s best films is something I really resent, namely because the two are highly confused.

Sorry I don’t have time to address all the points of your thought out out response, but it seems we can agree that politics have way too much to do with success at the Oscars, which I think is somewhat Matt’s point as well. As long as the Academy continues to reward the obvious choice, minority films, indie films (which I suppose includes Moonlight) don’t stand a chance and that’s really sad.

ZetobeltJanuary 25, 2017 9:12 AM

"Oscars are meaningless, the Oscars themselves are an industry trade show (i.e. a group of industry professionals giving awards to themselves and their friends), and none of this actually matters."


"It's next to impossible not to like it if you're part of the dominant hegemony, i.e. the white people."

Believe me, not every white people are the same. Not me at least.

Andrew JamesJanuary 25, 2017 10:28 PM

The bigger catastrophe here is of course that SING STREET is a better musical in almost every respect than LA LA LAND. Yet, not one nom. Not one.

curtvileJanuary 26, 2017 2:36 PM

Saw La La Land past week and found it to be utter shit. Technically perfect and beautifully shot but empty, void and vapid. The "shocking" "sad" ending was boring as hell too.
It will still sweep Oscars left and right since apparently this, 50 shades of gray, James Bonds and Avatar are the "best what cinema has to offer"
That is just how the industry works

Wjr.January 27, 2017 7:14 PM

overrated awards show (OSCARS) overrated movie (LA LA LAND) categories are bias we all have seen movies that don't get a nod.